Turning Employee Disengagement Into Employee Creative Contribution

The Gallup Company® just released their annual report, The State of the American Workforce ~ 2013, and once again, employee engagement levels are woefully low.  Sadly, this isn’t news.  This has been consistently reported upon for at least ten years.  Addressing employee engagement represents the most cost effective way a company can improve productivity and profitability.  Here’s a few strategies that can make a difference in a few short months.

It’s an issue we’ve been discussing for years.  I first began addressing this issue in 2008 when I began writing my book, and in fact, one of my earliest blogs on our leadership development site explored this very topic.  While we speak with business leaders and HR executives every day, we hear them expressing their desire to improve on collaboration, innovation, productivity and performance.  None of these objectives can emerge without first engaging the workforce, both cognitively and emotionally.  Yet, for some reason, the disconnect remains.  The recent Gallup study identifies only 30% of employees are engaged, 20% are actively disengaged (meaning their spreading discontent and working at cross purpose with their employers…actually destroying value), and 50% are disengaged, meaning they’re sleepwalking through their day.  Our additional research identifies the fact that upwards of 50% of many firms’ payrolls, their single largest expense line, is delivering little to no return on investment.

When we consider that in today’s New Economy, value creation in business emerges through the efficient commercialization of intellectual property, we must understand that human beings are the new raw material of production.  Now, if Henry Ford had been experiencing a scrap rate of 50% on steel, his raw material of the day, I think he would have found his way down to the factory floor and addressed it in relatively short order.  Yet, the Gallup study reveals this endemic situation has been steady since 2001.  Eleven years of leaving value lying fallow on industries’ floor.

How important is this issue for businesses, hospitals and our economy overall?  Let’s take a look…

The Business Case for Employee Engagement ~

Actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. economy an estimated $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity every year.

For a small to medium size company, with 100 employees averaging (on the low end) $45,000 in salary and benefits, actively disengaged employees are costing the business owner $1,350,000 in wasted compensation and, conservatively, another $500,000 in destroyed productivity of fellow associates.  Giving the sleepwalkers the benefit of the doubt, that they’re contributing something at least half of the time, are also costing the business owner $1,125,000 in wasted compensation.  As a business owner, can you afford to keep tossing approximately $3 million a year out the window?

Looking at the comparisons between companies in the top quartile of reported engagement, versus those in the bottom quartile of engagement, higher engaged firms:

~ Score 10% higher in customer ratings

~ Are 22% more profitable

~ Have 65% lower turnover rates

~ Enjoy 37% lower absenteeism

~ Incur 48% fewer safety-related accidents

~ Experience 28% lower shrinkage

~ Create 41% fewer quality defects

~ Hospitals incur 41% fewer patient safety incidents

After twenty five years of leadership experience, in both corporate and entrepreneurial settings, and five years of research, application and validation of our philosophy and approach at Performance Transformation, LLC™, we know how to solve employee disengagement in five, relatively easy, and very cost affordable steps (you’ll actually lower your training and development expenses by following our suggestions while unleashing remarkable breakthroughs in productivity, creativity and innovation):

1.) Address the broken, traditional leadership development approach.  Over the past 20 years, corporations and institutions have invested upwards of $1 trillion in leadership development programs.  The results?  Thanks to Gallup’s study, we’re staring them right in the face…and McKinsey & Company reported in July, 2011 only 1% of “C” level and “one-step down” executives scored excellent in eight key leadership competencies.  Nearly 90% scored below average.  Leadership development based in the theories of behavioral psychology simply don’t work.  If you disagree, please show me the proof.  We must migrate to an approach based in neuroscience to address the underlying causation of behaviors in the workplace.  We must conduct leadership development around tangible business outcomes.  Experiential learning and immediate application, framed by an educationally-based coaching process is essential.  Demand a clear ROI to be reported on every developmental investment from your vendors.

