Understand Your People



Understand and Lead Your People

Catering to the intrinsic motivation of your people is what unleashes the greatest performance. If you help them be happier at work, they will have more energy. If you help them find meaning, they will have more drive. If you help them feel connected, they will have more commitment. And if you allow them to contribute in meaningful ways, they will feel appreciated. When you manage to lead for these foundational human drivers, your people will be more fulfilled, collaborative, and productive.

If you don’t lead for peoples’ intrinsic motivation, they will at best lack engagement and fulfillment. At worst, they will be unhappy and actively resist. Without a clear understanding of what motivates people, even technically gifted and well-intentioned leaders can unknowingly create an indifferent—or even hostile—work environment.

MSC leadership enables intrinsic motivation. Mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion are universal languages that are understood by everyone. They are innate human qualities in which status and authority do not get in the way of true human connectedness. Mindfulness makes your people feel seen and heard. Selflessness gives your people space to develop and do what they do best. Compassion helps your people feel safe and connected. MSC leadership is the easiest and most effective way to bring out the best in your people.

But just knowing and understanding MSC leadership won’t get you far. You must live it, breathe it, and embody it. It must be more than just words or intentions. It must be translated into daily actions and behavior. The next chapters and their practices will provide you with a clear roadmap for leading your people with MSC leadership.

Good leadership starts by really understanding your people. You must understand what they think, what they feel, and what matters most to them. Only then can you enable their engagement, commitment, and performance. But this can be a challenge. To help facilitate your understanding of others, part 2 opens with a chapter that will deepen your knowledge of human behavior and motivation. Chapter 6 answers the following questions: How can you better understand your people? How can you manage your mind in a way that creates less unconscious bias and helps you see the potential of your people?

The next three chapters in part 2 explore how to apply MSC leadership to the way you lead your people. Chapter 7 looks at how mindfulness helps to create better presence and trust. Chapter 8 explores how selflessness helps to get yourself out of the way and give space to your people. And chapter 9 examines how compassion—not to be confused with empathy—can create more kind, caring work environments.


Understand Your People

To lead your people, first you must understand them. You must understand what matters to them, what they think, and what they feel. Only then can you lead them for more meaning, happiness, and connectedness.

But there are challenges. First, we don’t see other people as they are, but as distorted through our own perceptions and unconscious biases. And second, they’re not what they say and think, but rather what they experience and feel. Take a moment to test your own unconscious biases. Imagine you receive a message that your company has just hired a new chief technology officer.

  • According to your first instinct, is it a man or a woman?

  • How old is the new CTO?

  • What race is the new CTO?

  • How tall is the new CTO?

  • What car is the new CTO driving?

Did you imagine that the new CTO was a short Brazilian woman in her sixties, driving a big Ford pickup truck? Or did you imagine a tall Caucasian man in his early forties, driving a Tesla?

We all have unconscious biases. Our minds are constantly creating our perception of reality. And as leaders, that is a problem, because we don’t see our people as they are but as we are. To lead others effectively, we must learn to open our mind and avoid mental rigidness and judgment.

To meet the second challenge, we must understand emotions and how to skillfully manage them. Effective leadership is not about addressing reports and team members through their rationality, but instead through their emotions. It’s only once we learn to connect with emotions—starting with our own—that we have the potential to become truly inspiring and engaging leaders.

This chapter starts with understanding our biases and how we can overcome them by cultivating a beginner’s mind. We will then explore our emotional nature and the dark side of responding with empathy. Finally, we will look at how to manage emotions from an MSC leadership mind. But to start, we look at one of the biggest barriers to understanding others: our unconscious biases.

Unconscious Bias

We all have preconceived ideas, judgments, and biases that affect how we see others. Unconscious bias is a challenge for leaders because it makes us reflexively pigeonhole our people and prevents us from seeing their potential and what really motivates them.

See if you can relate to an experience of a senior director whom we worked with at a global financial services company. She was frustrated with a member of her team who often complained about other departments, the weather, missing information, and so forth. As a result, she had formed a perception of him as a chronic complainer—as a glass-is-half-empty pessimist who liked to focus solely on the negative.

