Leadership Development

Leadership Development: Communicating with Empathy

Empathy is the ability to feel another person’s experience. Respect is the ability to value another person’s experience. Excellent leaders know how to communicate with empathy.

But first, what is leadership? If you Google “definition of leadership” you will receive about 20 million proposed answers. In my opinion, leadership is best defined as “the things we do and say that inspire others to take on their most difficult challenges and succeed.” And what is the most important thing we can do to inspire others? It’s learning how to communicate with empathy.

So, what is empathy? And what does it mean to have empathy skills? The best answers come from Dr. Helen Reiss who teaches empathy at the Harvard Medical School and is the Vice President of Empathy at Massachusetts General Hospital. She defines empathy using each of the seven letters. I’ve modified some of the definitions in an effort to laser focus on leading and inspiring others.

The “E” stands for Eye contact. Dr. Reiss teaches us that all human beings have the innate desire “to be seen” so it’s very important to make good eye contact with people, especially when they are speaking. Film producer and author Brian Grazer, in his book Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection, states: “We use many tools during face to face contact that help us communicate more clearly and navigate relationships. For me, however, eye contact is far and away the most critical. It’s like the wifi of human connection. Just as wifi connects us to endless information on the internet, making eye contact opens up endless possibilities.”

The “M” stands for the Muscles in our face. A person can learn a lot about us by watching our facial expressions. During every face to face communication we need be upbeat, interested, and likable. And what’s the best way to be upbeat and likable—it begins with our smile. We should never underestimate the power of a smile. My mentor taught me that if you don’t like your smile you should save the money to have a dentist help you find your very best smile.

The “P” stands for Posture. There are dozens of books and videos on the power of body language. Body language is a type of nonverbal communication in which our physical behaviors, as opposed to our words, are used to convey information. This behavior includes body posture, hand gestures, eye movement, and the use of space. Dr. Helen Reiss found that physicians delivering news to a patient is much better received when the physician is sitting rather than standing. Yes, posture makes a difference.

The “A” stands for how our life stories Affect others. Stories are a universal language of sorts. We all appreciate a good story—one where we can share feelings of joy or hope or conquering a challenge. Sharing a good story can give even the most diverse people a sense of commonality and community. We all need to master the art of telling a good story—and making sure we tell the story at the right time and for the right reason.

The “T” stands for Tone of voice. It’s our tone of voice that tells others how we feel about our message, and it will influence how they will feel about our message. We all need to find our best voice. We need to speak at the right pitch and the right speed for the situation. And when it comes to public speaking, the messenger is just as important as the message. Our tone of voice, no matter how nervous we are, should project confidence and likability.

The “H” stands for Hearing the other person. Listening is one of the most important skills we can have in life—both at work and at home. We probably spend more time using our listening skills than any other kind of skill. And like other skills, listening takes practice. We need to both “hear”and understand the other person. The most common negative listening habits are known as faking, interrupting, and logical listening. Faking is where we nod, make eye contact, give “uh huh’s” but aren’t really listening. Interrupting is where we don’t allow the speaker to finish and we don’t ask clarifying questions—we are too anxious to have our say. Logical listening is where we judge the speaker’s words and fit them into our logic box—we rarely ask about the underlying feelings attached to the communication.

The “Y” stands for Your questions! If we want to truly connect with others we need to ask great questions and then genuinely listen to what they have to say. Excellent leaders ask the right questions, at the right time, and for the right reasons. For example, good general questions might include:

    • What can I do to be a better leader?
    • What organization process needs to be fixed or improved?
    • If you were running the department, what would you do differently?
    • On a scale of 1 to 10, how satisfied are you with your own career progress?
    • When do you have the most fun at work?
    • How can the organization design your role to create what’s next in your career?
    • Is there anything you need from me?

So, remember, if you truly want to be an excellent leader who is highly respected throughout the organization, then you need to master the art and science of communicating with empathy. Good luck!


Leadership Development

Leadership Development: The Art and Science of Delegating

What do excellent leaders have in common? They have mastered the art and science of delegating. For most of us, delegating is not easy. We often assume that no one else can do the project or task as good as we can do it—or as fast as we can do it. We typically think that we’re improving our productivity by just doing it ourselves. This is a mistake.

Why should we delegate? There are three reasons. First, delegating the “right” projects to someone else is an effective way to help the other person develop new and important skills. We especially need to delegate the tasks that are no longer developmental for us but would be developmental to the others in the organization. Delegating in the “right way” will help us inspire, develop, and retain our top-performing employees.

Second, effectively delegating to others will free up our time to take on new and challenging activities. Projects that are both important to the organization and developmental for us. If we’re smart, we will also delegate as a way to effectively manage our time and our stress. We will talk more about managing time and stress in an upcoming TLC blog.

Third, and most importantly, effectively delegating at work will help us spend more quality time with our family. It’s important to remember that there is no success at work that’s worth a failure at home. Excellent leaders know how to take control of their calendars. And, they typically have a copy of David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity somewhere on their desk.

What should we delegate? There’s a big difference between delegating and effectively delegating. To truly delegate effectively, we need to let go of three precious items—responsibility, accountability, and authority. The key is to delegate the responsibility to a single person, not a team and we should publicly communicate to the entire organization that the new person is now in charge.

The best way to delegate accountability and authority is to give the person control over all budget decisions. As leaders, we need to provide clarity on who is accountable by letting the new person define the project’s scope and desired outcomes. Delegating authority means that person now has total control over the project’s schedule, and more importantly—the budget.