2.) Help HR bring their focus and practices into the landscape of the 21st Century.  While line management is playing to win, based upon their historical charter of responsibilities, HR has little choice but to play not to lose.  Due to this, many HR practices have naturally evolved to be highly risk-averse at a time when boldness and leadership is most needed.  As an example, traditional Diversity & Inclusion training (another $8 billion per year expense with no discernible ROI) is archaic and typically a vacuous exercise lacking context, strategic communication, or business application.  D&I training needs to transform into Collaboration & Innovation learning.  We’re already diverse (companies are very multi-cultural and multi-generational, but still far too homogenous at the senior levels), but real inclusion cannot emerge without engagement.  Also, resist automating misaligned HR practices still rooted in the Industrial Age with Talent Management systems that are little more than CRM platforms turned inward.  First, process map your procedures and competency models to see if they’re actually in alignment with the rapidly changing needs of the business.  Then, and only then, migrate to systems that enable predictive analytics through the use of machine learning technology.  It is through this application that insights into the future will emerge rather than simply accelerating and duplicating the broken processes of the past.

3.) Stop spending money on foolish Team Building workshops.  Get down off the ropes courses, stop building toy boats in resort swimming pools, put the paint gun pistols down, and leave the trust falls to adolescent summer camps where they belong.  Many of these so-called team building activities are exclusionary to older workers, workers that may have physical limitations, or workers that have differing cultural concerns.  Want to cultivate collaborative behaviors?  Focus on cultivating relationship-based skills (i.e. Emotional Intelligence) and only conduct Team Building within the direct and immediate context of the business.  Invest in employee development using meaningful and science-based learning modalities.  The recent discoveries from the neurosciences provides us with rich insights into what truly matters and provides us with a roadmap for sparking lasting, meaningful neurological change in perspectives and orientations of one’s self, of others, and how we can engage in positive communication and open collaboration.

4.) Create an organizational culture that embraces and celebrates intrinsic values (authentic relationships, purposefulness, personal and professional development, being a part of something larger than one’s self, service to others) over extrinsic values (money, power, prestige).  Intrinsic values are core to human happiness while extrinsic values are anchored in culture and conditioning.  We were all born to care for one another; it’s part of our primary survival mechanism.  No other mammal on the planet is born more vulnerable or develops more slowly than human beings.  Without empathy and compassion, our natural, inborn attributes that enabled us to evolve over the past 80,000 years, we never would have survived as a species.  Leveraging intrinsic values engages the entire human continuum, transcending the superficial differences of cultural perspectives and generational orientations.

5.) Align and optimize transformational leadership, enlightened strategy and a highly engaging and inclusive organizational culture.  This is the primary theme of my book, The Transformational Entrepreneur ~ Engaging The Mind, Heart & Spirit For Breakthrough Business Success, published in February, 2011.  Companies that thrive follow this path.  This isn’t conjecture, the book provides historical facts and was cited by the academic Journal of Economic Literature in March, 2012.

It truly is this straight forward.  But if you want to thrive, and going forward, simply survive in business, the first step is up to you.  You have to want to make the change, awaken and take a few steps forward, and stop simply talking about it.

© 2013, Terry Murray.

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The Key To Creativity And Innovation Resides In HR ~ Just Ask Google

In case you may have missed it, Google’s stock price recently broke $800 per share, making them the third most valuable company in the world.  Outside of multi-national petroleum companies, the other leading firms on this list of value include Apple, Microsoft, IBM, GE, J&J, and Pfizer.  Companies that are all driven by innovation and their ability to effectively commercialize the creative collaboration of their most valuable resource…people.

An interesting article was recently published detailing Google’s approach to what is being called people analytics.  The fact is, human beings are the the raw material for value creation in the new economy.  This is something we’ve been speaking about for five years, but is just now starting to gain traction in the mainstream business community.  This doesn’t just apply to information technology companies, but all companies, because innovative thinking at every touch point in the organization is the key driver of competitive advantage.  To refer back to a term once bandied about in corporate circles; HR can no longer be viewed as a cost center, it is truly a Center of Excellence in today’s hyper-competitive world.

