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Tools for empathic leaders

If you want to develop your empathic leadership skills, you need tools that can enable you to connect deeply with those you seek to serve, so you can genuinely put yourself in their shoes. I have covered many of these in more depth in The Research Impact Handbook and on my website, so I will summarise two categories of tools that I think are particularly important here, and let you research these in greater depth yourself.

1. Deliberation tools

First there is a large body of work on participatory and deliberative methods that are essential for any empathic leader to be skilled in. The reason that these tools are so important is that they enable you to listen deeply to everyone you serve, not just those who shout loudest. You are trying to move beyond engagement to active participation of your colleagues and stakeholders in your work. And if possible, you are trying to move beyond just participating to facilitate deliberation.


Deliberation is a widely misunderstood concept; it is much more than just discussion. Based on the literature, deliberation should in theory involve four steps:

a) Searching for & acquiring information, gaining knowledge (by learning), and forming reasoned opinions;

b) Expressing logical and reasoned opinions (rather than exerting power or coercion) through dialogue;

c) Identifying and critically evaluating options that might address a problem; and

d) Integrating insights from deliberation to determine a preferred option, which is well informed and reasoned.


In short, deliberation is as much about listening and learning from others as it is about engaging in reasoned debate yourself. How to enable this kind of engagement between colleagues is the real challenge.


Some of my own empirical research (published in a paper led by Joris de Vente in 2018) shows the importance of strong facilitation and the use of structured elicitation techniques if you want to enhance learning and trust, and achieve beneficial outcomes. For example, instead of opening a group discussion with an open question, you might ask everyone to write as many answers as they can think of on a piece of paper before inviting everyone to do a “round robin”, stating their best idea, moving to another idea on their list if someone else says what they were going to say first, and giving people the option to pass if they prefer not to say anything. Alternatively, you might write the question on a flip chart, give everyone three sticky notes and ask them to write their three best ideas on the sticky notes, bringing them to the front when they are ready and clustering similar ideas together. I do this online with Google Jamboard, telling everyone they can have one sticky note of each colour to provide up to five ideas (there are five colours of sticky note). In each of these simple methods, I am able to hear ideas from everyone in the group in around five to ten minutes, compared to a half-hour discussion that would probably have been dominated by a minority of the group members. Having time to think before they write, and see other people’s ideas before they move into discussion, increases the likelihood that people are doing their best thinking, compared to trying to think in parallel with listening to a discussion, and only being able to respond to the most recent idea that has been expressed. Both of these techniques also force people to listen to everyone else in the group before they start discussing, as everyone takes their turn in the round robin, or as people read each other’s sticky notes in order to cluster similar ideas together. Both techniques enable people to take time to form their ideas coherently before they speak. It is the concision required to speak your idea in a single sentence or less than a minute (round robin gives everyone approximately the same airtime) or write it on a sticky note (I often give people felt tip pens or tell them to write their idea in 12 words or less, and Google Jamboard has a fairly short character limit), that forces people to organise their thoughts before presenting them.


But deliberation must then create spaces in which people can the discuss those ideas with each other, evaluating what is said by others to form reasoned insights or decisions. Although it sounds a little heavy-handed, ground rules, if they are done well, can be an effective way of doing this. I like to start by referencing Nancy Kline’s “thinking environment”, based on her book, Time to Think. It is worth reading her book or looking up her ten components of a good thinking environment. In summary, her proposition is that we do our best thinking when we are listened to deeply, and so your task, if you want to facilitate true deliberation, is to create the kind of considered pace, equal turn-taking and respectful attention that enables people to listen first, and then both think and express themselves without fear of interruption or recrimination. If your group agrees that they want to do some of their best thinking together, and that this is the basis of a good thinking environment, it is possible to lay down some simple rules at the outset around the kind of language we use, how we show we are listening to each other, the importance of not interrupting or changing the subject before a person has fully developed their ideas etc. This can be done in less than a minute.


The secret power of ground rules lies in the social contract you create with the group. Whether you are laying the foundation for the first and all subsequent meetings at the start of a new project or you are starting a teleconference, you must ask if everyone if they agree and want to remove or add any rules to the list. Only move on once you have paused long enough to ensure you have the agreement of the group. Now, if someone starts to break the rules, you can remind them of the conversation you had at the start of the meeting, and because this was a social contract, effectively signed by everyone in the group, the peer-pressure to conform to the rules is powerful enough that most people will comply, even if they are significantly more powerful than you and they would rather not comply. In the worst-case scenario, for a repeat offender, you can cite the agreement you all made at the outset as the reason you will have to take a short break and escort them from the room, or disconnect them from the call. Scary as that may sound, you will do so on behalf of the group, and can make this clear, giving you both the power and authority to take the necessary action to maintain a safe space for the group.


