It was a difficult moment in the history of the BBC, the venerable British media organization: an experimental news division had not met expectations, and after a trial year was being shut down.

Making a Bad Situation Worse

A top-level executive was sent to deliver the bad news, and did it in the worst way. With a haughty tone he said he had just come from a media convention in Monte Carlo where he heard from competitive news outfits how well they were doing - and then announced that this experimental division had done so poorly that they were closing it. As he went on in this tone, the staff became more and more disgruntled - even outright hostile - to the point that the building security folks had to help him exit the room.

A Positive Perspective

The next day another executive came to the division to talk over the change. He started by saying that his career had been in journalism, like them, and that their livelihood rose and fell with the economy - and no one went into the field to get rich. He talked about times he had been let go, and how he had found new opportunities. And he ended by reminding them that journalists are essential to a democracy, serving as the central nervous system, delivering key information to all, a noble calling.

When he finished, he got a standing ovation.

This leadership moment came up when I was talking with George Kohlrieser of IMD (the business school in Lausanne, Switzerland) who gives seminars on high-performance leadership to executives around the world. We were talking about the huge difference between leaders who connect with the people around them, and those who do not.

The Consequences of Failing to Connect

In George's view, the failure to connect means a leader misfires, lowering business performance. On the other hand, high performance comes as a result of a leader connecting effectively with on-target messages. People feel seen and understood, cared about and protected - and that caring connection lets folks dare to experiment and innovate, create and learn.

The philosopher Martin Buber called it the difference between "I-It," and "I-Thou." In an I-It relationship, a leaders do not tune into those being led, and do not care about the emotional or motivational impact of what they do and say. In an "I-Thou" connection, leaders tune in and empathize, sense how their words and actions are impacting people, and send messages that put people in a positive, motivated, high-performance frame of mind.

Connection and Emotional Climate

Research supporting this comes from Hay Group, the consultancy branch of Korn Ferry. Several thousand executives were assessed on their leadership style, and their direct reports were asked in confidence about the emotional climate created by that leader. If a leader used styles that connect - like coaching or finding consensus, for example - the resulting climate was highly positive. But if the leader relied on styles that disconnect - like the command-and-control mode where you just give I-It orders - the climate turned negative.

A negative climate creates disengagement, resentment, and disloyalty. A positive climate energizes, creating enthusiasm, loyalty, and high performance. The Hay Group data found the differences in climate reflected in business performance, with the negative styles lowering results, and the positive styles raising it.

Making the Connection

Here's the bottom line message for leaders from these studies: making the connection matters. Ask yourself:

  • How much do I connect with the people I interact with at work?
  • How aware am I of the emotional states of the people around me?
  • What leadership styles do I use?
  • Do I use leadership styles that foster connection?       

If you don't know the answers to these questions, ask for honest feedback from people who know you well and whose opinions you trust. Consider working with a coach and using an assessment tool like the Emotional and Social Competencies Inventory (ESCI) or another 360-degree feedback instrument.

Empathy Can Be Learned

What if your self-assessment shows that you need to build your "empathy muscles"? The good news is that empathy can be learned. The feeling parts of your brain that are the source of empathy can change with repeated experiences and practice. You can start by paying full attention to the person you are with, taking a moment to sense their emotional state. As I mention in my book, The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights, Tania Singer at the Max Planck Institute studies emotional empathy. She and her colleagues have designed training programs for the empathy circuitry that produce positive changes.