The empathy equation: unleashing line managers’ emotional intelligence


In today’s workplace, effective leadership is rooted in emotional intelligence (EQ), says panel at CHRO Solutions Summit.

A leader’s ability to engage effectively with their team with a recognition of their individuality is a pivotal determinant of both their success and that of the business as a whole, said a panel who discussed “The Empathy Equation” at the CHRO Solutions Summit held on 24 August at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS).

“The empathy equation is fundamental to the role that we as leaders and individuals play when we shape organisations,” said Anja van Beek, an agile talent strategist, leadership expert and executive coach, who chaired the discussion. “It’s about that complexity of human connection.” While leaders are often confident about formulating and implementing strategies, the same can often not be said for navigating the human side of their role, she argued.

“It’s about balancing the result and performance on the one side and on the other, cultivating an environment where people feel that there’s trust, understanding and there’s that sense of belonging.” Asking attendees to contemplate how confident they and their managers are in navigating the human side of their role, Anja stressed the fact that EQ is listed at the top of the list of critical skills needed for 2030 as determined by the World Economic Forum (WEF).

In response to this, panelist Malisha Awunor, group head of people and culture at EOH, explained how she has harnessed the power of technology to build empathy and foster greater connections between co-workers despite their differences. We need to ask how we challenge social and structural norms that teach us to “other” people that don’t look and think like us. In answer to this question, Malisha has developed the “In My Shoes” programme, which uses virtual reality (VR) – which the WEF says can be “the ultimate empathy machine” – to approximate the lived experiences of others and to drive social cohesion.

Leading with care

“Empathy is just one part of emotional intelligence,” she said, “but for as long as I can’t relate to you, as long as you are seen as different from me, my ability to be able to reach out to build something productively and to collaborate will be fundamentally flawed.”
We have the responsibility to create safe enough spaces to challenge the unconscious bias that exists in all of us, she said. “When I can meet you where you are, as opposed to where I am, it fundamentally shifts the way in which we deal with the people we work with.” We need to shift people’s mindsets in a sustainable way, she said. It’s about much more than ticking a box.

Bonga Mnengisa, senior manager, global leadership and career at MTN Group, said that her company has a mantra of creating human-centric leadership. In the volatile global business landscape in which we find ourselves, leadership cannot stay the same, Bonga argued. “What’s more, at MTN, we look at everyone as a leader. Within whichever context you operate, you are playing a leadership role.”
Therefore, the self-leadership programme that she and her team have designed applies to everyone within the company. It’s looking at how you discover and accept yourself as a human being, she explained, and at how to develop EQ. “We put the human being at the centre of everything we do.”

In another programme, leaders are also empowered to lead with care and compassion, which, Bonga stressed, comes with being vulnerable. Quoting American professor Brené Brown, who says that vulnerable leaders are the most effective ones, Bonga said such leaders understand when others are vulnerable and do not judge them.

The MTN Group also focuses on programmes that govern behaviour – how we actually expect leaders to show up. This involves cultivating leaders who create purpose and direction with the human in mind, and those who lead with empathy and understand that, especially post-Covid, people are going through struggles, ones that they take the time to ask about and listen to. Yet, Bonga stressed, to create a change, we need buy-in from each individual – they need to believe they need to change.

Development, self awareness and behaviour

Building on this, panellist Jackie Kennedy, founder of the LeadMe Academy, said that leadership development, especially in the domain of EQ, starts with personal development and self-awareness. “Leadership is about a set of behaviours that make you great about leading self and working with others,” she said. Yet we need to understand what drives these behaviours.

“In working relationships, a lack of self-awareness often stops us from having empathy or understanding each other. We can’t understand each other if we don’t understand ourselves.” Jackie looked at the iceberg model which says that above the water is behaviour and results, and what’s below the water is your set of beliefs and values that shape the way you think and feel which shapes your behaviour.
“The reality is that most of the time, with a lack of self-awareness, we just see what’s going on above the line, so we see the behaviour or result, but we don’t stop to ask why that person behaved that way – and why this triggers us and them.”

We need to go deeper, she stressed, to uncover the reasons for our behaviour as well as our unconscious biases and beliefs and which of our lived experiences they come from. “The beginning of self-awareness is the unearthing of our beliefs and values,” said Jackie, “and understanding how it’s shaping the behaviour above the line and how it’s shaping communication in the organisation.” This understanding is key to working effectively with others.

Once limiting behaviours are identified, Jackie added, it takes time to change them. It’s about continuous learning and repeatedly doing the work needed to change, which requires support and determination.


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