It is easier to manage discussion in smaller groups, so consider breaking the group into small groups and running a carousel activity where you create a small number of discussion groups (say one per corner of the room) and tell people to start at the topic they are most interested in, rotating groups with a decreasing amount of time per group, until you ask them to visit their original group to read what was added by other groups over the break or as they return to their seats. When doing this online, I ask people to tell me the topic they are most interested in via the chat function over a break, and I create the groups before they come back from their break. Then I run a second shorter rotation, where I randomly allocate people to groups (explaining that some people will get to continue discussing their favourite topic with a new group of people). When doing this online, each group has their own Google doc in which everyone discussing can write their own points. Some people write without speaking and that’s fine.


Alternatively, instead of letting people choose the topic that they are most interested in, you can choose who goes where on the basis of the group dynamic. For example, you might place people who you think will be difficult to manage in separate groups, or put them all in one group and get the most experienced facilitator in your group manage them.


To avoid a power-play when we choose which topics to prioritise for discussion, I do a sticky dot prioritisation where everyone gets the same number of dots in their hand or virtually, which they can allocate to the full list of possible topics, which will often have come from a meta-plan (the first sticky note exercise I described at the start of this section). You can do the same at the end of the process if you need to make a decision. A prioritisation exercise is more effective than voting because it is relative anonymous when people are sticking dots on options in a room, and entirely anonymous online, so people can express their preferences without fear of later recrimination.


Alternatively, you can do a more sophisticated prioritisation using multi-criteria evaluation, where you create a matrix with the options you are choosing between in columns, and the criteria against which you will make the decision in rows. For example, as a team you might be struggling to choose between three courses of action: create a prototype, make a video about the research you have done so far, or do more research. Instead of prioritising one of these actions straight away, you first discuss the reasons why you might in theory prioritise one action over another. For example, you might consider the extent to which the options will deliver impact, how inexpensive they are and whether you currently have the capacity in your group to perform each action. Now when people place their ten sticky dots on their preferred action, they have to say why they are prioritising that action by placing it in the relevant grid. I might prioritise the first option because it will deliver impact, placing six of my sticky dots on row one of option one; I think we should build a prototype because that will have most impact. However, I can now see that this will be expensive and we don’t have the skills in our group to do this, so if this isn’t possible, my second preference would be to make the video. I might therefore place my remaining four sticky dots on the video option, placing one dot in row one (impact), and two each in rows two and three (expense and skills); if we can’t build the prototype, we should make a video it would still have some impact, and it would be inexpensive compared to the video, and something we could do already as a group.


Multi-criteria evaluation is not designed to get consensus. Getting everyone to agree is not the job of an empathic leader. Most attempts to get a single answer from a group arrive at dysfunctional consensus where at least one person decides it isn’t worth pushing their point. Instead they say nothing and let the decision go ahead, or say what they think the rest of the group wants them to say. Either way, resentment can smoulder, leading to rifts in the group, and later accusations that you didn’t give them their say or listen to their perspective. As a result, decisions may be constantly revisited, undermined or delegitimised by those who felt their perspective was not heard or given due weight. Multi-criteria evaluation on the other hand, makes each of the different perspectives explicit and enables everyone in the group to first discuss and then vote against these perspectives. As a result, it may become apparent that half of the group actually share the same perspective as the person who might otherwise have kept quiet, assuming that everyone shared the opinion of the most vocal or persuasive person in the group.


Now, as a leader you can open a much deeper channel of empathy with each of the different perspectives in your group, and the layers of values and beliefs that lie behind a seemingly simple decision. You will still have to make a decision, but you can now consider how you might ameliorate some of the negative consequences of that decision to make it a win-win for more members of the group. If nothing else, you are able to acknowledge the depth of compromise that some group members will have to make to live with the decision you make. The decision you make doesn’t have to match the arithmetic conclusion of the evaluation. As a group, the majority of people might have opted for doing more research, but if this is a decision about how to use funding that is specifically earmarked for impact, then after discussion you might decide that some of the funding could be used to send someone from the group to do some training. Everyone had assumed that they would have to employ a consultant to build the prototype, which would be far beyond the budget available. However, one of the team is now looking very excited about the prospect of learning these new skills, and if you can afford the training, then perhaps the majority of the group are now up for building the prototype. If not, then at least it is clear that the group agree a prototype would be the most impactful option, and you can apply for the funding to make this happen in the long-term, while using your current budget to do more research.