Google is reinventing the HR practice to reflect the strategic imperative of fully engaging passionate people to collaborate and innovate on an unprecedented level.  The article quoted two points that reveal their strategic perspective towards reinventing the HR practice:

1. “All people decisions at Google are based on data and analytics.”

2. Their focus is to “bring the same level of rigor to people-decisions that we do to engineering decisions.”

The article goes through ten, distinct steps that differentiate Google’s approach to the Human Resource function.  I’ll refrain from rehashing them here, but I will touch on the highlights of their approach.

Google is focused on identifying the top, currently relevant leadership competencies that fit their culture and business objectives.  Coaching and frequent employee feedback are at the core.

Google is employing a retention algorithm, an effective hiring algorithm, calculating the business value of top performers, and using predictive analytics to drive the value-creating, HR flywheel.

Google is applying experimental pilot initiatives to determine ‘best practices’ in people leadership that fit their business and strategy.

Google is focused on improving diversity, creating innovative and collaborative workplace design, and migrating from traditional ‘training’ to discovery, novelty and learning opportunities for their employees.

Google is using the resulting, forward-looking data these initiatives are generating to influence and convince internal managers of the wisdom and business value of these people-centric practices.

You’re probably thinking, “Yeah, well of course Google is using analytics and sophisticated algorithms.  These skills are core competencies that built their dominance in the search engine business.  But we don’t have those competencies…how do we adopt these new competitive practices?”

This is part of the beauty of the new economy we live in.  You don’t need to own competencies in order to take full advantage of their being out there in the landscape.  Our firm is a great example.  We’ve adopted an open-network structure (i.e. innovative and collaborative workplace design) that taps into the competencies we need, when we and our clients need them.  We’ve invested in partnerships that deliver platforms that deliver hiring and retention algorithms, machine learning systems for people practices, predictive analytics, and content collaboration platforms that accelerate value creation at a surprisingly reasonable cost.  Firms no longer need to buy these advanced competencies by hiring the brightest mathematicians hailing from MIT or Stanford.  They can lease the tools they need, when they need them.  Our firm integrates and adds value by providing the leadership development (experiential learning programs that create a shift in perspective; i.e. rewriting the human software running in our heads), aligned pilot program initiatives (i.e. Google’s experiments), and the metrics (i.e. forward looking data) to fully leverage these evidence-based approaches that will revolutionize Human Resource practices to fully drive competitive advantage.

The fact is, any firm can begin to lead and innovate like Google, Apple, IDEO and other thought-leading companies that understand the value of their human talent.  There’s a certain irony here, too.  The same dynamics that are driving such unprecedented, accelerating change are the same dynamics that are affordably delivering the practices and tools that any firm that wishes to lead the disruptive wave of the new strategic imperative of innovation, collaboration and value creation!

© 2013, Terry Murray.

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Scientific Study Demonstrates the Efficacy of Equine Facilitated Experiential Learning

Those of us employing a relationship-based approach to Equine Facilitated Experiential Learning (EFEL) in the personal and professional development business know how powerful the approach can be for our participants.  The success we’ve witnessed traveling the country these past four years conducting workshops, from Hawaii to Montana to Florida, has been remarkable.  We’ve seen rapid, developmental progress made in combat veterans, women leaving county jail, VA counselors, juveniles in detention, at-risk children, clinicians and business professionals.  The approach delivers a powerful shift in one’s perspective of self, others and how the interplay between human beings (and horses, too) has a biochemical, neurological and psychological affect that subtly defines the nature of our relationships.  Whether we’re leading a team of professionals, selling to prospects, or simply interacting with our friends and families.  We know this works because we’ve seen it working.

