UNSW UNSW Business School UNSW Business School

Reinventing the Boss: Overcoming the Empathy By-Pass

January 31, 2011

​​​Could early intervention have prevented the sexual harassment scandal that suddenly cut short the retail career of former CEO Mark McInnes at David Jones? Ditto former US president Bill Clinton, whose intimate relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky almost caused his downfall? There's a long list of leaders, including ex-WorldCom chief executive Bernard Ebbers and former Enron Corporation president Jeffrey Skilling, who crashed and burned after stellar rises to power.

​​High-achievers, driven by the need to prove themselves, can lack an understanding of others, says Malcolm Dunn, director of executive development services, AGSM Executive Programs at the Australian School of Business. While such leaders often do a good job in the short term, a lack of empathy tends to result in collateral damage and – sometimes – the collapse of their organisations.

A recent survey of more than 130 Australian business leaders conducted by coaching psychologists Travis Kemp and Suzy Green revealed that more than 40% exhibited signs of distress that manifested as anxiety, depression and other personality disorders. But long-term, hardwired behaviours can be overcome, says Dunn. Through neuroplasticity – the ability of the human brain to change as a result of experience – it's possible to open up the parts of the brain related to leadership, such as empathy and wellbeing, which are not developed through traditional cognitive-education processes, he believes.

Using an intervention process to develop new neural capacity for leaders through learning models, coaching and extensive practice, Dunn is working with top executive teams in the corporate world, where he sees a mix of group power dynamics or what he terms "ego-driven intellectual aerobics" on show. "Intervention is helping executives to change the source of their motivation from compensation to a more positive, self-transcendent style of leadership," Dunn says. "The result is that they get a kick from helping others instead of themselves."

Initially, some leaders are outwardly perceived as successful because they are delivering good numbers, according to Dunn. "Often tasked with difficult turnarounds, they are so driven, and their defence mechanisms so finely honed, that they have developed a set of useful skills and many of the qualities required to become successful renaissance leaders. But it's a different story behind the scenes, where there is little delegation or development of potential successors. They stay with the organisation for two or three years then move on, leaving the damage behind." The challenge for many leaders – CEOs in particular – starts with their relationship with the board, says Dunn, who admits to being shocked by the lack of courageous behaviour in boardrooms.

Unplugging Hardwiring

​Research on neuroscience conducted predominantly in the US has provided new understanding on just how hardwired memories, behaviours and even future projections are. "It offers a better understanding of how different parts of the extended brain, including the nervous system, react to our environment," reports Dunn. "It's possible to start using different parts of the brain and to build new connections. Transforming executives have the opportunity to consciously change how they think rather than just being the artefact of a set of random developments in their lives."

The starting point is an unpacking process, figuring out how an executive has become who he or she is and understanding what can be done differently. But true behaviour change only occurs when they are in the system where they are under pressure from boards and shareholders and need to be self-resilient. "Through coaching, during unpacking and while building a more authentic leadership style, we can create a connection between our two brain hemispheres to develop more balanced, creative cognitive thinking."

Neuroplasticity is achieved through various stages of learning. In the first stage – unconscious incompetence – individuals don't know that they don't know. "Some sort of awakening is required that what has been done in the past doesn't work anymore and this leads to 'conscious incompetence' – now you know you don't know," says Dunn. "In the next stage, conscious competence is developed, 'so now you know you know'. The final stage is 'unconscious competence', where – like driving a car – behaviours and thinking become automatic. It happens from an unconscious state."

But this is no quick fix. In the past, the focus has been on three- or five-day leadership development programs, which have had a high failure or rescission rate. "In that environment, people can gain new insights but typically don't develop new behaviours because there is not the motivation for change," notes Dunn. With coaching, the process takes six to nine months, but generates better success rates.

Most leaders are resistant to change, Dunn admits. At the outset of interventions, bosses often behave inappropriately. "They argue rather than ask interesting questions to help them understand." Avoidance is another tactic – "going along (with the process) to get along or using passive aggression". A useful strategy for high-ego leaders is to turn them into the coach, Dunn says. "To help another person, they have to develop coaching skills, which requires them to attend to their own issues." But – ultimately – most bosses want to be better people and improve their performance, he insists. "They need to see how the benefits will link back to the business creating a happier board and shareholders."

Coaching the Cowboys

​There's a gender divide when it comes to speed of uptake for developing new ways of thinking, according to Dunn. And, as a general rule, men need the most work. "Social conditioning has not given many men the tendency to nurture others. And there's the macho corporate culture where cowboys don't cry," Dunn says. On the flip side, female leaders can be overly nurturing. "They may need to be balanced out and helped to hold people accountable for performance. Some women have had to 'outman the men' to get ahead and need help regaining a sense of their own feminine power."

Reflective thinking helps leaders build self-sustaining skills. Through a process of reframing, leaders can look at events or issues, at possible solutions and begin to notice their behaviours and the behaviours of others. Coaching helps build a consciousness – "a mindfulness muscle" – that is crucial for executives, Dunn says. "Once you open Pandora's box and start noticing yourself, others and your interactions, it's hard to close it. It is a far richer relational world where we can have a deeper understanding of team and organisational dynamics."

Many leaders in engineering, law and the medical professions emerge via task mastery and specialisation, but have not had leadership-development opportunities. "It's common to find people in high positions who haven't yet developed these capabilities, yet they are managing partners or CEOs and it is hard for them to admit they need to learn. Small steps may be required at first," suggests Dunn. A natural inclination of cognitive-based executives is to try to fix the systems and processes in an organisation because they are tangible, whereas human behaviour and culture are quite esoteric. "In developing neuroplasticity, the aim is to create self-authorship, so people learn how to do it for themselves forever, rather than develop a dependency on coaching."

Dunn believes the need to change hardwired behaviour has become more important in today's business world. The next generation of employees is rejecting authoritarian leadership, so empathy and the ability to inspire and invite voluntary contribution are increasingly important. "If you look at new work done on engagement, it is about creating an environment that is more flexible and tolerant where people can blossom," Dunn says. "Apple and Google are examples of organisations that have developed a culture that allows rapid innovation so they can take bright young people and help them to reach their potential."

Change is also occurring at the tertiary level. And the legal profession is leading the way. Sparked by a rising suicide rate among young graduates, the education in law schools is being transformed, making social skills development part of the curricula. "It's about creating a better environment for people to explore their potential in a way that also serves the team, group and organisation," Dunn says.
comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe now

BusinessThink is a free online publication. By subscribing, the latest edition will be delivered to your inbox once a month.

​ ​
Print PDF