Interest in the growth mindset concept has grown in recent years: popularised by researcher Carol Dweck, growth mindset refers to an individual’s overarching belief that their abilities are fluid and can be improved through learning. Compare this to fixed mindsets, where individuals think they have a set amount of talent that can’t be improved.
Having a growth mindset is a valuable quality in employees because learning is so central to meeting the demands of a rapidly-changing world. But it’s also a key quality in managers. Why?
The way we view others reflects our own mindset. If we believe talent is fixed, that people don’t change, that employees cannot get better, how are we able to develop staff, engage them with learning, and give them performance-related feedback that motivates and inspires rather than deflates?
Patient line managers are better placed to ask questions, to seek understanding, to actively listen, and to build a culture where people feel able to ask for further explanation.
When it comes to L&D, empathy helps you identify capability gaps driven by a lack of self-confidence or skill.
These skills are the basis of good communication and – as we saw in our article on key line manager skills – communication is fundamental to a successful relationship between line manager and employee. Poor communication dramatically raises the chance of conflict.
Patience also helps line managers avoid the curse of knowledge. This is a cognitive bias where people who know something about a topic assume that others will have the same level of understanding.
For line managers, this is relevant to many situations, such as onboarding and training a new hire or cascading down new policies and goals to the team. In the case of the latter, the line manager may have seen the goals in advance and thus had a chance to reflect and process them. They may then find it difficult to remember how it feels to see them for the first time.
Patience – remembering everyone is on a different learning journey – can help line managers take the time out to really ensure everyone is on the same page before proceeding. This is important to build unity, shared purpose and common knowledge across the team.
Good line managers have a healthy, stable set of life priorities. If they tie too much of their self-worth to success at work, they can start to show inconsistent behaviours and values when things go wrong. Inconsistent behaviour makes it harder to build trusting relationships.
When people have strong self-identities, they tend to respect other people’s identities, rather than being threatened or feeling the need to mould them in their image. A strong self-identity therefore encourages a line manager to be outcome-focused rather than process-focused. This is conducive to high performance and engagement because employees tend to thrive when they are given clear goals and allowed to achieve them in their own way, known as autonomy with purpose.
Additionally, under-confident managers may be less likely to hire competent people for fear of being replaced, or of looking less competent through association. This may also be true of line managers that derive too much self-worth from their jobs, where any negative shift in how people perceive their knowledge and abilities reduces their self-worth.
A healthy approach to far and fast
There’s a nice quote often repeated in people management circles: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Under-confident managers may be less likely to hire competent people for fear of being replaced, or of looking less competent through association.
Line managers who believe this quote can probably be best described as ‘people people.’
These are individuals who are generally curious about people, who are humble enough to know that any one person doesn’t have all the answers and that sometimes the motivation and sense of belonging you get from being part of a team can be more important than speed of delivery.
These line managers also understand that time spent on building trust, on socialisation, on being honest, on taking time out from your day job to focus exclusively on nurturing your relationship with direct reports, is never time wasted.
The actions that go into cultivating a sense of togetherness are ultimately driven by line managers who believe that, when people come together, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
First-time line managers often think they need to be empathetic when their direct reports experience personal crises. This is true, but empathy is about far more than just being there when employees go through tough times.
Ultimately, empathy is about using your emotional intelligence – your ability to sense need in others – to help employees meet their personal goals and make the organisation a success.
Can you sense how your employees think about the world? Do you resonate with how they’re feeling? Do you experience emotions that compel you to take positive action to support them?
This can play out in countless ways in the workplace. In meetings, or 1-2-1s with your direct reports, empathy helps you understand what’s not being said and get to the bottom of people’s concerns based on who they are and what they believe in.
When it comes to L&D, empathy helps you identify capability gaps driven by a lack of self-confidence or skill. Are you able to sense an employee is struggling with a task, feel compassion toward their need, and organise a learning intervention to help them succeed?
Ultimately, empathy is about understanding and wanting to help others and taking positive action off the back of this. Teams are made up of individuals with different emotional needs: being attuned to these emotions gives line managers valuable insights into a world that would otherwise be hidden.