Podcast Odd Owtcomes
As 2021 comes to an end, our partner Owtcome wants to leave you on a high note as they reflect on the past year and prepare for the new journey ahead into 2022. In the latest podcast episode, Empathy and Leadership, Sonja Wekema (left) is the guest who has an “unexpected gift” for the listeners. Something we all consider as a surprising and ‘odd outcome’ that changed our perspective on empathy.
Now more than ever before, we have both the need and the opportunity to intersect creativity with empathy. We can design for more genuine interactions and spaces that enable people to have more meaningful conversations that stretch our thinking of the business as usual. Sonja is a brilliant advocate for courageous leadership, a trait that she encourages us to find within ourselves and cultivate through empathy.
Here are the two main insights that resonated most with the interviewer, Daiana:
“Keep asking questions, to relate not just on the analytical elements, but also to understand what’s going on in the rest of your body, your system.”
- Empathy comes with a degree of openness and a willingness to ask questions to discover the human side of interaction beyond the walls of formalities. It is a matter of genuine practice that deserves more time and attention. We cultivate it best when we work with different people.
“Patience on its own, of course, might feel like it’s taking a lot of time. Therefore, it’s really important to call it purposeful because it’s always linked to a result. What we do in different situations with different organizations is to not only look at the longer-term purpose but also to create some milestones in-between so that people know something is happening.”
- The Board Whisperers use what I found to be one of the most intriguing forms of empathy, Purposeful Patience. Purposeful patience is a superpower that organizations can benefit from as they begin to create space for value to emerge. Being purposeful gives us an ability to align in uncertain times while being patient helps us tap into our internal pool of creativity.
And that’s what we hope everyone can get to experience because that’s how meaningful work happens.
Here’s the link to listen to the Interview with Sonja.
Daiana: Hello and welcome to our new episode of ODD Owtcomes!
Our discussion today concerns empathy and how it is appropriated in businesses. We don’t see a universal formula for becoming more empathic, rather we want to build on what we already have. In order to cultivate empathy, we need to think about how we design experiences, but also look within and learn more about ourselves. Empathic experiences range from being a process, a story, or simply a moment of being present together. Nevertheless, they all have a goal that is led by our intention to make the world better, or at least not leave it worse than we found it. So, it’s not just about tools and processes that help us build more empathic experiences, but it’s the interactions that help us get closer to the people we work with, to those we create for, and to those we will never directly meet, but touch in some sense.
Our guest today on ODD Owtcomes, Sonja Wekema, is a facilitator of change for businesses and people wanting to leverage their potential. As Co-Founder of The Board Whisperers alongside Daphne Laan, their mission has been to relentlessly help organizations and individuals to discover, and act on their purpose at full potential. Welcome Sonja and it’s good to have you here on ODD Owtcomes. Would you like to introduce yourself and the work you’ve been doing with The Board Whisperers?
Sonja: Thank you for having me! And it’s really nice to continue the conversation that we started sometime last year. What we do with The Board Whisperers are several things.
One of the most important elements is to make sure that leaders dare to be courageous and that they also dare to make different decisions than what they were used to in the past. The way we do that is to create space and to have some purposeful patience and bring in some creativity. It might be the inspiration that we bring ourselves and some knowledge from our experience or the studies that we have undergone. But also, we work with partners who are in the creative sector, people who bring in different specialisms, like the financial side and design thinking elements to create new ways of looking at businesses.
It all starts with creating a level of trust that people dare to make a jump. But then, of course, we don’t know everything and we don’t know about everything. And what we really believe in is that you can better do it together by bringing in those different perspectives.
Daiana: You mentioned that you have developed this very special form of empathy, namely, purposeful patience. Can you expand on that and tell us how you appropriate this concept in working with leaders?
Sonja: Purposeful patience is a bit paradoxical, and that’s also how we like to use it. Personally, both Daphne and I, are quite result-driven and we work with lots of people who are result-driven. But from experience, we’ve also understood that some things just need a bit more time. You can’t just say, “OK, I want to do this, and this will happen straight away.” Sometimes you need to give elements or people or processes a bit of time to grow. It’s like bamboo, for instance. If you plant it, you might think, there’s nothing happening. And one year later, you might think, still, I don’t see anything. It may take up to six years until you see a really, really tiny branch coming out of the ground. Then you know. Something did happen, but you just couldn’t see it before.
We see in a lot of organizations that people want to do things quickly. They want to do it all now. But it is really key to work with both the longer-term vision and the shorter-term perspective. So, what do you need to do now to get the fruits 6-7 years from now? For that, you require purposeful patience, which is really really difficult for lots of people.