One day, during a team meeting, the individual opened a discussion on how information was shared within the team. Before he could finish his sentence, the senior director shook her head, thinking, “Here we go again.” She cut him off and asked to move to the next item on the agenda.

Bewildered, the rest of the team stared at her.

The individual had presented a constructive strategy to overcome a significant issue they were all experiencing. But the senior director dismissed it out of hand. Certain of her preconceived bias, she’d stopped listening as soon as she heard the slightest hint of a complaint. It was only after everyone at the meeting objected that she realized the downside of her own fixed mindset. She’d almost lost a time- and money-saving solution—one that would benefit the entire team—because she couldn’t see beyond her initial judgment of this one employee.

Unconscious biases prevent us from seeing what’s right in front of us. For example, studies have demonstrated how unconscious biases impact hiring decisions. In one such study, researchers created fictitious resumes to respond to help-wanted ads and randomly assigned either African American– or white-sounding names. Those with white-sounding names received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews and callbacks were more responsive to resume quality for white names than for African American ones.

Unconscious bias prevents us from seeing people as they are and from hearing what people are truly saying. They make us see the world as we are, not as it is. This is an important point. In truth, we don’t see others and our world as it is. Our minds create our reality. From a neurological perspective, when we see something for the first time, we create a mental image of it. The next time we see the same thing, or something similar, within split seconds the mind brings up the mental image—and that is what we see.  This is called habitual perception.

Our mind loves to put people, objects, and ideas into boxes—neat and orderly containers we can understand in an instant. On one hand, this can be very useful. It makes us effective in navigating a complex reality. Life would be overwhelming if we didn’t organize and label things. Think about it this way: you wouldn’t get much done if every time you saw someone you had to think about who they were and how to relate to them.

On the other hand, this tendency also has a downside. The way you see your people is much less determined by who they are and much more by your history. In other words, your mind—like the senior director’s—has programmed you to interpret reality in a certain way. This includes the people who populate your reality. Clearly, such an approach is not beneficial to your ability to truly understand your people. If you see your people in only one way, your expectations of them will be limited.

Consider what unconscious biases you might have about your team members or other colleagues. What fixed ideas are playing in your mind when you meet with them? Do you tend to listen more attentively to men or to women? Do you listen more attentively to younger or older individuals? Take a moment to think of five of the most important people you interact with, and ask yourself what unconscious biases you have of them. Once you acknowledge and understand these biases, you can begin to see individuals and problems from a clearer perspective—from what we call the “beginner’s mind.” And this allows you to overcome those biases and more effectively engage your people.

The Beginner’s Mind

A beginner’s mind is the ability to avoid the trap of unconscious bias and habitual perception. A beginner’s mind is the ability to see every person and situation—and ourselves—with fresh eyes. To see what is really there instead of what we expect to see.

With mindfulness, we train our mind to see with fresh eyes, moment by moment. We’re literally training ourselves to be fully awake and alert to everything we perceive and not to give in to our unconscious biases.

Having a beginner’s mind is not easy for anyone, but it can be especially difficult for leaders. Victor Ottati, a psychology professor at Loyola University Chicago, has found that people who perceive themselves as experts in a certain field have an enhanced level of close-mindedness. Social norms allow experts to adopt a relatively rigid, dogmatic orientation. As leaders, we’re generally perceived as experts, at least in managing our organizations. This makes us more close-minded—which our people readily accept because of hierarchy. It’s a non-virtuous circle.

John Hansen, senior vice president at the LEGO Group, shared with us how, in the early years of his leadership, he was on a learning curve for avoiding unconscious bias. He applied a beginner’s mind to his people, especially in situations where friction seemed to arise between him and them: “I found that the friction was most often due to misunderstandings, rather than actual opposing points of views.” Out of this insight, he developed a habit to cultivate a beginner’s mind to better see things from the other person’s point of view: “I found that the most effective way of getting on the same page was to ask questions. Now, it is a habit for me; whenever there is tension or misunderstandings, I try to keep asking questions, rather than giving answers, until there is a shared understanding.”

