American cities have erupted in outrage at the murder of devoted father George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin. I share the outrage, feeling the horror of this and all similar incidents of racism, arrogance or abuse of power. 

My colleague, Norm Smookler, works with leadership development in the police force. He says, “A feedback-rich culture is the root of personal and organizational growth.” Norm has facilitated thousands of officers to give and receive feedback to each other to develop self awareness and empathy, especially where there has been trauma. People learn from the support of their peers.

While our Mutual Empowerment Online forums are peer groups of executives, the right use of power very much applies to the challenges faced by business leaders. In each of our sessions, one participant explores an issue with the group. Once we have surfaced the issue, the group then reflect on similar experiences that have happened to each of them. This Empathize step is usually super encouraging and illuminating.

Issues Leaders Face
Often the topics leaders bring are use of power issues: the challenge of furloughing half the company, giving feedback that might be hurtful or raising the price of a popular product. Sometimes leaders get to take actions for which they risk being vilified.
This is the benefit of focussing our Mutual Empowerment Online peer groups of senior executives. I don’t know any way other than by sharing experiences to prepare and support leaders in the intensity that comes with doing the hard thing.

So Much Easier to Empathize with the Victim
In the early stages as a peer-group forms, people bring issues where they are stuck in some way, discouraged or lacking in skill or perspective. Most in the circle find it easy enough to reflect on times when we have felt that way and offer deep acceptance or insightful learnings. Only as the group gets safer do the perpetrator issues come out: how I use my power, how to take an unpopular action, what it’s like to be vilified. When that happens, we see an uptick in the level of breakthrough and inspiration participants get from the sessions.    

Tempting to Disassociate
The most common response to having to do the hard thing (apart from procrastinating!) is put on your flak jacket, grit your teeth and go to it. Frankly, if we did not have such a clear discipline in our forums of sharing experiences not advice, I suspect that would often be the advice: be strong and act. But going deaf to the people impacted is not real leadership. If we want our leaders to stay open and be empathic, then we have to find ways to give them empathy.   

Connect with Your Own Use of Power Issues
I invite you to reflect on experiences where you have been in a position of power and needed to do something hard or unpopular. If it helps, imagine yourself in a support circle with a leader facing the kinds of issues described above. What experience from your life might be helpful for you to share? What did you learn?

Tips for Giving and Receiving Feedback by Norm Smookler