Patience on its own, of course, that might feel like it’s taking a lot of time. Therefore, it’s really important to call it purposeful because it’s always linked to a result. What we do in different situations with different organizations is to create some milestones in-between, so that people at least have the feeling something is happening, that the end goal is not there yet, but they are approaching it.
And if you look at it from a more empathic point of view, it comes with curiosity and but also with courage. But to get into that space, you also need to have a sense of psychological safety. You need to trust the people that you work with. This is what we do in all of the setups, the journeys that we help or support organizations go through.
We sometimes need to take them by hand and show that it is not as risky or as dangerous as they might think. Because what we really believe is that… there might be fear, but there’s not that much behind that fear. We’ve gone through that fear multiple times: when you start something new, you try to find something that looks familiar or at least keeps you in touch with the world that you’re used to and that you know. But at some point, you feel safe enough to make the jump and rely on yourself, and that is critical, also for leaders.
Coming back to your question on what makes this an empathic way of working with leaders is to keep asking questions, to relate not just on the analytical elements, but also to understand what’s going on in the rest of your body, your system, and that probably for some people is like, oh, it’s emotions, it’s feelings. That’s scary, and it might feel like that, but that’s also part of who you are. With empathy, we don’t just look at the data or the mental side. We look at the full person, the “whole body” really to understand what’s going on.
Daiana: You’ve been working with different leaders to help them become more empathic and expansive, and that’s sort of happens as you create more space and ask questions that resonate. But how do we know to ask those questions that can lead us into those unexpected yet meaningful conversations? And how do they shape the empathic experience?
Sonja: My clients are always asking me, “Where did that question come from?” My answer (in most cases) is, “I don’t have a clue.” I think it has to do with intuition, but also with tuning into the person in front of me and, whether that is online or offline (face to face). After questions like that, people are just quiet. Because, I don’t know exactly what happens, but it really enters another system of someone. It helps people to get to a different level of consciousness.
And that is maybe also the unexpected gift that both Daphne and I sometimes get back as feedback. “We hired you to do this and this and this, but at the end we even got this and we never expected it.” But also, WE never expected it. That’s the way we like to work. We start something with a completely open and curious mind to co-create something together with organizations or individuals. And at some point you reach a certain level of mutual understanding: maybe that’s also empathy. And then you get unexpected gifts, but there needs to be some sort of chemistry.
If there are organizations that would like to do some “tick the box exercises”, then we say No, because the connection comes with curiosity. These organizations have already seen, met, and worked with lots of different consultancies or coaches, but not all brought them what they really needed. And that’s what we hear back as well, that we have a different approach.
We spent some time last year to understand what that different approach is. I think, what the outcome was, is that both Daphne and I have a background in multinationals (we are used to working within international cultures while living with and in different countries) and both leadership level and production level. Bridging those different groups and making sure that we understand the stories from the organization, the needs within the different levels to create some sort of interaction, is what we really like to do. And I think that’s where we are really good at. That of course comes with empathy, because if you don’t have a clue about people’s needs or wants, their intentions, or their purpose, I think, is quite impossible to do the work that we do.
Daiana: I think empathy doesn’t abide by a clear plan with a straight trajectory, but what would you say are some trades of empathic leadership that you find crucial, and what are the patterns you see in organizations in relationship with building empathy?
Sonja: What is really key when you start working with an organization or with a leader is to sense: does this person already know about leadership, about courageous leadership, about being vulnerable, being humble, but also does he or she know about him or herself? And what we sometimes see is that there is in some cases still some work to be done.
Personally, I have worked quite a lot with neglected organizations. And what I see in those situations is that’s there’s quite a lot of energy, engagement. People want to make an impact on what they do. The only thing is: they don’t know how to do it. And then, all these really great intentions are never seeing the light. In these situations, there is quite a lot of complaint going on. “My leader or my manager, they just don’t have a clue what I’m doing or they just don’t know who I am. They treat me as a number.” That isn’t, of course, very healthy to work in a situation like that. What I have also seen in the last 20 years is that sometimes it’s a systemic issue. It is usually the case for a bit older organizations, but it can also happen in start-ups that end up as scale-ups, and then don’t spend any time and money on what does a leader need to do – the upskilling, competence building, or anything of that kind.
What I see in these neglected organizations, is that there hasn’t been any investment, money-wise or time-wise, on how you ‘create’ leaders. Creating leaders starts with creating a clear mission and vision.
