I Lacked This One Critical Skill That Nearly Cost Me My Career and My Life
This one pivotal moment helped me realize what I lacked as a business leader that was indirectly holding me back.
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[Sensitive content: This article discusses gun violence]
A gun was pointed a few inches from the center of my forehead. It was small. Maybe 22 calibers. Time slowed. Fight or flight kicked in, and I saw everything in my peripheral vision clearly. A couple of people were looking at us through a plate glass window from their table at the restaurant I had just left. My friends were a few feet away, wide-eyed and scared.
You might be wondering how I ended up in this precarious situation, to begin with. Well, moments before, I was walking out of a restaurant. It was late, maybe 1 am. I had felt this kid staring at me. At this point, I decided to walk over to his car and ask him, "what's up?" Did I need to do this? No. Was it provocative? Yes. And now we all know how this questionable decision could have cost me my life.
It goes without saying that this encounter has had a lasting impression on me. It has helped shape who I am, the decisions I make and who I am striving to become. You might, however, be surprised to hear that this pivotal moment didn't mark the end of my abrasive behavior (that came later), it did, however, serve as the most poignant reminder of how conversations can go sideways — fast.
Over the years, I learned that the use of empathy, in such precarious situations — or even less volatile ones — has tremendous power to turn situations around to create positive outcomes. Especially in business.
Related: What Is Empathy, and Why Is It So Important for Great Leaders?
While many in the business world fixate on data, analytics and technology, they should spend as much time analyzing and understanding the motivations, emotions and varying perspectives of people. I am, of course, talking about prioritizing one's emotional intelligence. The most gifted leaders out there understand how their actions and words affect those around them. They excel in social awareness and practice empathy.
This did not come naturally to me. Early in my career, I was willing to achieve my goals at any cost, no matter how my actions affected others. Case in point: If someone from another department was blocking or slowing down my project, I'd leapfrog over them and exert downward pressure by looping in their manager. It always worked. My project was magically sped up or unblocked almost instantly. I justified my actions because they were in the best interest of the company.
But the company is made up of people. People with feelings. And, when that type of downward pressure is applied to someone, it sours your relationship with them. They know you bypassed them. They feel belittled, pressured and then forced into compliance. And you're the source of those feelings. Not only does this ruin your relationship, but it also adds friction to future projects because that person (and their team) won't be invested in working with you. The end doesn't justify the means. As the late, great Maya Angelou once said, "…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
Instead of exerting pressure, applying leverage or coercing peers to comply, I could have gained their buy-in and inspired them to help out voluntarily. I could have taken them out for lunch or coffee. I could have asked about their challenges. Asked what they were dealing with and how I could help them. People are smart. They will see what you're trying to do, but most will appreciate it. It might take more time in the short term, but overall, you'll strengthen the relationship. Plus, your project will be completed faster and at a higher level of quality. And who knows — maybe you'll pick up some ideas you wouldn't have come up with on your own.
Related: Why Empathy Is a Crucial Entrepreneurial Skill (and How to Develop Yours)
An overwhelming amount of research suggests that empathy and personal interest increase employee loyalty and trust. In Harvard Business Review's Emotional Intelligence Series on Empathy, Emma Sappala writes how kindness and optimistic communications have more impact on performance than the number of zeros on an employee's paycheck. The author explains in another article that responding with anger or frustration erodes loyalty.
A study by Jonathan Haidt of New York University shows that employees become more loyal when leaders tap into empathy more deeply. Neuroimaging research confirms that our brains respond more positively to leaders who use empathy compared to those who do not.
As with any other skill, practicing empathy can be developed, though it takes time. Every person is different, so we all have to discover the triggers that inspire and motivate us.
Here are a few tips for practicing empathy:
- Place yourself in someone else's shoes and see things from their point of view.
- Validate your understanding of what you think you're hearing by recapping what's being said.
- Be aware of body language and adapt your communication strategy accordingly.
- Be direct, but considerate — ask open-ended questions.
- Avoid jumping to conclusions or making assumptions based on past experiences.
- Don't penalize anyone in public when it can be done in private.
Bottom line: Understanding your employees builds trust, which in turn improves performance. Congratulate yourself on trying to understand them. Even when you fail.
I've come a long way since that moment I was held at gunpoint. Luckily for me, the situation de-escalated quickly and I got another chance to reassess my ways — both personally and professionally. Having worked on my emotional intelligence and practiced empathy, I now know how to "read the room," and connect emotionally with people around me. I can safely say, you'll not catch me walking up to any lone stranger in the dead of the night asking provocative questions. Ultimately, being self-aware and understanding the risk factors presented before you is what makes business leaders great.