Everyone agreed George was a tough boss. He was demanding, settling for nothing less than one’s best. He was goal-oriented, charismatic and driven. He pushed when outcomes weren’t up to par; he beamed when they were. He challenged when he knew people were capable of more. He offered up praise, appreciation and thanks. He had his team’s back.
George “got” tough empathy.
Combining empathy with accountability is a unique skill set no leader should be without. In their Harvard Business Review article, Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones define tough empathy as “giving people not necessarily what they want, but what they need to achieve their best.” It’s the ultimate leadership balance beam act between task completion and relationship. Being tough and tender. Having high standards and high touch.
We’ve seen bosses who bark orders without regard to feelings and leave morale as roadkill in the office. On the other hand, we’ve seen bosses who are so tender-hearted we wonder if they have a spine as no one ever receives correction or meaningful feedback.
5 ways for a leader to show tough empathy
Intervene early and constructively. When performance goes awry, sit down and talk with the employee (this is not the time for an email). Let the employee know you have faith in their abilities and affirm the importantance of their contributions to the organization.
Show some love. Celebrate, recognize, appreciate. The file cabinet in the corner doesn’t have feelings, but employees do.
Don’t sugarcoat a one-way message. Provide solid facts, specifics, and examples. If you offer up an impression, define the details that created it. This is the time for dialogue, not a monologue.
Demand more than an “I’ll try” response. Assure the individual commits whole-heartedly to learning, performing and improving. Employees are responsible for their performance; the leader owns holding them consistently accountable.
Communicate that occasionally failing is OK. Expecting off-the-chart success all the time leads to burnout and snuffs out innovation. Research by professor Amy Edmondson reveals “people in organizations feel psychologically safe when those in power persistently praise, reward, and promote people who have the courage to talk about their doubts, successes, and failures, and who work doggedly to do things better the next time.”
Ready to get your tough empathy on?!