Now there’s a solid, scientific research study that confirms what we know anecdotally.  Researchers Patricia Pendry and Stephanie Roeter of Washington State University published the study, “Experimental Trial Demonstrates Positive Effects of Equine Facilitated Learning on Child Social Competence, in a 2012 edition of the professional journal, Human-Animal Interactions.  Conducted as an eleven week after-school program, the study demonstrated improvements in the youth’s’ self-confidence, self-esteem, school bonding, positive social behaviors, school grades and achievement test scores.  To quote Pendry and Roeter, “Results echo findings from prior correlational, anecdotal, and case study evidence, which suggest significant positive associations between participation in equine facilitated programs and various aspects of adjustment and wellbeing.  Faced with skepticism about the efficacy of equine facilitated programs by potential funders and third party payers, therapeutic professionals and clients can now point to causal evidence.  This may not only increase the public’s confidence in equine programs’ ability to positively affect child development, but also translate into increased structural support to increase accessibility to such programs.”1

At first glance, working with horses to develop mindful leaders, and creative, highly cohesive teams of knowledge workers may look a bit woo-woo.  It isn’t.  We’ve canvased over 200 peer-reviewed research studies in everything from affective neuroscience, biochemistry, applied behavioral economics, performance psychology, adult learning styles and even quantum physics to correlate and explain what is actually happening in our workshops.  Our approach incorporates this research to introduce and frame the lessons the participants are about to experience, in specifically designed horse/human relationship-based exercises, firsthand for themselves.  As we introduce business metaphors throughout the exercises, we see eyes widen as that ah-ha moment emerges when a lesson is embraced through self-reflection and self-discovery.  These kinesthetic lessons are not easily forgotten.

The research pipeline for EFEL is beginning to fill and in the coming years I’m confident we’ll see even more validated results to the approach.  Validation of what we’ve learned experientially by conducting workshops these past four years.  If you are interested in learning more about our approach, we invite you to visit our website!

1.) Patricia Pendry, Stephanie Roeter, “Experimental Trial Demonstrates Positive Effects of Equine Facilitated Learning on Child Social Competence”, Human-Animal Interaction, 2012, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1-19.

© 2013, Terry Murray.

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Terry Murray to be Recurring, Regular Guest on Patricia Raskin’s Positive Business® Show

I’m very excited to announce that I will be an ongoing, regular guest on Patricia Raskin’s Positive Business Show, starting this Friday.  On tomorrow’s program, we will be discussing how companies can leverage intrinsic goals and values in balance with traditional, extrinsic goals and values to engage and inspire today’s modern workforce.  The program will air live this Friday at 4:30 p.m., E.D.T., on both syndicated terrestrial radio stations and streaming via the internet (please click on Patricia Raskin’s Positive Business Show for more information).  You’re also invited to join in the conversation by calling (888) 345-0790!

Historically, companies have focused almost exclusively on leveraging extrinsic goals and values.  Things like money, image, and status are used to motivate employees.  Research demonstrates that people that are consumed with the pursuit of extrinsic goals are less happy and as a result, less healthy, creative and adaptive in their work and lives.  This is a major contributor to today’s endemic employee disengagement crisis.  Three independent research studies indicate approximately 70% of employees are cognitively and emotionally disengaged with their employer.

Extrinsic values reflect powerful aspects of culture.  What one culture values above all else, another may simply dismiss.  The same is true from generation to generation, even within a single culture.  Workers from Gen X and Gen Y are seeking an entirely different experience from their careers compared to members of the Baby Boomer generation.  Trying to leverage the homogenous, extrinsic, shared goals of a past generation ring hollow in today’s multi-cultural, multi-generational workforce.

The beautiful thing about moving toward intrinsic goals and values is they are universal to the human experience.  Intrinsic goals include personal and professional growth, authentic relationships, and a desire to be of service to others.  Research demonstrates people that pursue intrinsic goals are measurably happier than those chasing extrinsic goals.  Why does happiness matter in the workplace?  Well, it is not so much about people being happy at work as it is people being happy with their work.  That’s the key to engagement, the fundamental prerequisite for creative thinking, innovation, and adaptability; the mission critical drivers of value creation in today’s Idea Economy.

