Empathy and the Elephant In the Room

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Many leaders I know were challenged this week to figure out how best to address the dramatic election results. A change this big will also have big effects at work, and could be very upsetting and divisive.

In this case, as at other such times, a leader could choose to ignore the news and carry on as usual, or get stuck in uncertainty about whether or not to say anything. But both of these choices create the classic “elephant in the room” situation. We all know we are thinking about and reacting to something, and when a leader ignores that fact, it doesn’t make it go away. It cements the emotional climate rather than opening up the possibility of a shift.

In this case, wise leaders I know decided that it was better to say something about the elections than to say nothing, and to do so with empathy.

One of my clients sent the following letter to his team, which includes many women leaders, and he agreed that I could share his words on my post:

“I’ve been struggling since approx. 1am Wednesday Morning to send a message to you all. I needed to gather my thoughts and try to understand what I was feeling and what I wanted to say. So here it goes.

I want you all to know that I understand the significance and importance of this election and that it had huge implications and great hope to a large number of Americans—especially to women. I want you all to know this fact was not lost on me. As I stayed up watching the returns—It broke my heart to see the woman and daughters at Hillary’s campaign headquarters so distraught and upset. As I read comments on the private Facebook page “Pantsuit Nation” I came realize just how disappointed, devastated and scared women across this country are because of the election outcome. When I walked into work yesterday—I had a hard time initially to even look my fellow female associates in the face.

While I can’t fix things across the country—I want you to know that I believe that my primary purpose as your manager and leader is to help support and coach you so that you can succeed in your careers—to help you achieve whatever goals you might have. My hope is that if you feel like you do not have opportunities here at our company—that we have a discussion and build a plan to create those opportunities.

Well that’s it—I hope I made sense and didn’t ramble on too much. Together you all make a very formidable team—one that I am proud to be a part of.”

From a coaching perspective, this letter stands as an excellent example of emotionally intelligent leadership. In times of upheaval and uncertainty, particularly when certain employees may be affected more than others, a leader can ask: “If I put myself in their shoes how does that feel? What would I want my leader to say to me in this particular situation?”

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