Though countless studies verify that compassionate leadership yields better business results, many leaders still refrain from showing genuine emotion and vulnerability in moments when their teams actually need to see it most. That lack of sincere expression often alienates employees and makes already difficult situations even more volatile.
First, let’s state the obvious: It is never easy – or comfortable – to let others know you feel upset, awkward, uncertain, or even incompetent. But in the right situation, honestly reflecting that reality can be a truly powerful (and unifying) display of strength.
Doing the right thing is often difficult
Just such an event occurred at Encore Capital Group during a difficult layoff of 110 employees. In today’s tumultuous global economy, it’s impossible for companies to guarantee employment. Hard calls sometimes get made. But just because it’s the “right decision” doesn’t make executing that decision easy.
CEO Brandon Black and his executive team wanted the process handled with care so that departing employees could walk out with their heads held high, knowing they weren’t abandoned by the organization. The leadership team agreed to make themselves accessible for every question that came up – and to be patient when people got angry or cried.
The largest headcount reduction was to occur at their Phoenix office where about thirty three percent of the employees were being let go. Encore’s SVP of Operations, Jim Syran, went there to personally deliver the message. On the day of the layoffs, the leadership team had a call at noon to report progress at each site. In Phoenix, things went as well as could be expected.
No one wants to look like the “bad guy”
Jim did an amazing job of delivering the message in a way that didn’t come across scripted or distant. Instead of blaming the change on industry challenges or a corporate mandate, he took ownership for the decision.
Jim shared later, “I had a call with my executive coach the morning of the layoff. I walked him through my presentation. I had the math, the rationale. I had scripted the business case. But, it became apparent that I was focused on protecting how I appeared. I had unconsciously slanted my slides to prove it wasn’t my fault … I didn’t want to be a bad person in their eyes … I wasn’t thinking about what they needed in that moment.”
Jim’s instinct in this uncomfortable situation was to protect his own ego and self-worth first, which is common. However, that instinct caused him to overlook what mattered most – the best interest of the company and of the people he leads.
Realizing this, Jim quickly adjusted his presentation to focus on the needs of employees about to be let go, not his ego. He ensured that people understood clearly what was going on and that he was there to emotionally support them.
“I was able to be present in a completely different way,” he said. “I decided that no matter how uncomfortable I felt, I would show up for them. I felt really vulnerable.”
It takes courage to remain in awkward situations
The employees let go were understandably angry and sad. But those not laid off were also displeased. They didn’t want to see their fellow colleagues go and worried this was the first step toward the closing of the entire Phoenix office.
Instead of being defensive, Jim empathized with their perspective and emotions. Although it was unnerving, he walked around the call center floor, talking to people as they packed up. Though nobody liked the message, they appreciated his willingness to be there with them. By the time he left, emotion had subsided greatly.
“I was very uncomfortable walking the floor after the announcement,” Jim said. “A lot of employees were quite upset. People’s moms and sons were laid off. I had no clue what to say or do.”
He worried he was harming people and feared their anger, blame or tears. He felt overwhelmed and ill equipped. It was a highly emotional, vulnerable situation for everyone involved.
Jim admitted he felt “incompetent” that morning. And yet, it was a day in his career where he made a great difference for his employees (those who were let go, and those who remained). “People came up to me afterward,” Jim said, “and thanked me for staying there. For not being the executive who delivers the message and then disappears.”
It’s never easy, but always worth it
“Feeling vulnerable” is a primal sensation that makes you feel “in danger.” In modern times, that means the risk of judgement, failure, embarrassment, or rejection. Vulnerability induces a strong, intense (even panicked) sense of discomfort. It’s easy to understand why an executive who wants to look strong, competent and worth following would shy away from ever appearing vulnerable in front of their team.
But shutting down shifts the emotional burden onto others. When employees already feel threatened (i.e., when losing their job) a leader’s withdrawal or cold treatment adds to their sense of abandonment, humiliation, and a lost sense of belonging.
Feeling vulnerable at work will happen. What matters is how leaders behave during those difficult moments.
– Brandon Black retired as CEO and Director of Encore Capital Group in 2013. He holds an MBA from the University of Richmond and a bachelor’s of business administration from The College of William and Mary. Shayne Hughes is President and Culture Change Partners of Learning as Leadership, a San Francisco-based management consultancy, where he specializes in creating corporate cultures of open communication and collaboration. They are the co-authors of Ego Free Leadership: Ending the Unconscious Habits that Hijack Your Business (CLICK HERE to get your copy). For more information, please visit LearnAsLead.com/egofree-leadership.
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