Can you tell I have been busy? When there is a long gap between blog posts, it’s a sign of busy times. Not only have I been working with organizations that are investing in new manager leadership training and coaching, I have also had additional invitations to speak at conferences. Most recently I was invited to speak at an international women’s leadership conference in Singapore. It was a wonderful experience – sharing and exchanging ideas and perspectives with thought leaders from around the world. Exciting! Inspiring!
In the next few blog posts I will share some key points of my thinking based on my talk in Singapore. Here is the first installation.
Most of us have a best friend. Even Oprah has Gail. Heidi is my best girl friend. I learned to trust her so much through the years we worked together and became such fast friends that I often told her that if I ever divorced, I’d move in with her because I so trust her. There is hardly anything we have not shared with each other about our lives. At the end, I didn’t move in with her after my divorce, but I still appreciate our ever-deepening friendship, adore her strengths and tolerate her weaknesses as if she was my sister.
We women are good at this. I call it “friendship making”. Friendships lead to trust. Friendship-making builds trust through sharing and self-disclosure. Opening up makes us vulnerable – and the first emotion that arises when witnessing vulnerability of others among women is usually sympathy. Feeling sympathy can open up the floodgates for an exchange of further personal disclosure, sharing of stories. All this begins to build trust. Trust is the foundation of everything worthwhile. Whether in love, business or politics, trust is at the heart of all relationships.
Striking up friendships gets remarkably more complex in the workplace – because, there are men there! It becomes a complicated matter because the person of the other sex whom you begin to feel friendly with, often could become either your lover (an affair) or a spouse. And that is not the ideal result in most cases at work. Although sometimes it turns out to be a good thing – like in the case of Bill and Melinda Gates.
In a workplace where there is a clear power differential between the sexes or no parity even at 40%-60-% level, it is can be hard to build trusting relationships between men and women. Sheryl Sandberg writes about the suspicions of an affair when she worked late at night with her boss Larry Summers. Just like her, almost every woman I’ve talked to can relate – but that’s another story. However, I believe that as women – through being the more educated and increasingly self-sustaining half of the population – are becoming more visible in the work places, the tension due to gender will diminish and collegial partnerships will become more of the norm.
Just as I have observed women creating trust through sharing and self-disclosure, I’ve concluded that men find each other trustworthy through doing things together, accomplishing a task or activity together (think military service) or through “totem poling” each other. By the “totem poling” I mean achieving credibility in each other’s eyes through positional (hierarchical, organizational) power.
Empathy is the Key Ingredient for Collaborative Relationship
All this said, neither sympathy through sharing or credibility through “totem poling” is enough to build a solid foundation for trust in business. A trusting relationship needs yet another layer and that layer is empathy. Several years ago I was taught the difference between sympathy and empathy: Imagine a person in a ditch. Now, if you feel sympathy for them, you’ll jump in the ditch with them – and this way you both feel the anguish. But if you feel empathy for them you will go and find a ladder and set it up for this person in the ditch to choose to either 1) ignore the ladder or 2) climb the ladder out of the ditch. Empathy is about creative action and creating connectivity. This is crucial information for new managers in leadership training.
Understanding how we create trusting relationships can be a key to unlocking collaborative powers at work places. As the hierarchies are flattening, diversity in organizations is increasing, people are in direct contact with each other and the decision-making is becoming much more transparent and collaborative, I believe, this provides a perfect time for women to show how they can lead, not just lean. There is no need for women to learn what is considered the traditional male leadership style. It is time for women to emerge as leaders with their own strengths because the world of work now requires the feminine way of sharing, disclosure and connectivity.
As leaders we can accelerate our ability to be agile and flexible through developing trust and respect of each other. And whom do we trust and respect? Our friends! However, it becomes a shock to many new managers in leadership training that they no longer can act as friends with the colleagues. This new position requires them to elevate friendship-making from a sympathetic relationship to an empathetic relationship. In other words, they have to move from sharing the anguish in the “ditch” with their buddies to a role of a coach who helps their friends to find constructive solutions to get out of the “ditch”.
Ultimately, leading organizations under these kinds of conditions reminds me a lot the way we mother our children *). We put their needs ahead of our own, we make sure they have the resources they need to thrive and succeed in life. We know instinctively that empowering kids with choice and supporting their independence works better than screaming at them and demanding them to become obedient. We know that when we meet the kids’ needs first, treat them with respect, and enroll them to collaborate with us, we will achieve a happier family all around.
*) Read more about what leaders can learn from mothers in Shari Storm’s insightful book, Motherhood is the New MBA.
Stay tuned, there will be more soon…