The soft side of your boss

In an intriguing set of experiments a few years ago, a group of American social scientists, led by Adam Galinsky at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, used the E test and some other techniques to investigate the connection between power and empathy.

The E test involves asking your boss to use his/her right index finger to draw a capital E on his/her forehead. The direction of that letter – whether he/she writes it so that you can read it or not – might tell you something about the disposition of that leader. This seemingly innocent party trick is actually a method social scientists have used for more than a decade to measure perspective-taking – the ability to step outside one’s own experience and see the world from someone else’s viewpoint.

People who write the E so that it’s backward to themselves but legible to others have taken the other’s perspective. Those who draw the E so that it’s readable to themselves but backward to others haven’t bothered to consider the other person’s point of view.

The scientists found that while most people seem naturally inclined to take the other’s perspective, providing people with a dose of power correlated with their being less likely to draw the E in the perspective-taking way. In other words, a surplus of power seemed to be connected, and perhaps even led, to a deficit of empathy.

As the researchers wrote: “Across these studies, power was associated with a reduced tendency to comprehend how others see, think, and feel.”

This finding might reveal what’s gone wrong with leadership at every level. On the altar of action orientation and tough-mindedness, we’ve sacrificed the fundamentally human quality of empathy.

To be sure, empathy shouldn’t be the only quality of leaders. Thinking strategically and acting vigorously are essential. But action orientation without sufficient empathy has at least two flaws. First, people resist going along with proposed actions, which can impede progress. It’s a sturdy principle of organisational life that people quit bosses, not companies. Second, if people do go along, they do so reluctantly, leading to an atmosphere of compliance rather than engagement.

You need to strike a delicate balance between action-orientation and perspective-taking. It’s not a matter of deciding between hitting your numbers or drawing the E. It’s a matter of hitting your numbers by drawing the E.

What’s more, unlike many technical skills, empathy is a scarce, and therefore more valuable, commodity. That’s why it’s racing into many other business functions. For instance, medical schools, especially in the US, are using questionnaires to measure empathy levels of young physicians because scores on this empathy index correlate with patient outcomes in ways that traditional metrics do not.

Designers are donning thick glasses to distort their vision, sticking cotton in their ears to reduce their hearing, and slipping on gardening gloves to limit their dexterity – all in an effort to design better products and services for the elderly by empathising with what it’s really like to be old.

And when so many consumer transactions can be executed online, learning how to see the world from the perspective of customers and prospects has become integral to customer service and sales.

Yet somehow in the higher reaches of business, even in our supposedly more enlightened era, empathy, when it’s discussed at all, is often dismissed as frivolous or, worse, “soft.”

So if you’re a boss, especially a new one, sprinkle a few seasonings on your newly acquired bowl of power. Talk less, listen more. Treat everybody with respect. And if one of your employees asks you to draw a vowel on your forehead, you know what to do.

Thanks to Daniel H. Pink.

If this blog post strikes a familiar chord, then give us a call on 01865 881056 or email us at info@leaderslab.co.uk.