I hope you have a chance to join us tomorrow!  It should be a fun and lively conversation.

© 2012, Terry Murray.

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Setting the Wheels of Creativity into Motion

Many organizations struggle with fully understanding the importance of creative thinking, the need for its presence at every touchpoint in the business, and the role it plays in today’s rapidly changing world.  It isn’t just about writing a new app, or engineering a new widget, it is about being pro-actively adaptive with every business process we employ.  The workplace is more diverse, both culturally and generationally, than at any other point in history.  The one-size-fits-all approach to leadership, one honed and fine-tuned for the Industrial Age, is as obsolete as Ford Model T’s and Crosby Radios.  The proof lies in the endemic, employee disengagement crisis that grips global corporations.  Gallup, the Chartered Management Institute and the Society for HR Management have all released studies over the past couple of years that consistently identify 70% of employees are cognitively and emotionally disengaged with their employer.  (I invite you to peruse the pages of this site and click on the charts and graphs to fully explore the extent of this problem).

Pointing out the problem is easy, but we believe we have discovered the solution.  We’ve invested nearly five years of canvasing the peer-reviewed, published research, developing and validating a fresh approach to cultivating a sustainable, creative organizational culture.  Here’s what we’ve learned:

Leadership must migrate from a transactional to a transformational approach.

Transactional leadership, one based in command-and-control philosophies, was seen as essential in order to mobilize and control tens of thousands of factory workers during the Industrial Age.  This approach is still visible in corporations today as they quickly adapt to the changing environment.  It was how we were trained back in the 1970s and 1980s by leaders that came up through the ranks in the 1950s and 1960s.  This two dimensional approach of reward and punishment leverages extrinsic goals and values to drive performance.  Extrinsic goals and values include things like money, image and status.  Those of us old enough probably worked for a company where we all wore white shirts and Italian suits in order to be taken seriously.  Unfortunately research clearly demonstrates extrinsic goals and values do not contribute to happiness.

Traditional leaders often balk at this concern for worker happiness.  They’re here to work.  They can be happy on their own time…and while you’re at it, please leave your emotions at the company door.  This isn’t how human beings are wired.  It isn’t about being happy at work insomuch as it is about people being happy with their work.  There’s a distinct difference.  People unhappy with their work are incapable of investing their creative energies in their work.  They become disengaged.

Transformational leadership is inclusive whereas transactional leadership is inherently exclusive.  This is a contributing factor in the growing disparity of wealth and the erosion of the middle class.  Even Henry Ford knew that, without a middle class, he wouldn’t have customers to buy his cars.  It is why he instituted a $5 a day, minimum pay level for his assembly line workers nearly a hundred years ago.

Organizational culture must migrate from leveraging extrinsic goals and values to cultivating intrinsic goals and values.

The primary limitation of harnessing extrinsic goals as the driver of growth and performance is something called the hedonistic treadmill.  Human beings are remarkably adaptable by their very nature.  When we make more money, acquire more things, and confuse our authentic identity with image and status we adapt to that level of comfort and desire more.  If we are only motivated by the pursuit of the material, we quickly adapt to our standard of living, live up to our means, and desire more and more.  Research clearly demonstrates this motivation is insatiable because it is unsatisfying.  Like a drug addict, we build a resistance to affluence and need higher doses of distractions to satisfy an unsettled mind.

On the other hand, allowing the space for intrinsic goals and values to take root sparks engagement; the fundamental pre-requisit for creativity in the workplace.  Intrinsic goals include things like personal development, authentic relationships and a desire to be of service to our fellow citizens.  Interestingly, the research shows people that are motivated by intrinsic goals and values are measurably happier than those pursuing extrinsic goals.  Research conducted by Dr. Jaak Panksepp in the field of Affective Neuroscience has proven our Core Mammalian Emotional System, something we share with all mammals, is part of our ancient hardwiring.  The emotions of caring, playfulness and seeking are just as present as those of fear, panic and rage.  Leverage the positive emotions in the workplace and you will get a predictable result; engagement, cooperation and creativity.  Leverage the negative emotions and you will also get a predictable result; disengagement, passive-aggressive behavior, and internal competition.  This is the difference between transformational and transactional leadership.