If you don’t know what your organization is up to and what your intention is, how can you inspire the people that work in your organization? And how can they link their own intention, their own purpose, their own feeling for accountability eventually to that purpose? Then, of course, we have the whole story of the values. If you as an organization have created values and you put that on a poster and that’s it, then you don’t have a value-driven organization.
As Board Whisperers, we really want to understand what are the real core values of the organization, and are these being shared by the employees? Because if there’s a gap between the personal values and the company values then there’s no chemistry. It’s not always rocket science, it’s just pointing out what might be useful.
The problem is, within lots of organizations, that everyone seems to be dopamine-focused, so everyone keeps running, running, running, quite reactive sometimes. It’s like, “as soon as I do these tasks and I feel really well.” That’s some sort of addiction to actions. And what we help organizations with is to understand: what is critical, what do you need to do, and what exactly can you stop doing? Because if you can save some time by not doing everything, then probably you can save some time to have these real conversations with colleagues that you normally don’t even have time for.
Daiana: I don’t think empathy is an end in itself, and I think that there are dark sides to misunderstanding or misusing empathy in companies. You spoke about the neglected type of organizations as a fair case of that, I think, but what are some other red flags you see and how can we build forms of healthy empathy?
Sonja: What you now hear a lot is that people need to always be happy at work. But what we believe is that there is no light without darkness, there’s no left without right. You need these polarities. Sometimes you need to go through tough situations to eventually be able to celebrate something again. Hitting walls for both individuals and organizations doesn’t hurt. Maybe at the time, it hurts.
Sometimes it feels like everything is going well, and then I ask the question, “When have you received tough feedback from either your peers, the board or employees?” If, as a leader, you have never received any constructive feedback, at least something that keeps you sharp, then I think your alarm bells should be ringing. If people don’t speak up and say everything is perfect, then probably it isn’t. If you don’t understand yourself, you’ve not done some inner work. If you don’t know how you come across to other people, then it is probably a bit harder for anyone, any leader, to start having these courageous dialogues with people.
So: understand who you are, what you find difficult – it’s also called leadership vulnerability. Do you dare to be vulnerable? What do you need? What, in your context, do you need to be the best version of yourself? Do you understand that of the people that you work with? Because if you have that situation created, it’s like a relationship… you need to keep working on it. If you do that, if you’re conscious about it, then also you have the right ingredients to create an empathic situation.
When I conduct cultural transformation programs, when I work on a topic around employee engagement or employee experience, I never use these words, because then it will become a project.
What you never want is that empathy becomes a project.
Daiana: Empathy not becoming a project… I think that’s really powerful … So, what would you say was the most rewarding moment on your journey? And where are you and The Board Whisperers headed next?
Sonja: One thing that already happened, one unexpected element in our journey, is that we just started and we already got this nomination for an encouragement prize. Both Daphne and I were like: “Wow, apparently there are people who see us doing things that’s do make an impact, or at least have the potential to do.” That was really, really unexpected, but it was so nice, and it gave us quite a lot of exposure and interesting conversations with different people and organizations.
But, we are not where we would like to be, of course. And what we really would like is that organizations understand that they all have something to do in this world. Also, for the next generations. We really think that bringing in a diversity of thought is really critical. It isn’t about bringing in more females and giving all these females more chances… We believe in the system, in both men and women, and every other category. We see each other as people that can bring our full selves to whatever we like to do.
If you think about organizations, about organizational cultures, also think about the behavioral side and the metrics side. I don’t believe in cultures without structure and I don’t believe in dashboards without behavior.
Daiana: Finally, thank you for the answers today!
Sonja: My pleasure!
Daiana: Is there something you’d like to tell our listeners, as as a parting thought?
Sonja: I think even having said all this, there’s still so much to explore, so let’s explore it together. Don’t be afraid of anything (like Covid or climate change). Because if we are feeling fear, we won’t move. If you’re in your coping mechanisms to fight, flight, or freeze, then you probably don’t have any chance to be creative and courageous. You’ll be blocked and stressed. But stress is not always negative. For instance, if I need to do something creative and I don’t feel stressed, nothing will happen. So, stress has both positive and negative sides to it. And that’s also the different polarities that we mentioned in the beginning.
If you have an empathic organization or, at least leaders, who show some empathy, then you can also increase the level of creativity by bringing elements from the outside-in and vice-versa. If you channel the energy in the organization, and if you really see the people in the organization, you are purposefully patient. That is the enabler for the long-term success of your organization and the people.
Daiana: I hope our audience will feel inspired to think more about empathy and work towards meaningful experiences with a holistic view of life!