What happens when you take an assortment of developers, analysts, systems administrators, and creatives, spread them across the globe, and ask them to build great things together? Rather a lot, it turns out, if equipped with the adhesive tools and work practices that can turn a collection of people into a forward-thinking team with sustainable momentum. Perhaps chief among those adhesives is something you don’t have to buy a license for: empathy.
The way we see it, empathy is one of the most valuable strengths a team and its members can cultivate. A well-developed capacity for empathy can streamline workflow, drive innovation, and smooth the error-handling process into an alchemical win-factory.
If those sound like lofty expectations for a soft skill, let’s be clear: empathy is not merely the Works Well With Others for the humanitarian set. Nor is it a panacea. But a supremely effective tool within its scope? That’s our argument, yes.
Hear us out.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Empathy
Together with transparency, empathy is key to how we work here at Open Door Teams. Ah, but what does that mean? Let’s break it down, Daniel Goleman-style:
- Cognitive Empathy: You get where someone else is coming from; you understand their perspective.
- Emotional Empathy: You feel their pain (joy, sorrow, what-have-you).
- Empathic Concern: You’re motivated to act on their behalf.
When we talk about empathy, we’re talking about the trifecta—seeing, feeling, doing. If that sounds daunting, know this: for our purposes here, empathy doesn’t involve herculean altruistic acts. Our aim is far more humble than that. We’re not trying to save the world, only make working in it a little easier today than it was yesterday. And then a little easier still. This is a slow, steady series of tiny, incremental steps. To take them, we must effort together and on behalf of our users. Intentional empathy makes that easier. More effective. Meaningful.
And it starts where most corporate success stories do: with culture.
The Trifecta at Work
Empathetic cultures engender the cohesiveness essential for cooperation, the communication that breeds efficiency, the engagement required to maintain momentum, and the risk-taking essential for growth. More cut-throat environments may score some wins, even big ones, but we’d argue that the long-term costs of ruthless cultures are too high. Particularly when kinder approaches bear impressive fruit of their own:
Top-down organizational efforts to permeate the boundaries between teams and departments rarely pack the punch that empathy can. Why? Glenda Eoyang, founder of the Human Systems Dynamics field, sums it up nicely:
"Until R&D recognizes the need to engage communications, nothing will change. Until marketing sees interdependency with information systems, the divide is insurmountable. Until all staff see the same vision and speak the same language—at least to some degree—silos will continue to focus internally and avoid interactions with other groups they don’t value, understand or control."
It isn’t recalcitrance. Team members may follow silo-busting policies and procedures to the letter, but without individual resonance with the other, those practices fall short of the interconnectedness they seek to cultivate. Which means that not only are departments still operating inefficiently, but staff is bleeding additional time and effort complying with mandates that don’t solve the core problem.
Conversely, empathetic cultures breed—without fanfare or expensive initiatives—that coveted right-hand interest in what the left hand is doing. Because with empathy we recognize that it’s all the same body. And not just any body ... ours.
In cultures that value empathy, team communication is shaped by the see-feel-do trifecta. It isn’t enough to send the obligatory reports and respond dutifully to requests for data when team members are motivated by more than just due diligence.
Imagine: A member of your staff is beginning his workday. His plan for the morning includes a task that will help a colleague in another department. Unbeknownst to him, she got that needed help elsewhere and completed her project two days earlier. She didn’t think to tell him; she thought he’d seen her finished work and knew his help was no longer needed. So he spends the first three hours of his morning on something he didn’t even need to do.
Neither of these fictional workers are intentionally wasting time. But because they’re operating within a culture that prizes getting things done above all else, their field of vision simply isn’t wide enough to include anything but the next to-do on the list. Which, ironically, stifles the very communication that could best generate that sought-after productivity. Where empathy is a core part of the culture, however, our focus is less on personal achievement and more on team success. Within communication lies evidence of the difference. After all, if Worker B in our fictional example had viewed her completed project not as hers but as the team’s, it likely would've occurred to her to share news of its completion.
Few of us can soldier on indefinitely in an atmosphere devoid of empathy. At best, the silos and communication pitfalls eventually frustrate us to the point of weary apathy. At worst, toxic competition and finger-pointing create so much stress and resentment that a day comes when we simply can’t take it any longer. Either way, productivity takes a brutal hit:
- Low morale means low engagement.
Frustrated, stressed-out employees may show up every day and put in their time, but they’re not likely to be all that invested in the organization’s success. It’s hard to care about something that’s wearing you down.
- Turnover is disruptive and expensive.
Team members that have had enough and set off for more empathetic pastures leave a hole behind—a hole others have to scramble to fill until a replacement can be found, hired, onboarded, and trained.
- Demoralization is contagious.
Unempathetic cultures breed angst not just via their problematic work practices and relationships but also through the infectious malaise they inspire.
Empathetic cultures, on the other hand, lose less to anxious distraction, low engagement, and high turnover. It’s pretty simple, really: We’re far more motivated to stay put and stay involved where we’re valued, respected, and able to help affect growth.
Team members that feel safe to make mistakes know how to reevaluate, regroup, and try again. For one thing, they can afford that knowledge: Where their necessarily perfectionistic counterparts must stay doggedly focused on avoiding failure, those that expect to err now and then build the skills necessary to navigate that inevitability. Plus, they get more practice dusting themselves off and getting back to work. Which isn’t to say that empathy gives rise to more failure. It merely equips teams to recover gracefully from it when it occurs. After all, if you knew a mistake would lead to a tongue-lashing and the disdain (or pity) of your coworkers, would that knowledge ensure that you never blundered? Hardly. That’s an unrealistic prospect for mere mortals. Far more likely is that you’d work furtively, hiding your mistakes and keeping your eyes peeled for opportunities to shift negative attention elsewhere when your secrets are finally exposed. Risk-taking isn’t an option and even “safe” work slows to a perfect-or-die crawl.
But in empathetic environments people are free to take risks, knowing as they do that the outcome—whatever it is—will not lead to humiliation or retribution. They spend less time and energy 1) trying to avoid failure and 2) recovering when it occurs, which leaves more of their resources for learning and growth.
Doing More Together with Empathy
At the core of the most resilient teams is an embodied awareness of interdependence that simply cannot be manufactured. It can, however, be fostered and fed and welcomed and nurtured. And that is a top-down calling. Only when leaders prize and prioritize empathy will team members feel safe to follow suit. From there, empathic practices and those that depend on the empathy of others (e.g. asking for help) can grow into a cultural distinctive. And when empathy is a core driver of culture, teams get from nothing to something faster and with less pain along the way. Time and energy aren’t wasted on:
- Efforting at cross-purposes
- Interdepartmental blind spots
- Half-hearted engagement
- Avoiding failure
Instead, teams move and bend together. Around obstacles, through failure, and across departments, we stick together—seeing, feeling, and doing our way to more value delivery.
But there’s more to this story. Empathetic teams have a leg up on their more apathetic counterparts when it comes to what could arguably be called the point of it all: the customer (and the focus of part two).
Photo by My Life Through A Lense