The once homogenous business landscape dominated by white, male Baby-Boomers exemplified both transactional leadership and the pursuit of shared, extrinsic goals and values.  The apex of this approach brought us the financial crisis of 2008 that still resonates today.  Most importantly, this approach to leadership and culture doesn’t speak to Gen X, Gen Y or workers from many cultures that are fundamentally different than the American culture of our forefathers.

Culture happens.  Whether you plan for it or not. Make mindful culture, and transformational leadership development, strategic imperatives.

While this sounds like a bumper sticker we all have seen, it’s true.  Organizational culture will evolve on its own, unfettered by any forethought, if left to itself.  Strategic planning must move beyond the levers of managerial control and the allocation of resources to understanding and incorporating the human element in the 21st century.

The only way to achieve and sustain creativity advantage within an organization is to open the space for personal development, authentic relationships, and service to others to emerge.  Leaders that embrace this perspective will not only win the Talent Wars, but will establish a flourishing preferential advantage in the Age of Ideas.

© 2012, Terry Murray.

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The Role of Creativity and Learning in the New Economy

I recently came across an interesting interview with Laurence Shatkin, a career information expert and author of several books on career trends.  In the interview, Dr. Shatkin pointed out the trends many of us have seen over the past several years; the march towards automation and offshoring.  While this doesn’t come as any surprise, his insights into the effects of these trends are fascinating.  To summarize, he commented that it is the mid-level skilled jobs that are being hollowed out of the jobs market in the U.S. while low skilled and high skilled positions are growing.  Combine this with the fact that many companies are not inclined to invest in training their employees (you can read a related blog on that subject here) for fear that they’ll simply take their skills elsewhere and we’re faced with quite the conundrum as a society.

What I found most compelling was his quote, “One of the most important skills is the ability to learn, because in 10 years, many people will be using workplace technologies and business practices that barely exist now.”  He went on to add that in 20 years people will be performing jobs that don’t even exist today.  I couldn’t agree more.  For the past four years we’ve been developing a fresh approach to leadership and business practices that align with the Idea Economy of the 21st century.  Many of the challenges we face are rooted in the seismic shift that has occurred beneath the feet of executive management tethered to the Industrial Age.  Migrating from Transactional Leadership (light on rewards, heavy on punishment) that evolved in order to mobilize tens of thousands of assembly line workers, to an approach of Transformational Leadership (some call this service leadership) is no minor task.  Especially when it was a Transactional Leadership style that propelled many business leaders to their position of power, influence and wealth that they enjoy today.  How can their leadership style be deficient when it has served them so well personally?  Well, you may want to ask the 70% of employees that are disengaged and dissatisfied with their work (three separate studies from major consulting firms all confirm this figure).

Unfortunately, our educational system was designed to serve the Industrial Age as well.  Remember the three Rs?  Readin’, ‘Ritin’, n’ ‘Rythmatic.  Industry needed people with basic reading and counting skills to work in factories.  This system has morphed into rote memorization in order to meet standardized tests that drive federal funding of schools.  No thinking required, but aren’t we educating people and not parrots?  The fact is, we don’t teach people how to learn.  This is a continuous, life-long process that is critical for adaptability and developing creative solutions to unprecedented change.

Combine this with that 70% disengagement level I mentioned (engagement is the first step in cultivating creative employees) and one might think we may be losing our competitive edge in the world.  Well, guess what, we are losing our edge, having slipped two spots on the Global Competitiveness Report recently issued at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  The U.S. is now ranked 7th.

