Business bookshelves are abundant with management self-help guides to help those executive boards do exactly this. Their blurbs pitch the virtues of the emotionally intelligent leader and the emotionally intelligent organisation. But are emotional intelligence, compassion and empathy things that can be learnt from a long-haul inflight read? Is it really possible for leadership teams to rewire their psychometric profile – it’s either got it or it hasn’t.
In November last year, after a debilitating two-year battle with his physical health, I said goodbye for the last time to my 79-year-old father. His last few months had a striking resemblance to the case studies offered by author Atul Gawande in his outstanding 2017 book, Being Mortal. But despite what Gawande concludes and my experience supports to be a “crisis in geriatric medicine”, at almost every turn during his last weeks in hospital, Dad was cared for by healthcare professionals who daily drew on incredible reserves of empathy and sensitivity to do the best they could for him. From trainee to experienced senior clinician, they were almost all brimming with the ‘soft skills’ so in demand in those modern boardrooms.
That need was never more apparent than in the weeks following Dad’s death when, as his Executor, I was called on to notify the various organisations who once had him as their loyal customer.
The first was his car insurer and this proved eye-opening.
Dad’s choice of insurer was wholly price-driven. Direct Line have a strong no-frills, verging on cheap and cheerful, brand reputation in the UK. I was expecting service to match, but I received something wholly different. The first agent I spoke to immediately offered his sympathy. Most importantly, it didn’t sound scripted. He said he would put me straight through to the “bereavement team” and, despite him disliking their title, reassured me they would be able to help with everything I needed. They did – superbly. And with a tone that, again, never once felt scripted or robotic. They even provided an immediate refund to a bolt-on protection Dad had added to his policy. The agent ended the call with something along the lines of “Don’t forget to look after yourself, won’t you.”
Another two or three calls to other organisations went somewhat similarly, though none was handled as well as by Direct Line and I applaud them for that. These ‘bereavement department’ teams have clearly been designed to manage the peculiarities needed around otherwise rightly rigid data security processes, in the event of someone’s death.
My next call was to Dad’s bank. A quick Google search revealed a direct number for their bereavement team, and I got straight through to an agent. I explained why I was calling, and the agent asked if I had Dad’s account details to hand.
At one level, that was just fine. It is a perfectly reasonable first question. But every other organisation I had spoken to, and almost all of those that I would go on to speak with, first offered some sort of condolences. It’s a tiny thing, but a brief “I’m so sorry to hear that” or “Please accept our condolences” goes a million miles when you are juggling the emotional complexities of having said goodbye for the last time to your last parent.
The bank’s agent took me through a series of robotically delivered questions and explained how I would need to take certain documents into one of their branches. And that was it. Corporately efficient but emotionally detached and more clinical than any of the clinicians I’d met during Dad’s care. I felt offended on Dad’s behalf – as if his 50-odd years of customer loyalty to that bank meant absolutely nothing.
Days later I took the documents into their branch in Dad’s home town – the branch he’d visited for the past 52 years. Here, I thought at least, face to face with an employee, something sensitive might be said. But again, I was met at the counter with a detached, almost officious, insensitivity. I did think about asking the staff member if by chance he had parents – but thought better of it.
Compare that to Dad’s local garden centre, whose café he would visit a couple of times a week. Having learnt of his passing (I’m still not sure how), they dropped a card through his door addressed to his family, saying how much they would miss him. A small action with a massive impact.
Dealing as I’ve had to, with wrapping up Dad’s financial affairs, I’ve come to question more deeply how it is that some organisations can develop a corporate emotional intelligence that is so dramatically different to that of some of their competitors. And you are naturally drawn to question whether this is then the result of a top-down hard-wired approach to everything they do.
Perhaps I’m being unfair judging an organisation based merely on a few interactions, but I decided to lodge a complaint with Dad’s bank, in the hope perhaps that it might spare another bereaved loved one the same experience. The result was interesting: a pro forma letter of apology and the offer of £100 in compensation. Frankly, it was insult to injury. But I took the cheque (why are they still issuing cheques) and gave it to a charity.
I just hope that the calls those families had to make in the weeks after unfairly losing loved ones were handled with the sympathy and sensitivity I experienced from Direct Line.