‘Efficiency’ doesn’t mean ‘efficacy’ when it comes to messaging

When one of my children shares some news of their day about how they felt they performed on an assignment, it’s hard to give my full attention when there are dishes in the sink, a dog begging for food, a line of waiting emails, and only 45 minutes left of good sunlight for a run.It gets a bit easier when the message flow is in the opposite direction — parent to child. Even then, it seems the executive in me would like to have the message received like a telegram: “Pick up your bedroom -STOP- Bring your laundry to the wash -STOP- I think you are a great kid -END MESSAGE.”There are times, of course, when this economy of communication actually works, but then who would want it to?Efficiency does not mean efficacy when it comes to messaging. Current psychological research is documenting what parents have known to be true in their leadership efforts — relationship matters. We can easily identify that with our children — there is always a back-and-forth dance to conversation where one party is sending a message (“Hey Mom or Dad, I am important and I am learning”) and the other party is receiving a message.We can also recognize that in our act of listening as a parent we are sending a message as well (“You matter to me and I matter to you.”) When we only half listen, we are only sending and receiving half the intended message.Enough of these shortchanged exchanges have a way of making everyone feel disconnected from each other. We know, implicitly, that no matter how busy we are or inefficient the message, there is a value in the information flow when it comes to our children.The latest research on effective leadership confirms this to be true even in work settings. Leaders who convey empathy for their employees, who demonstrate that they recognize the everyday ups and downs of an employee’s life and genuinely feel the emotion that the employee feels are shown to be favored by employees, are more effective in eliciting Good Citizenship Behavior from their employees, and tend to have lower levels of turnover and burnout among their employees.Feeling and expressing empathy is an aspect of social and emotional intelligence that not everyone has in equal measure. To be fair, there are certainly contexts in which empathy in itself will not make for an effective leader. (“Yes Soldier, I agree, it IS terrifying. Perhaps we should just hold back a bit until we feel a bit stronger.”) For those contexts, when the immediacy of life and death are not a factor, there are ways to cultivate empathy and leverage relationships to more effectively lead people.Cultivating empathy is really about perspective-taking. When we assess a situation from only our vantage point, we are assessing it from a fixed position that is weighing only the impact and effects on us or our space in the world.When we expand the scope a bit, perhaps by including our perspective and the perspective of the company or the client, we are appreciating the logistical and emotional landscape in which our employee is operating.The final step requires us to take a panoramic view of these factors along with the perspective of the employee. What are the demands internally, within her/his home life or developmental stage (entry level, newly promoted) that may have an impact on behavior in the workplace?What is a message that would positively effect these demands and bolster the employee? How might I convey “you matter” in the midst of the “clean your room” message? If you can’t answer this question for a given employee, then it’s a sign you need to invest more in cultivating the relationship.Cultivating relationships can begin with simple and genuine exchanges. A sincere “So, how was it seeing your son’s first school play?” followed by attentive listening to the answer is an important first step. This alone won’t yield a return.Consistent exchanges wherein personal, but not private, information is shared and elicited will build up bonding capital between the leader and the employee. This capital can be added to over the course of the relationship, and drawn from when there are predictable and inevitable disagreements.Leveraging relationships requires establishing a pattern of sharing and remembering in a sincere and authentic way.The leader who works to increase empathic listening and invests in relational exchanges will have employees who are more connected to each other and their leader.The ironic result: more effective and efficient communication and work efforts.Loretta L.C. Brady is an associate professor of psychology at Saint Anselm College and the founder and principal of BDS Insight, an organizational consulting and executive coaching firm specializing in innovation, leadership development, personnel selection and training. She can be reached at loretta@bdsinsight.com.