The demand for creativity workers is skyrocketing as well.  In a report just issued by Elance entitled The Global Online Employment Report, theystated, “More than 80,000 of the new jobs posted in Q2 were in the Creative category, up 60 percent over a year ago.”  Even occupations that have traditionally been associated with techies (i.e. software engineers) are now moving towards creatives in order to more fully engage customers.

So this is our landscape today.  An idea-driven, global economy based upon human creativity, multi-genereational and multi-cultural associates that struggle to understand and communicate with each other, businesses that would rather offshore and automate than train their associates, and an antiquated educational system that doesn’t teach critical thinking.  As business leaders, we better familiarize ourselves with this landscape because it is only accelerating.  Every day we cut another corner, squeeze another employee for more with little reward, cut our training budgets to puff up short term profits, we’re putting another nail in our own competitive coffins.

© 2102, Terry Murray.

 

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Cultivating and Sustaining a Creative Organizational Culture, Part III

Key Concept ~ Here’s part three in a series of excerpts from my book, “The Transformational Entrepreneur ~ Engaging The Mind, Heart & Spirit For Breakthrough Business Success”, that explore the nuanced challenge of cultivating a vibrant, inclusive organizational culture in today’s volatile world.

~ Empathy

The authentic expression of empathy contributes to our presence and is capable of re-engaging disaffected associates.  Most of us, at one time or another, have worked for companies and bosses that used us for their own personal gain.  I have.  Not a lot of fun.  The conditioned behavior of caution, of keeping our heads down and not fully and openly offering all of our gifts and talents to the endeavor is a natural result of these past experiences in the workplace.  Words alone cannot heal these wounds.  After all, language only represents approximately ten percent of how we communicate with other beings.  Empathy comes directly from the heart and radiates an unspoken energy that is felt by those we encounter, whether they are immediately conscious of it or not.  In a way, it’s the energetic acknowledgement that we’re all connected and share in a common human experience.  By being sensitive to the emotions of others, empathy communicates authentic concern for another person’s well being.

I discovered a powerful metaphor for authentic presence while working with Linda Kohanov and the Epona herd of horses at her ranch in Arizona.  One of the early phases of the Epona Approach™ involves an exercise called the reflective round pen.  As prey animals, horses are natural empaths; they acutely feel the emotions and intention of those around them.  They sense emotion as information, information they receive from the intelligence centers in their enormous hearts and guts.  This is an evolutionary survival mechanism in prey animals.  They don’t stop to mentally analyze or judge these messages.  To pause and think about what they’re feeling may lead to their becoming a predator’s next meal.

Horses trust these messages and act without hesitation.  The empathic powers of horses are so finely tuned that when they encounter a human that is incongruent (displaying behavior that doesn’t match their intention) the horse will quietly walk away.  They feel beyond the masks we humans so often wear with each other.  Conversely, if the horse feels a person is congruent with their emotions, good, bad, or, indifferent, they will join up with them.  People are very similar.    Leaders that are capable of maintaining presence and radiate congruency of intention and emotion will see their constituents wanting to join up with them as well.

Linda prepares the person for the reflective round pen exercise with a horse by having the person conduct a body scan; a self-reflective process aimed at reconnecting the person with the intelligence centers that exist in their body as well as their head.  It is an exercise in presence that enables the participant to focus on what they are feeling within their entire being, reconnecting with the messages our body is continuously attempting to send us.  By connecting with our whole body intelligence we can begin to get out of our head and into our heart, recognizing what we are feeling and allowing the messages these emotions are attempting to convey to us.  It really is the first step in developing self mastery, being completely present within one’s self.  Self-awareness opens the mind to see through eyes of others.

My first experience with the reflective round pen offered several powerful revelations.  First, when I conducted my body scan (I actually envision a conscious form of an MRI scanning down my body) I noticed tension in my shoulders.

Linda instructed me to acknowledge and expand this feeling and to “breathe into that sensation, sending it oxygen and awareness.  Ask it what information it’s holding for you and be open to how your body may speak to you.”

