"Compassion is the key": Management guru Prof Richard Boyatzis

  • Books
  • Wednesday, 29 Jan 2020

Professor Richard Boyatzis is an organisational theorist and expert in the field of emotional intelligence, behavior change and competence. He heads the Department of Organizational Behavior, Psychology and Cognitive Science at Case Western Reserve University in the US. Photo: Handout

Business leaders are always struggling with the question of how to motivate, engage and inspire positive change in employees across industries. As a renowned expert on leadership and emotional intelligence, Prof Richard Boyatzis has joined with two colleagues to author a book that provides a compelling answer to the challenge of increasing employee engagement and empowerment in the workplace.

In Malaysia, engagement among employees is an area needs improvement. According to management consulting service Aon Hewitt’s 2017 Trends in Global Employee Engagement Report, just 59% of workers felt good about their job. By the end of 2018, levels rose slightly to reach 63%. Despite the improvement, the message is clear: Malaysian business leaders need to inspire and reconnect with a disengaged workforce.

In the accessible Helping People Change: Coaching With Compassion For Lifelong Learning (see review here), Boyatzis and fellow professors Melvin Smith and Ellen Van Oosten offer a powerful mix of fascinating research, case studies, and practical guides to help people develop effective coaching strategies based on compassion rather than compliance.

Boyatzis heads the Departments of Organisational Behaviour, Psychology and Cognitive Science at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in Ohio, USA; however, he’s no stranger to Malaysia, having previously spent a number of years living and working in Kuala Lumpur helping leaders to develop effective coaching strategies.

In a 2019 email interview with StarLifestyle, he speaks about the book, discussing the importance of compassion in leadership, and sharing some insights from his decades-long research into leadership.

What motivated you and your colleagues to write this book?

When working in an aerospace research lab in 1966, I wondered why the managers were so poor at helping those of us doing the research. That led to my first research study in psychology with David Kolb, which we published. Forty-five years later, Ellen, Melvin and I decided to formalise our many research studies on coaching with forming the Coaching Research Lab.

At the same time, we created the first MOOC (massive online open course) on coaching and began outlining a book. We felt we finally had sufficient research to make our case (39 longitudinal behavioural studies, three f MRI and two hormonal studies).

Having trained coaches at CWRU since 1989, it felt like the world of development was at a tipping point with regard to valuing coaching. Now the quest was to help people do it better.

Over decades of researching effective leadership, what have been one or two key observations?

The same behaviours that enabled leaders to be effective in the 1960s and 1970s are still dominant forces today: caring for others and empathy; emotional self-awareness and self-control; being able to inspire others through vision; and so on.

My two most salient insights are that leadership is a high-quality relationship, and that inspiring basic emotions like hope, compassion and mindfulness are the key ingredients for effective leadership relationships.

Can you elaborate on the point in the book about the importance of leaders being aware of the role emotions play in effecting change?

When you do neurological research, it becomes clear that there are few thoughts that occur in your brain that are not also attached to emotions. When people in leadership focus on tasks, problems and goals to the exclusion of emotions and people, they repeatedly activate a neural network that aids in problem solving but suppresses openness to new ideas and people. You literally close their minds. The emotions aroused in those cases are defensive and stress related.

Why is there still a lack of awareness or a reluctance to embrace compassion in leadership?

Most leaders and people in business are defensive. They focus on goals, financials, and see people as problem-bearing platforms or human resources to be fixed, utilised and squeezed. They are closing themselves to adaptation, innovation and reducing engagement of the workforce. The engagement surveys show that.

Leaders are to inspire people, who inspire other people, who inspire other people who actually do the work. Many, if not most, forget that their performance depends on people.

How can coaching with compassion help employees disengaged from their roles?

Coaching for compliance activates a defensive set of neural networks and hormonal systems. As a result, people are cognitively, perceptually and emotionally impaired. Coaching with compassion activates a different set of neural networks, hormones and emotions. These wake people up and help them want to bring their talent to work.

From an organisation’s perspective, how does coaching with compassion benefit business overall?

It enables people to feel committed and engaged. They bring their talent to work.

From the research, we know they are more productive, efficient, adaptive and innovative, are better organisational citizens (ie, they do more than their job requires). They are also positively contagious with others – helping people get excited and bring more energy and capability to work.

In research studies, we have shown it results in higher revenues, higher profit margins, more product and service innovations, greater retention of key people, better financial performance and market growth as compared to their competitors to list a few of the results.

If there’s one thing that you’d like people to understand about leadership, what would that be?

You cannot be a leader without followers. And people who report to you are not necessarily following you. Be inspired and you will inspire others.

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