Mindfulness makes us more open-minded. Mindfulness training helps us develop the ability to view other people with fresh eyes. When we train our minds in mindfulness, we open our minds to seeing and experiencing more of what is going on both internally and externally, which helps us recognize when we’re putting someone in a box. It also raises our awareness of the stories we create in our mind about other people. Of course, it is essential that we make use of and learn from experience, but we need to balance this experience with an open mind. Facts may have changed, circumstances might be new, and people might surprise us.

To better understand our people, curiosity is an essential and powerful tool. When a team member comes into your office and shares a challenge, force yourself to pause and invite curiosity. Ask more questions; provide fewer answers. And when you ask questions, listen closely to the answers, and then ask more questions.

You can also influence how your people behave through the way you treat them. When we relate to others while expecting them to be a certain way, our expectations can shape their behavior and performance. In other words, if you choose to see your people as high performers, it has the potential to lead to better performance.

Don’t be misled by how obvious or simple this idea sounds. One of the most difficult things for us to do as human beings—especially as smart, successful leaders—is to alter our views about people and situations we have experienced before. Especially in stressful situations, we all know how hard it can be to take the time to ask questions rather than shoot out answers, because the mind is wired to identify and process information based on pattern recognition. It takes effort for us to challenge ourselves not to assume that we know what someone is about to say or that we have seen that problem before and the answer is the same. But if we don’t, we can miss information and fail to engage our people.

Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott, knows that if he is not present and curious about the people he is with, he learns nothing. In addition, it would fail to convey his genuine interest in them. When Arne tours Marriott hotels around the world, presence and curiosity are what help him to truly understand and connect with people in the organization, the overarching business, and its challenges. Being mindfully curious helps him overcome the CEO bubble described in chapter 4.

Make it a habit to ask at least one meaningful question of anyone you’re with. Not only will you know that person better, she or he will also know you care. But being curious and overcoming unconscious biases is only part of the journey toward better understanding others. The next step is understanding emotions.

Understanding Emotions

Emotions drive behavior in the office, often much more than we’re aware of. To be more effective leaders, we need to become more attuned to our own emotions as well to those of the people around us. This may come as a surprise, but as leaders we’re not as rational as we think, and we’re not leading rational beings so much as leading their emotions.

We all want to believe that we’re rational beings, but we’re not. We think we react rationally, but we don’t. And this means we expect our people to behave rationally, but they don’t. They can’t. That’s not how we’re wired; that’s not how they’re wired. Understanding this enables better leadership.

Emotions steer much of our behavior and daily decision making, often in unconscious ways. For example, across twenty-six countries, the amount of sunshine recorded on a given day and the stock market performance on that day are positively correlated. If we were truly rational beings, sunshine would not impact how financial markets operate. But it does, and so do many other factors, some that we are aware of but many that we are not.

It’s like an iceberg; the majority of the mass is hidden under the surface. And it’s this unseen mass that determines what direction the iceberg floats. Similarly, in situations of stress and pressure, people typically act less rationally, because they’re driven by emotions such as fear or anxiety.

Paul Zollinger-Read, chief medical officer at the UK-based global healthcare organization Bupa was a medical doctor before joining Bupa. His experience of working with patients, who are stressed and anxious because of their illnesses, has proven very valuable for him in supporting his employees when they are under pressure. “I have learned that when conflicts or collaboration issues arise in professional teams, it is often really not about the subject matter, but rather the emotional state of the people in the team. When we feel under pressure, we act with less mental clarity, and problems arise.” Because the problem is not the subject matter, but the emotional state of people, Paul focuses on that rather than on the perceived problem. “Giving people’s emotions space, attention, and care, can solve a lot,” he shared with us.

To be clear, emotions are neither good nor bad. Emotions have a purpose and are essential for normal human functioning and socializing. And as leaders, it’s imperative that we understand the role of emotions, so we can connect with our people, not just on strategy and tasks but also on a fundamental human level. It’s only when we create emotional resonance between ourselves and our people that we enable true connectedness. Whether we’re aware of it—and whether we want to accept it or not—true engagement happens when people feel connected on an emotional level. Why? Because emotions are both universal and contagious.