2. Co-production tools

Finally, it is worth revisiting some of the planning tools I introduced in Chapter 11, to show you how these can be used to co-produce impact with your team and stakeholders. “Co-production” is a misused a concept as deliberation, and usually equates to some form of consultation. Consulting your stakeholders to get approval for a course of action you want to take is very different to listening to the needs or aspirations of your stakeholders and offering to help them achieve their own goals. There is a very different power dynamic at the heart of co-production, in which we are now serving the needs and interests of our stakeholders, who are in charge of the process. Even if we think we understand and are serving their needs, if the funding has come from our research and we are in charge of the budget, which also has to produce research outputs, then there will still be a power dynamic in which our stakeholders to some extent are serving us or the agendas of our funders. We are organising the process, so we get final say over who is involved and can veto courses of action that will compromise the quality of our research outputs. “Action research” and “practice-based arts” attempt to turn this power dynamic on its head and put stakeholders in the driving seat, but in my experience, it is rare to find truly co-productive work outside these traditions.

At this point I want to show you how some simple tools can enable you to take a more co-productive approach to your work. The starting place has to be a more systematic approach to identifying who might have a stake in your research, including non-human stakeholders, future generations and the marginalised and vulnerable. Without taking a systematic approach, you might fall into the same trap as those who have come before you and further marginalise a group who currently have no voice and are regularly excluded from decisions that affect them. Such groups are often “hard-to-reach”, but a stakeholder analysis enables you to both identify and empathise with these groups. Look at my 3i’s approach to stakeholder analysis if you want more details on how to do this. Here I want to emphasise the empathic power of a good stakeholder analysis, and how this can enable you to co-produce research and impact

The empathic step in a stakeholder analysis is researching, and beginning to understand, the needs, interests, opportunities and constraints of each group you think might share some of your interests. Doing this exercise alone or in your research group, you will often discover the limits of your knowledge, identifying groups that should in theory be relevant, but you are not quite sure what their interests would be. As a result, I like to do stakeholder analysis with a small number of key stakeholders who know the stakeholder landscape much better than I do. As a result, I don’t only learn about the interests of these groups; I learn about their sensitivities, words I should avoid when working with them, conflicts between them and other group I need to be aware of, and hidden powers I was previously unaware of. Now when I reach out to them, I do so with empathy, based on their needs and interests, and now I can take this to the next level by opening dialogue with them directly.


The conversations you have with these stakeholders need to be more in listening mode, trying to understand the goals and challenges each organisation faces, and as far as possible the context in which they are working. Depending on the group, you may need to be introduced by someone who is already known and trusted by the group, and where possible I would want them to accompany me to our first meeting. It is important to understand that what you can understand from one meeting will only ever be a distorted fragment of their actual reality. Anthropologists might work with them for months or years to provide an ethnographic account in which they would still acknowledge their subjectivity and “positionality”. If you are successful, you will look back at your perception of the organisation and their context in years to come and be shocked at your own naivety. But this realisation should not stop you from trying to reach out and understand what it is like to be in their shoes. The secret is to be curious, and this is the super-power of every researcher. In the same way you are innately curious about your research, become more and more curious, and where it is not rude, keep asking “why” questions. When you finish, ask who else they think you should speak to, to understand more. Social scientists call this a “snowball sample”, and they continue interviewing until they hear no new ideas. This isn’t practical for most of us, but it is always useful to check if there are any particularly important people you need to speak to from the perspective of your stakeholders. Often successive people will point to the same person again and again, and this is a sign that you need to make time for at least one more conversation.


The final step is to make some kind of plan for your work together. The best starting point for a truly co-productive approach, is to find out what plans your stakeholders already have. If you can help with their existing strategy or programme of work, then they will remain in charge, and take most of the credit if things go well. You will be serving their interests, rather than diverting them into your agenda in service of your research or funders. In some cases, there is an unmet need and nobody has a plan. Now you can play a facilitating role, but this should be neutral and focussed on meeting their needs rather than providing impact for your research. If possible, hire a local facilitator, who is independent enough to be trusted by the group, rather than facilitating this yourself. There are enough implicit power dynamics inherent in your title as a Doctor or Professor, without you leading from the front. Done well, the needs and options identified will only intersect partially with your interests as a researcher. Your task then is to do what you can to connect people with others in your network who might be able to help with the issues that are beyond the scope of your project or expertise. Others in the group will have their own contacts. The group needs to self-organise, and you need to resist any attempt to make you chair of the steering group, if that’s what emerges from the process. If you are in the role of serving the community, you could even question being a member of such a group. Tools like logic models and Theory of Change may be useful at this point, but only if those leading the initiative find them useful, and not if the use of these tools end up putting you back in the driver’s seat.


As we reach the end of this chapter, it is important to reflect on what actions are arising for you. Are there parts of your life in which you could be a better leader? What would more empathic leadership look like for you? Practically, what could you do that would enable you to connect with and express your deepest priorities in the way that you lead? How could you build your own bridging expertise? Who do you need to serve better?


Empathic leaders lead from behind. They are often not recognised and are rarely thanked for what they do. The satisfaction that arises from this approach lies primarily in what they see others being enabled to do as a result of their actions, what I have heard some people refer to as “second-hand glory”. The power in this type of leadership comes from the deep places rather than the high places in this world.

Deliberation tools
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