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The importance of compassion in CX leadership


One thing CX management has taught us is the importance of considering emotions when designing experiences for customers. This is just as true for employees.

19th May 2020

How should a customer experience leader lead their team during the lockdown? How can they help ensure their team continues to be productive and motivated? What should be their part to play in maintaining morale or even pastoral care for team members?

In my first column of this series, I shared the importance of leaders demonstrating they understand the five challenges faced by their team during the coronavirus - or indeed any crisis - and practical ways to respond appropriately.

But the challenge is greater than just accommodating people’s circumstances or rational actions to improve communication. One thing we have all learnt over the last decade is the importance of considering emotions and irrational behaviour when designing experiences for customers. This is just as true for your team.

There is a balance to strike. Few employees will appreciate an overly paternalistic leader or one who appears to think they can be your best friend. But, equally, as we discussed in my previous article, your team members’ lives have been massively disrupted. This current time of disruption and potentially high stress levels calls for emotional intelligence from today’s leaders.

Emotionally intelligent leadership

So much has been written about emotional intelligence, I won’t try to teach anyone to suck eggs here. However, most behavioural psychologists will tell you that there is a risk of only being informed by a few very successful books. Authors like Marshal Goldsmith have done the world of leadership a huge favour by raising the awareness of the importance of emotional intelligence, right up to CEO level. But it is still worth underpinning your reading with academic research.

One of the most respected academic models is the Bar-On model of emotional intelligence. In a related study, Professor Reuven Bar-On identifies 9 factors that were most predictive of leadership ability. Those factors are:

  1.  Self-regard
  2.  Emotional self-awareness
  3.  Independence
  4.  Empathy
  5.  Interpersonal relationship
  6.  Stress tolerance
  7.  Reality testing
  8.  Problem solving
  9.  Happiness

When focussed on how leaders can demonstrate they “understand the challenge” in my previous post, we touched on factors 5, 7 and 8. In this column, I’ll share some practical suggestions for leaders to role model compassion with their team. These draw on the principles underpinning factors 1, 2, 4, 5, 6 and 9.

The second C: Role-modelling compassion

Times of uncertainty and fear, which surely summarises life during the COVID-19 pandemic, cause people to seek reassurance and a leadership team who appear to care. Yet as we've already mentioned, there is a need to avoid the extremes of either stifling paternalism or being coldly aloof.

From my own experience of what team members found helpful during times of crisis (like the 2008 financial crash), these aspects help:

  • Recognising and valuing emotions
  • Interest in the individual and their needs
  • A sense of humour
  • Coaching conversations

Which of those is most important for different members of your team, at different times, may vary, but it’s worth considering them all. If there was one priority for you as a leader at this time, it is to listen well. Truly hearing your employee’s personal stories will guide you as to what is most appropriate better than any theory.

Understanding the four ways to care

Let’s dig just a little deeper into each of those approaches, to explain what I mean:

Recognising and valuing emotions refers to both you and your team members. We are all impacted by the currently global turmoil and should expect emotional responses. Effective leaders protect time to self-care as well as reassuring their team that emotions are normal and welcomed. So, the first approach is to two-fold. Be kind to yourself and demonstrate to your team that you make room for emotions impacting everyone during this change journey. Depending on your existing culture, this may be a big change and so need emphasising in your communications.

It’s impossible to talk empathy or demonstrating compassion to your team if you aren’t interested in them. People aren’t stupid. No amount of using the correct words will mask what are still transactional or superficial interactions. The way you worked together in the past may have focussed solely on their working lives. You may not have thought it appropriate to pry, or you may not have wanted ‘friends at work’. But lockdown has meant the home/work divide is not irrelevant. This approach is all about taking a personal interest in each of your team as people.

A sense of humour may sound either blindingly obvious or making light of the situation, but I have always found it helps. Few things help a group relax when feeling tense than being able to laugh about it. A leader obviously needs to be careful and sensitive to the different personal tastes. One team member’s ‘gallows humour’ may help them but offend others. Generally observational comedy regarding either the shared experience or something self-deprecating helps.

Coaching conversations are another leadership skill that is actually relevant all the time, but particularly helpful now. Most CX leaders will aspire to a coaching style of leadership, rather than old-style ‘command and control’. This can help your team in two ways during the pandemic. Firstly, by helping them to feel empowered and included in decision making. Secondly, by revealing misunderstandings or needs which the leader was unaware of and would hamper delegation/empowerment.

So, what can you do practically to demonstrate this type of compassion?

All that may sound like a tall order. I sympathise, there is a lot to being an effective leader these days. But please don’t be put off by the psychological theory I’ve quoted or the list of everything that should ideally be considered. It is possible to boil this approach down to simple day-to-day steps.

Let’s take a look at how you might go about putting this into practice:

Recognising and valuing emotions in practice:

In addition to protecting time for your own self-care and stay aware of your own emotional needs, I recommend the following practical ideas:

  • Tell your team directly that everyone is going to have “up-days and down-days”, reassure them that an emotional response to all this change is normal.
  • Without burdening your team, share on team calls how you are feeling, including honest expressions of feeling down as well as happier emotions.
  • In one-to-one calls, ask how team members are feeling and encourage them to vent as an emotional outlet. Don’t try and have a solution, just listen.

Showing an interest in individuals in practice:

Although there is a case for still dressing up for work, try and make your one to calls with team members honest and open about home environment:

  • Ask about their new circumstances. Show an interest in their family, shared workspace, home schooling, concern about other relatives and any issues.
  • Don’t push this if they want to be more private, but many will appreciate genuine interest and concern.
  • Role model being more open by sharing your personal situation. Dress down for 121s and even consider giving them a tour of your new ‘office’.

Having a laugh with your team in practice:

Opportunities for a sense of humour should be judged carefully, but don’t over think this. Just avoid them being the butt of any jokes or feeling put on the spot:

  • Consider having time in your regular team meeting for any humour stories anyone may have to share (if it fits with your culture even one of the parody songs).
  • Make light of your own mistakes or mishaps, sharing self-deprecating stories of the difficult transition to working this way can help, especially in 1-2-1s with staff.
  • Take time to relax before a call or interaction with a team so you are not tense, be ready to laugh if you hit technical issues on the call, not ready to snap.

Coaching conversations in practice:

This topic is worthy of an article in its own right, but I encourage all leader to work on this skill. If I could recommend only one book to help you master the skill of asking coaching questions (rather than telling your team how to do things), it would be: “The Coaching Habit” by Michael Bungay Stanier. Here are 3 of his questions:

  • The kick-starter question: “What’s on your mind?”
  • The focus question: “What is the real challenge here for you?”
  • The strategic question: “If you are saying yes to this what are you saying no to?”

During this time, practice talking less as a leader. Ask questions and listen far more. Helping your team to feel heard will express compassion and appreciation perhaps more than any other single action.

Values trump everything, but do you mean it?

I hope those practical tips have helped bring my advice to life for you. I encourage you to practice. Don’t feel limited to the examples above and adapt the words and actions to suit your personal style.

That last point is important, as no leader should think any of this will help if it is fake. Ask yourself first, do you really care? If you can’t act authentically people will smell the opposite and any such action will be counterproductive. So, be genuine and care practically in a way that you find helps your team.

In my next column, I’ll turn my attention to the next C of my model: Clarity.

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