Emotions Are Universal

Paul Ekman, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of the best-selling book Emotions Revealed, is arguably the world’s leading expert on emotions. For years, he traveled the world while researching human emotions across cultures. He concluded that everyone has five universal emotions—enjoyment, fear, disgust, sadness, and anger—regardless of genes, upbringing, or culture.

In other words, when it comes to emotions, we are all alike.

Ekman spent years developing an “atlas” of emotions to support others in being able to understand and navigate them better. According to this atlas, the five universal emotions can be experienced to different degrees. For instance, anger can move from annoyance to frustration, exasperation, argumentativeness, bitterness, vengefulness, and end in fury. Additionally, our emotions serve an evolutionary purpose. Sadness is a cry for help. Fear makes us flee, freeze, or fight to avoid danger. And anger provides us with the drive to deal with difficult situations.

Ekman also found that our emotions present themselves in our facial expressions through incredibly rapid facial movements. These facial expressions, called micro expressions, last somewhere between one-fifteenth and one-twentieth of a second and are exceedingly difficult to consciously control. But although these expressions may only last an instant, other people pick up on them and are influenced by them consciously or unconsciously. Thus we carry our emotions on our face, no matter how much we may try to conceal them.10 These emotions are expressed through the forty-three muscles in our face. Enjoyment requires the fewest muscles and anger the most.

Emotions Are Contagious

In the office, our mood impacts the moods of those around us, whether we’re aware of it or not. Research has found that people in the same meeting end up sharing moods within two hours, regardless of whether that mood is good or bad. It happens because of a group of neurons in our frontal lobe called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are activated when we see others taking action or experiencing a feeling. These actions or feelings are then reflected inside our own brain. When we see someone smile, we’re compelled to smile. When a baby laughs, we laugh. In the workplace, mirror neurons connect us through our shared neurological experiences. When one person in the office is criticized unjustly, everyone feels it. When one person receives deserved praise, we all experience it. We’re deeply connected in this way, much more than many of us truly appreciate.

As a leader, your emotions have a bigger impact on others than do the emotions of the people you lead. Daniel Goleman, science journalist and author wrote: “The continual interplay of mirror neurons among members of a group creates a kind of emotional soup, with everyone adding his or her flavor. But it’s the leader who adds the strongest seasoning. Why? Everyone watches the boss.” It’s no wonder that a moody leader creates stressful and fearful environments, while a happy leader makes the team see everything in a more positive light. An upbeat leader has the most positive impact on productivity. That’s something to smile about.

Leading by recognizing, and acknowledging people’s emotions allows for true connectedness and following. The question is, how do we do it? In many leadership training books and programs, the answer is empathy. But empathy can be detrimental in leadership.

The Dangers of Empathy

To enhance engagement, many leaders are told they need to be more empathetic. Empathy is the skill of understanding and recognizing others’ feelings and perspectives. As a leader, that skill is obviously important. You cannot effectively lead someone you don’t understand. You can only motivate and influence a person when you know how he or she feels. There are good reasons that experts like Daniel Goleman have hailed empathy as a core competency of good leadership. Empathy increases life satisfaction, emotional intelligence, and self-esteem. People with high empathy have larger and more fulfilling social networks, are more social themselves, volunteer more readily, donate more to charity, and are more likely to help others in need.

Empathy is an enduring individual characteristic that’s relatively stable over time and across a life span. It can be increased through mindfulness training. Not surprisingly, Amazon’s search engine returns more than fifteen hundred books with the word empathy in the title, with many of them also including the words leadership and management. Research into the neurology of empathy, however, provides a more nuanced picture—at least from a leadership perspective. Empathy has some pitfalls that every leader should understand.

Empathy Can Lead to Poor Decisions

Empathy can be a poor moral guide. Yes, you read that correctly. Empathy often helps us do what’s right, but it also sometimes motivates us to do what’s wrong. Research by Paul Bloom, professor of cognitive science and psychology at Yale University and author of Against Empathy, discovered that empathy can distort our judgment. In his study, two groups of people listened to the recording of a terminally ill boy describing his pain. One group was asked to identify with and feel for the boy. The other group was instructed to listen objectively and not engage emotionally. After listening to the recording, each person was asked whether they would move the boy up a prioritized treatment list constructed and managed by medical doctors. In the emotional group, three-quarters of participants decided to move him up the list against the opinion of medical professionals, potentially putting sicker individuals at risk. In the objective group, only one-third of the participants made the same recommendation.