How should we delegate? As leaders, we need to clearly tell the new person in charge the “why” and the “what” of the project but we should never tell them “how” to do it. For many of us, this is very hard to do because we think we’re helping the person when we tell them how to do it. I think it’s the worst thing we can do to someone—especially if it’s a high-performing employee. When we tell them the “how” of the project, what they hear and feel instead is that we don’t trust them. Telling them the “how” will demotivate the person and hurt the organization because the person would probably do the project better than us if given the chance.

Delegating an important project to someone else doesn’t mean we abandon them. Excellent leaders provide clarity on the format and timing of communications they expect from the new project leader. However, communication requests are usually kept at a minimum and focus on the mission-critical aspects of the project.

In summary, when we delegate an important project or task, we should clearly tell the other person the project’s “why” and the “what” but never the “how.” We have to delegate the responsibility, the accountability, and the authority. We also need to provide clarity on the desired communication levels and formats.

I strongly believe that effectively delegating to others has the potential to be a life-changing leadership skill. It will help you be more productive. It will help you manage your stress. And, it will help others in the organization develop important knowledge and skills. Good luck!


Program Design: Discover “GAME-ified” Online Learning

During my career in higher education, I had the privilege of leading a team responsible for
building digital badge programs using the best practices in gamification and micro-learning.
We found two books to be extremely valuable; Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with
Technology by Dr. Michelle Miller and Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges and
Leaderboards by Yu-Kai Chou. My program design team and I learned that actionable
gamification is the key to designing online leadership programs.

What is gamification? According to Yu-Kai Chou, gamification “is the craft of deriving fun and
engaging elements found typically in games and thoughtfully applying them to real-world or
productive activities. This process is what I call ‘human-focused design’ in opposition to what we
normally find in society as ‘function-focused design.” Human-focused design optimizes for
human motivation in a system as opposed to optimizing for pure functional efficiency within the

According to Yu-Kai Chou, gamification “is the craft of deriving fun and engaging elements
found typically in games and thoughtfully applying them to real-world or productive activities.
This process is what I call ‘human-focused design’ in opposition to what we normally find in
society as ‘function-focused design.” Human-focused design optimizes for human motivation in
a system as opposed to optimizing for pure functional efficiency within the system.

Why is actionable gamification important? Just as Yu-Kai Chou predicted, we found that
simply incorporating game mechanics and game thinking into a digital badge program does not
fully engage the learners. It’s not just about the game elements, it’s how points and
leaderboards are integrated with practical knowledge that is both backed by research and
proven in practice. We have to make the gamification actionable using human-focused design!
Our new friend Yu-Kai Chou had identified eight core drivers of actionable gamification.

Epic Meaning and Calling: The best place to start is to design and launch a program where
the learner “believes they are doing something greater than themselves and they were ‘chosen’
to take that action.” We found that the best way to engage this core driver is to have the
company’s most-respected executive kick-off the digital badge program, either in person or via a
video—congratulating the learners and delivering an inspiring explanation of the “why” behind
the program.

Development and Accomplishment: The next core driver focuses on “our internal drive for
making progress, developing skills, achieving mastery, and eventually over-coming challenges.”
As Yu-Kai Chou teaches us, receiving “a badge or trophy without a challenge is not meaningful
at all.” I learned that it is important to integrate the short, highly-engaging videos with frequent,
low-stakes testing. This will challenge the program participant to embrace, remember, and apply
what they’re learning.

Empowerment of Creativity and Feedback: The empowerment of creativity and feedback
core driver “is expressed when users are engaged in a creative process where they repeatedly
figure new things out and try different combinations.” Today’s modern learners want to express
their creativity, see the results of their creativity and receive feedback. All of the activities in a
digital badge program need to be intrinsically engaging and fun.

Ownership and Possession: According to Yu-Kai Chou, learners are “motivated when they
feel like they own or control something. When a person feels ownership over something, they
innately want to increase and improve what they own.” Think Wikipedia. At KSU, we use the
Jubi learning transfer platform for our digital badge programs because the designers at Rali get
it! They provide a seamless integration of actionable gamification tools for learning, doing and

Social Influence and Relatedness: Digital badge programs need to incorporate all of the social
elements that motivate people including social acceptance, companionship, mentorship—and
even competition and envy. During the program design process we need to offer points based
on both competition and collaboration. Most of us are inspired, and motivated, when we see
friends and colleagues who are accomplishing something extraordinary!

Scarcity and Impatience: And yes, wanting something “simply because it is extremely rare,
exclusive or immediately unattainable” is also a core driver. We have found that offering “bonus”
levels or quests when the “base” requirements are exceeded is an excellent way to motivate
program participants to dive deeper into the learning experience.

Unpredictability and Curiosity: The unpredictability and curiosity core driver is hard to
implement but a great motivator because the learner doesn’t know what is going to happen
next. As Yu-Kai Chou teaches us; “When something does not fall into your regular pattern
recognition cycles, your brain kicks into high gear and pays attention to the unexpected.”
Successful book authors and movie directors use this core drive to keep readers and audiences

Loss and Avoidance: Last, but definitely not least, is the “motivation to avoid something
negative from happening.” As digital badge program designers, we found that the best way to
get learners re-engaged in the program is to send them a push notification that they are near or
at the bottom of the leaderboard. This core driver works every time!

In summary, gamification is a lot more than points, badges and leaderboards! We need to
understand and use all eight of the core drivers of teaching and learning. And, even though the
book is 499 pages in length, it’s worth the time to read Actionable Gamification by Yu-Kai Chou.
He is an expert in how human-based program design techniques can dramatically improve
online teaching and learning.