Assertive Empathy

Just recently I was listening to a podcast interview with John and Molly Chester – the famous farmers from the documentary The Biggest Little Farm. If you never watched the original film, I definitely recommend. The newest one just was released this April which I have on my list to watch soon.

But in this podcast, Rich Roll went deeper with both of them on their approaches and key take aways. Towards the very end Molly made a comment, about her role as the operations lead, that was really profound.

“My job is to find the purpose in each person. On a daily basis I am working with the team to help increase the assertiveness on one side or increase empathy on the other. Each person is needing one or the other in order to be able to find connection and communication. Ideally they are working as a self-sustained ecosystem so that they do not need me. My job is to turn them back on themselves – either individually to find their instincts or turn them together to each other to trust each other to have the hard conversations.”

Let’s break that down a bit further.

First – find the purpose in each person. This is one of those statements that has been said in other ways many times. And we would think that it’s fairly easy to implement yet I have too often seen (and done) the more typical approach of I have a task or a role and I need to find someone to assign that to. I propose we flip this on its head and look at the over arching goal for the team – in this case they had the goal of creating a regenerative farm. There are probably thousands of tasks each day in that process of working towards that goal. To get to a self-sustainable team we need to think less about who I’m assigning all those tasks to and more about what are the strengths each person brings to the table that will move us forward. How do their natural strengths and motivations get leveraged? And possibly most important – does everyone really understand the goal and what success looks like? They can’t effectively apply their strengths if they do not understand this fundamental.

Second – the simplicity of finding the balance of assertiveness and empathic behaviours within an individual or team is so brilliant. When I think of every team performance problem, I have been asked to address in my coaching career this has been at the core. Individual coaching has been similar.  Does this person need to find a way to be more assertive, to have their voice heard, to be more involved, more accountable? Or is more empathy and compassion the missing ingredient. And could it be a little of both. Often it is. Often I find empathy the gateway to being able to apply just the right amount of assertiveness or challenge to others. And empathy without some action behind is usually less effective when there is goal we are focused on. Without assertiveness we might never get anything done. Without empathy we make achieving results more important than the relationships.

Third – My job is to turn them back on themselves – oh so brilliant. And Molly is a perfect example of leading with a coaching style. Let’s remember that Molly is a trained culinary chef. She is not a farmer so she’s not the expert even though she might have more experience than some of her team members. What Molly seems to have figured out is the value of humility and vulnerability as a leader – not needing to insert yourself in every problem to show how smart you are or how capable you are. Not letting a deadline looming create so much fear that you forget the longer term benefit of this learning moment. Many reading this knows the basic skills of coaching involve asking thought provoking questions back to the person you are coaching. Almost every coach I know, whether they were once a leader in their workplace or not, struggles with that initial phase of learning to be a coach and the pressure to give the answer. The need to be seen as the person with the answer. The desire to want to provide immediate help. And as Molly says so wisely – when we ask these thought provoking questions, we are helping to build their own instincts and strengthen their critical thinking skills. We are challenging groups to communicate with each other and trust that together – with the right balance of empathy and assertiveness – they can solve the problem before them.

Of course, there is way more at hand to achieving results, whether they be traditional workplace challenges or regenerative farming challenges. I am not naive to suggest that these are the only three things that are needed to be successful in your goals. But as a leader for any team, for almost any scenario I can think of, you will have far more success when you follow these three core principles.

This very much aligns with one of my purposes in life – helping leaders be less of an asshole and more human. It’s hard. I have been there and got the t-shirt. Even for the really thoughtful humans mistakes are easily made. Unintentional impacts that leave the people on your team thinking “who the f*&k do they think they are?”. If you find you’re struggling with any of the above OR just want to embrace further growth in these areas reach out.

Happy Farming

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