This study demonstrates how empathy triggers our altruistic impulses, resulting in poor judgment that could harm many people for the benefit of one person. As leaders, empathy may cloud our moral judgment. It encourages bias and makes us less effective at making wise decisions.

Empathy Can Hamper Diversity

Studies find that humans empathize more easily with people similar to themselves. Even animals that resemble us receive more of our empathy. Just think of a baby seal with it big round eyes, as opposed to a chicken. Which would you more readily kill and eat? They are both living beings with the instincts to avoid danger and death. Yet we discriminate. We’re more likely to kill and eat the chicken with its small, cold eyes and feathers. Similarly, we easily empathize with our neighbor whose car is stolen and less easily with the homeless person on the street.

Much in the same way, we unconsciously empathize with colleagues who are similar to us. We tend to offer them better assignments and better positions, all unknowingly. Empathy can also mislead us to hire and promote those like ourselves. It can create an organization that suffers from lack of diverse perspectives limiting problem solving and creativity.

Empathy Can Be Too Narrow

It’s hard to truly empathize with more than one or two people at the same time. Try it. Take a moment to have true empathy with two people close to you. Right now. Feel their challenges. Feel what they feel.

Difficult? Maybe impossible.

The mind—or heart—simply can’t hold such different emotions at the same time. Empathy for one can be difficult; for two, even more so. As a leader, we often need to consider the different perspectives and concerns of multiple people at the same time. Empathy is simply too constricting to help us effectively navigate multiple perspectives and concerns.

Empathy Can Lead to Distress

Taking on the suffering and troubles of others is tough. For a moment, imagine being an emergency room doctor, treating victims of traffic accidents, violence, and other horrific injuries. You see people hurt, some even dying. You see the pain of relatives losing loved ones. Hour after hour, day after day.

A well-known reaction to this type of situation is empathetic numbness, simply shutting down our emotional reaction to others. As a result of seeing all this carnage, doctors shut down their emotional life. Too much empathy in some situations can lead to distress. A US study found that 60 percent of medical professionals suffer from or have suffered from burnout. A third of them have been affected to the point of having to take a sabbatical from their jobs.

As leaders, there are many times when members of our team will face tough situations. They may lose a big client. They may not get the promotion they wanted. They may get into a conflict with another member of the team. If we take on the disappointment, anger, frustration, or impatience of the people who report to us, we will become exhausted. Empathy in leadership can drain us.

Empathy Is Fleeting

Empathy can make us passionate and fierce—for a moment. Studies have found that this energy often dissipates before we can take any meaningful action. Feelings are fickle. Social media offers a great example of this phenomenon. A photo of a young refugee child washed up on a European shore inspires millions of Facebook users to donate millions of dollars on the day the photo appears. But in the days that follow, something else has captured our attention, and the refugee crisis is all but forgotten. Few took long-term action.

Empathy is good, but it must be combined with constructive action to have real impact. Empathy without the skill and discipline to stand back, judge objectively, and act accordingly is worth little. Supporting an employee who has had a death in his family is important, but it’s the discipline to check in, repeatedly over time, that makes the real difference.

So if empathy is not the answer to skillfully lead emotional beings, what is? The answer is MSC leadership.

Managing Emotions with MSC Leadership

Emotions are just energy in motion, in our body and our mind. There is nothing inherently good or bad, positive or negative about emotions. When we’re mindful, we’re aware of these emotions—this energy—as it plays out during the day. Being aware of these emotions is the first step to managing them.

A natural human reaction to emotions is to either suppress them or act them out. Suppressing our emotions is like trying to hold down the lid on a boiling pot of water. At some point, it will boil over. And in the process, it drains our energy and narrows our perspective. Acting out our emotions, whether aggressively or passive-aggressively, might feel good in the moment, but in the long run, it usually leads to disappointment, regret, or shame. Think of emotional suppression and acting out as being on opposite sides of a seesaw. Putting your weight on either end throws everything off balance.

