Ah, the age-old, great debate! I, like many people, have my thoughts on this (probably over-discussed) topic. So I thought I'd weigh in and share them with you!
It's probably no surprise to anyone that knows me - or anyone that knows me only as someone who calls himself 'The Empathy Coach' - that I am of the belief that if organisations and leaders look after their people, the results will take care of themselves. I've seen it for myself over the years - those that put results first, those that make out that they put their people first, and those that actually do. And there is a difference.
Great managers evangelise how much money they’ve made or saved. Great leaders evangelise how much their people have achieved and how proud they are.
Think about it... what matters to you about your boss?
Does it matter to you that they can balance the books? Create processes? Run a project? Manage their budget? Make necessary, if difficult, changes? Report an incredible 3rd quarter or a disappointing 4th? Probably not - in fact, that stuff is likely what matters to THEIR boss.
Or does it matter more how they make you feel? How they inspire you? How they support you? How they empower you? How they assist you through any transition? How well - and mutually - they communicate with you? How much they trust you to do your job in the way works best for you - the way that you do your best work?
This is where great leaders have a delicate balance to maintain - satisfying ‘up’ AND satisfying ‘down’. They need to care as much about their people as they do about their KPIs - especially if their people are the ones responsible for achieving those KPIs!
Consider how you perform when you fear your boss. Maybe they want things done a specific way. They might be only too happy to point out when you fail or they're not happy. How do you feel going into every task? How do you feel when you hit a stumbling block? How does it feel when you disagree or think there’s another (maybe better) way? Look out for your SOS - Spontaneously Occurring Signals - as you think about this.
Now consider when you love your boss. Your boss trusts you to do your job in the best way possible. They understand your strengths and limitations. They don't shy away from the difficult conversation, but tackle it with humility and curiosity. How do you feel going into every task? How do you feel when you hit a stumbling block? How do you feel making suggestions or challenging? Any SOS? Are they different or the same?
What you’ve experienced there is the difference between empathic and unempathic leadership - how we make our people feel. Do we trigger negative emotions or positive emotions? Do we inspire or frighten? Do we empower or constrain? Do we trust? Do we listen AND hear? Do we take a genuine interest in them as people? Do we view different agendas comparably? Are we approachable? Are we <gulp> kind?
Many leaders believe it's better to be respected than liked.
Isn't it better to be both?
And here’s where it gets tricky. You can’t rely on surveys, questionnaires or what your people tell you as feedback. Because if you’re not an empathic leader, even if you strive to be the best at your job that you can be, the fear and lack of trust your people may have for you will probably make them say that you are. When was the last time YOU told a boss you didn't like or were fearful of that you don't like them and are fearful of them? I'm guessing never. And if you ever have, how did it go? I'm guessing not great. But I could be wrong. It’s a catch 22. And if you do have a compliant team working for you, you might say “well, they’re not saying anything bad, so who cares?” - but believe me, any contempt they have or lack of loyalty will absolutely affect their performance.
Wouldn’t it affect yours?
No-one sets out to be a "bad boss" - everyone is doing the best they can with what they have and what they know. But knowing whether or not you are a truly empathic leader takes self-evaluation, self-reflection and self-awareness. It's YOUR responsibility to know. It takes real courage and vulnerability to lift the lid and resolve to accept whatever you find so that you can move forward. It actually takes self-empathy. It's never comfortable finding out that we have areas that need more work, especially if we thought we were 'nailing it'. But it’s only from this space of self-awareness, vulnerability and self-empathy that true growth can occur.