Monday, February 19, 2018

Raise your hand if you have worked with an empathetic manager !

Business writers, academics and consultants periodically talk about the role of empathy in managing teams. Management gurus draw evidence from data and research on business leaders succeeding by demonstrating empathy, compassion, and humility. The argument is rather straightforward: organizations and teams are made up of people; and people - even high performing individuals - continually struggle for a work-life-balance.

Microsoft's CEO, Satya Nadella, begins the first chapter of his book “Hit Refresh” (my review) by exploring how his upbringing shaped some of his personal views on management. He briefly talks about empathy, and how the birth of his son Zain, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy shaped his world-view.

Such candor from an accomplished tech-leader is refreshing, but is still rather rare. Most of us in the corporate world are motivated to downplay references to personal life and challenges or risk being seen as 'soft.' While the rare business leader like Nadella might be willing to talk about 'softer' aspects of management like empathy, the business world downplays it. Business operations, efficiencies and success criteria are measured in hard numbers and not by softer criteria.

Case-in-point: reflecting on a couple of instances

Years ago, I was managing a team of developers and engineers for a large project. One day, a young engineer, Raj*, came to me and said his father had passed away. He wanted to request vacation to leave immediately for his hometown. Raj had recently completed his programming-bootcamp training and had been assigned to my team. I called our HR business partner to check on the company's policies and benefits for 'bereavement leave,' and was surprised by the answer: “sorry, we don't have a bereavement leave policy.” On probing further she replied that it was not customary for Indian companies to offer such leave, and hence our management hadn't formulated such a policy (yet).

Raj hadn't accrued a lot of vacation time, and the 'official' response was to ask him to take an unpaid-leave. I knew the guy wasn't in a state of mind to bother about policies and was going to take such leave regardless. The performance of my team's goal was measured on the success of the project delivery and client feedback. And Raj's absence did not impact our timelines or deliverables; hence I did not feel the need to seek 'help' from senior management.

While the policy around leave was rigid, I knew managers had some leeway when it came to compensating time off against overtime , which I decided to extend to Raj. I continued to voice the issue of “bereavement leave policy” in internal forums in the company till it finally got institutionalized a few years later. No brownie points for sticking my neck out or an 'Atta boy' for showing some empathy.

Years later, I worked for a multinational that was undergoing transformation in light of an impending M&A. Teams were stretched, and busy working on a number of large 'strategic' programs – a number of ERPs were being consolidated while a sizable part of the portfolio was moving to the cloud. A senior member of our team in Europe, Jack*, had a severe bout of flu, that led to other complications including pneumonia. He was hospitalized for a few weeks and was advised bed-rest for a couple of months.

Jack reached out to the line-manager, offering to work-from-home or part-time for a couple of months while he recovered. The manager was under pressure to deliver on the ambitious goals that the CIO had committed to. He worked on a plan with the HR partner, and offered Jack a 'generous' severance to enable him to 'focus on his personal life.' He reasoned that he was showing empathy for a colleague dealing with personal issues in the way he was conditioned and motivated to do so. With that baggage shed, the manager was able to on-board an un-encumbered member and 'motivated' team to deliver on the promised goals; and some.

So, why is it hard to find empathetic managers?

There is a phrase from an interview with the business leader, Ratan Tata that jumped out when I was reflecting on this topic (link: The Economist). He is quoted saying

“I want to be able to go to bed at night and say that I haven't hurt anybody”

People and managers are inherently good intention-ed, and want to contribute and be valued. However, companies are not structured to recognize or reward such 'human' attributes. Business leaders across the corporate hierarchies are measured on their performance and targets that are generally aligned with 'corporate goals';

  • The targets for Public companies are measured quarter-by-quarter, and the (stock) market rewards or punishes them by pushing up or pulling down the stock price. Most companies reward their executives, and employees of a certain cadre, with long-term-incentives tied to stocks or stock options; and such incentives are easily tracked. 
  • Executives ensure that the line of sight to corporate goals – maximize shareholder value - is generally clear down the org-chart. They work with mid-level-managers and supervisors to define production, sales or other operational measures aligned with their targets  
This topic has been especially hard for me to write about though the concepts are rather straightforward, and one can easily find a lot of management literature, backed up by research. While thinking about the topic, I could easily see how some examples in the business world are really quid-pro-quo, masked as empathy:

  • Team-members bending backwards to source an expensive gift for the boss' silver-jubilee-anniversary 
  • The vendor offering a plush guest-house for you to recover from jet-lag after a cross-continent trip 
  • The manager prompting his team members to use all their vacation time at the end of year to get back refreshed (perhaps gently nudged by leaders who don't want folks to carry forward vacation on the books) 
  • The VP of a global team stating "none of the American members will work or take calls on the 4th of July," (a week before the CEO's photo-op with Mr. Trump in Davos)
Corporate goals and targets are generally unforgiving, and don't have much room for 'softer' measures. Not surprisingly, managers who stick their neck out by trying to practice softer aspects like empathy risk being seen as soft. Those who do, might fear they will lose out in the corporate-race against their 'go-getter' peers. 

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