Because emotions are fueled by our reactions to them, the greater our reaction, the more energy our emotions build. The mindful approach to emotions is to cut short the reactions of suppression or acting out by developing the ability to embrace emotions as they arise. This means looking our emotions in the eye and not reacting to them. Facing our emotions requires courage and mental strength, the courage to endure the discomfort of raw emotion and the strength to stay with this discomfort as long as it lasts.

This in turn requires a healthy level of selflessness and nonattachment to our emotions. If we can distance ourselves from our emotions, we can observe them more objectively. With training, observing our emotions can be like watching a movie: you’re not the movie, and the movie is not you. In the same way, your emotion is not you, and you’re not the emotion. You may have anger, but you are not anger. The anger is just a part of your current experience.

Another core reason selflessness can help us better manage our emotions is because we can avoid taking things personally. When something upsetting happens to us, our ego has a natural orientation to look for someone to blame. But although bad things can happen to us, we are the only one who can control our reactions. You cannot make me angry. You can do something that I react to with anger, but ultimately, how I react is not in your control. I alone can choose how to respond.

If we face emotions neutrally and without ego, they lose their grip. It may take seconds or minutes, but it passes. Managing our emotions like this, over time, dismantles their power.

Mark Twain once said, “I have lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Emotions seem so real, so concrete. In truth, they’re like bubbles waiting to be popped. And when we learn to pop them—to manage our own emotions—we’re better able to connect with others rather than merely react to their emotions. And instead of having just empathy, we wisely use it to respond with compassion.

Empathy is the tendency to feel others’ emotions and take them on as if you were feeling them as well. Compassion is the ability to understand others’ perspectives and use that as a catalyst for supportive action. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner describes the difference as follows: “To show empathy is to see someone suffering under the weight of a great burden and respond by putting the same burden on yourself. Compassion is the act of alleviating the person from the burden.” The two have very different outcomes.

Helena Gottschling, chief human resources officer of the Royal Bank of Canada, shared with us how she uses emotional resonance and compassion to support her people. In the recent past, a leader came to her, upset about a decision that had negatively impacted him. He felt that he’d been treated unfairly—and he was very vocal about his concerns.

Helena could have responded by justifying the decision, offering a detailed, rational argument for the change. But as she explained to us, “In that moment, I knew he wouldn’t have reacted well to an explanation. He was caught in the grip of his emotions.”

So instead, she listened intently to him. She wanted to understand his perspective and give him the space to feel heard. She was careful not to offer any indication that she agreed with his arguments, while still demonstrating a genuine concern for his feelings. After giving him time and space to express his frustration, she invited him to take some time to look at the situation from another point of view. “I asked him to consider other people’s perspective, to think about the team expectations. Then I assured him we’d follow up after he had some time to reflect.” By resonating with the leader’s emotions, Helena was able to diffuse a passionate, overly charged situation. Then, by applying compassion, she was able to provide him with a concrete next step toward trying to actively address the situation.

Emotional resonance and compassion are invaluable for leadership and relating to others, particularly in challenging work situations. Rather than taking on others’ emotions and problems, with compassion you can help them diffuse the issues and move on.

When we manage our own emotions and manage to resonate with those we lead, we enhance connections and engagement. In subsequent chapters, we will look in greater detail at how to lead others with mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion.

Quick Tips and Reflections

  1.  Consider what biases—conscious or unconscious—you may have about people you work with; pick one that you are going to make a conscious effort to overcome.
  2.  Challenge yourself to be more curious, ask more questions, and consider other possibilities and perspectives; experiment with having more of a beginner’s mind in your daily work.
  3.  Consider what emotions you regularly bring to the work environment; reflect on how these emotions influence your colleagues.
  4.  The next time you experience a difficult emotion, pause and face it; find the courage to be uncomfortable with the discomfort until you are ready to consider an appropriate response.
  5.  Consider the downsides of empathy and how you can be more aware of avoiding the traps you might be susceptible to.






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