Being a novice with horses I was a bit tense as I prepared to enter a sixty foot round pen with a 2,200 pound black Percheron named Kairos.  As I followed Linda’s instructions I sensed the tension in my shoulders inform me to just relax…just be.  The moment I acknowledge this message and spoke it out loud the tension dissipated instantly.  (This is a consistent occurrence using this practice.  My firm, Performance Transformation, employs this experiential learning approach in our various leadership, sales, and team building workshops.  We witness this release in more than 90% of our participants.)

I entered the round pen embodying this message, to relax and simply be present.  As I did, Kairos approached me, his giant hoofs gently puffing up dust as the physical and energetic space between us narrowed.  Before I knew it, his soft nose was touching my forehead, his deep, solemn breath washing over my face; in fact washing over my entire being.  We began to move together around the pen in delicate synchronization.  Neither he nor I was leading.  Neither he nor I was following.  Somehow we were perfectly connected in co-creative relationship, entirely in the moment.  Our movements anticipated one another’s as we stepped around the pen, side by side, without judgment or mental noise, profoundly connected in a place of peacefulness and trust.

What I had discovered was that by connecting with my embodied intelligence I had truly aligned with my self.  A moment of authentic presence emerged and my ability to empathically connect with another sentient being flowed effortlessly.  It seemed that Kairos and I felt each other’s presence so clearly we were able to connect on a majestically beautiful and inspirational level.  Neither of us attempted to dominate the other, we could simply move in the moment with grace and dignity.

The analogy of what I had experienced in leading the European business team those many years ago was not lost upon me.  I had entered into the leadership relationship with an open mind and, perhaps more importantly, an open heart.  I did not judge their ways of doing business as worse or better than corporate’s perspective.  It was simply their way of doing things that suited their markets and environment.  I genuinely cared about their success and empowered them to co-create the relationship resulting in a level of acceptance and respect that still resonates with me today.

Some of us are natural empaths; capable of feeling the emotional energy of those we encounter.  This can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing.  Humans that are highly sensitive to these emissions can actually be overwhelmed by the emotions of those they encounter.  We’ve all experienced this on some level.  Think back to a moment when you may have encountered someone experiencing significant inner conflict; you most likely recoiled from that person without even being conscious as to why you reacted this way.  You simply knew you wanted to put space between you and that person.

While it can be challenging, natural empaths are well served by learning to discern the emotional energy of others from their own.  Conversely, those of us that are less aware of the emotional energy surrounding us are capable of learning how to calibrate our sensitivity to others.

I learned this while working on the empathy education company project I mentioned earlier in this book.  The company used scenario-based learning for clinical health care professionals to elevate their ability to express empathy towards people and family members experiencing a health crisis.

There is a significant difference between simply being present, expressing authentic empathy, and trying to fix the person or situation.  As we learned during this project, this is an exceptionally difficult delineation for health care providers and people drawn to serve others.  They are attracted to their profession by their desire to heal people, to ease their suffering by fixing their ailment.  It is difficult for them to accept there are certain situations they cannot fix, and attempting to do so beyond a certain point communicates a paternalistic, almost patronizing message to people in deep emotional pain.

What we discovered was the clinicians needed to learn to let go of this attitude and accept, what in their conditioned, well trained terms is considered defeat.  In other words, accept things exactly as they are.  The kindest and most conscientious expression they can offer at that point is empathy.  In certain situations they can no longer heal the body yet they can still help heal the spirit.

The lesson here is that empathy does not require action, only presence, authentic listening, and the allowance of space for emotional processing.  Simply being sensitive to the situations of those around us and quietly acknowledging what they may be experiencing is an expression of empathy.  We all experience ups and downs in our personal lives.  If leadership wants associates to be truly engaged, they must recognize these trials and tribulations will inevitably follow people into the workplace.  Authenticity recognizes emotions, both highs and lows, as part of being whole and present.

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