Work kinder, part 3: how everyone can help grow an empathetic culture

Building an empathetic team culture

At Open Door Teams, we’ve been in business for two decades and our combined work experience is nearly ten times that. We’ve served in and collaborated with a wide spectrum of cultures ranging from the robustly healthy to the categorically toxic, and when we hold the clear winners up to the light, a distinct pattern emerges. A pattern of intentional, ongoing, dynamic practices—some we can all adopt, some that are specific to management, and all of which nurture a skill that, on the whole, gets more hype than real use.

Empathy: another corporate buzzword in an ever-lengthening list of words and phrases that at first sound substantive but in time reveal their disappointingly hollow cores. You’ll hear no argument from us. Depthless, comfortable approaches to cultivating empathy have given rise to a kind of pseudo-empathy. Rigidly scripted customer care? Showy, trust fall-like internal team building? Impathy, let’s call it—like plastic grapes or imitation crab, it may look pretty, but the real thing it is not.

Now we realize we’ve dedicated around three thousand words to convincing you that empathy boosts productivity and drives innovation, but unless it’s impathy you’re after, you can forget all that for the time being. Because to develop truly empathetic cultures, we must treat an improved bottom line not as the goal but merely its byproduct. The real goal? Empathy itself—that imperfect, low-gloss, all too real fruit. We’ll pull no punches here… empathetic cultures aren’t achieved so much as practiced. There’s no finish line to cross, no accreditation to be earned. And like everything that’s hand-grown rather than mass produced, empathy has a limited shelf life. We must sow it continually. The question is, “How?”

5 empathy-growing practices for everyone:

By definition, empathizing involves gaining awareness of what you can’t possibly know: the felt experience of someone who isn’t you and in fact may not have much in common with you. While sympathy asks relatively little of us—our compassion there is aroused through kinship—empathy demands real and regular engagement with the limits of our own understanding. If that sounds uncomfortable, well… it is. (We promised not to pull punches.) But the good news is that as we work to increase our capacity for empathy, we also increase our tolerance for the discomfort it requires.

1. Indulge (appropriate) curiosity.

None of us can magically understand where other people are coming from, and the more we differ, the more that’s true. But we can ask

  • “I’d love your perspective on this if you’ve got the time.”

  • “Oh, you’re a photographer? How’d you get into that?”

  • “Hey, thanks for the LinkedIn invite. Your profile says you volunteered on house builds in Ghana. Wow. What was that like?”

We’re not advocating intense, journalistic probing or forced friendliness. Just respectful interest in our colleagues. Customers too:

  • “What’s the biggest problem you’re hoping to solve here?”

  • “How important would you say that feature is to your team?”

  • “Can you talk a bit about your most aggravating challenges?”

Right about now some of you may be thinking that this is fine for people who truly are curious, but you—you’re just here to work. To that we offer this gentle challenge: Is it really disinterest? Or is it that expressing interest isn’t cool? It’s certainly risky. What if our coworker thinks we’re being invasive? What if our client gets impatient and curt? None of that dreaded awkwardness can happen if we just don’t ask the questions, and in time our natural inquisitiveness goes dormant from disuse. But we can coax it back to life with a little fake it till you make it action—pretend you’re curious; soon enough you will be.

2. Really listen.

When our customers or coworkers are talking to us, we can increase our chances of empathizing just by turning off the distractions and listening to what they’re saying. Pay attention. Ask clarifying questions. If we truly want to understand where others are coming from, one of the most obvious ways is to let them tell us. But that’s much easier said than done. In The Plateau Effect, Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson articulate part of the reason why:

“The human brain has the capacity to digest as much as 400 words per minute of information. But even a speaker from New York City talks at around 125 words per minute. That means three-quarters of your brain could very well be doing something else while someone is speaking to you.

This helps explain why little children are—or can be, anyway—better listeners than adults. Their brains are less developed, so they are much more likely to be completely engrossed in a topic. Adults, with all that extra brain power, are much more easily distracted.”

Listening well, therefore, involves repeatedly pulling our attention back to the speaker. Which admittedly sounds somewhat grueling. But like any skill, it gets easier with practice.

Sound expert Julian Treasure shares simple tips for becoming a better listener.

3. Question assumptions (especially your own).

We all regularly come to what seem like rather well-informed conclusions about other people and the world around us. Conclusions that affect how we treat one another. But those conclusions don’t seem so well-informed when we consider the vastness of what we don’t know—even about ourselves. Consider an illuminating experience one of our team reported recently:

"I called the support center and the guy that took my call had a heavy Indian accent. Without realizing it at first, I got sort of… stiff? Closed? Defensive. Anyway, it took a moment to even notice but once I did I asked myself what’s that about? It took another moment or two but soon enough I had visions of Western media portrayals of Indian men looming large in my head and realized I was subconsciously expecting to be on the receiving end of a hard, smarmy sell."

- Holly H., Communications Specialist

The trouble with assumptions is that they rarely feel like assumptions. They just feel like truth. Knowledge. To discern which is which, we can ask ourselves, “What’s true about this situation? This person? This project?” We can start by assuming we’re right, so long as we follow that up by explaining why we’re right, if only to ourselves. In doing so, we pull back the curtain on what we don’t know and make room to learn something new.

4. Be specific with compliments (and criticism).

Appreciating colleagues is all well and good, but where “Great job” is easy and demands little of us, “I appreciate your work on X as it’s made my job Y easier to navigate in ways A and B,” requires real reflection. The same is true with our customers. “Thank you,” is as easy as breathing; “Your feedback about 1 and 2 inspired us to start work on new features A and B,” necessitates thought and consideration. And it’s that reflection, thought, and consideration that fosters empathy. When we really think about someone else’s contribution—what specifically do we appreciate? what specifically do we think needs improvement?—we set ourselves up to empathize. (A fascinating example of this can be found here in which an executive coach gently pushes a client to really think about what he doesn’t like about a coworker.)

5. Act as if.

If empathy were a martial art, empathizing with someone you don’t like might earn you a black belt. Difficult, yes, but not impossible. When a coworker feels more like an adversary than an ally, try acting as if you can collaborate fruitfully and frictionlessly. Just pretend it’s possible. Choose a low-stakes project and approach them for their input. Then—and this is important—receive it. 

"When I was an International Student Advisor, the office manager and I did not get along at all. We reported to the same boss, but had very different ways of communication and completing tasks. One day, I made the decision to open a dialog with her on a simple task I needed to complete. I just stated what I needed to do and asked for her feedback. After a few months, we were best buds, bouncing ideas off of each other on ways big and small to improve our service to students."

- Michael D., Research Data Analyst

Expect it to take time, but by forcing yourself to offer an olive branch you might just create the conditions necessary to grow one. You might not. But either way, you’ve stretched your capacity for empathy just by mustering up the willingness to behave as if there could be more to the other person than a difficult colleague. Even if the relationship doesn’t improve, you do.

Embrace incrementalism, not perfectionism.

Every one of these practices involves a little discomfort, mostly in the form of vulnerability. If nothing else, we risk:

  • Rejection, maybe even scorn, when we ask questions

  • The chance to prepare a winning response when we really listen

  • Our own good opinion (what, me? biased? no way!) when we question our assumptions

  • Sounding corny (or churlish) when we’re specific with our compliments (and criticism)

  • Failure and the appearance of weakness when we act as if an adversary is an ally

In other words, we risk chafing—wait for it—our egos. It’s uncomfortable at times, but it’s not labor intensive. If all we each did was shoot for one percent improvement in each of these areas, our respective cultures would benefit. Possibly profoundly—just ask Sir David Brailsford, General Manager and former Performance Director of Team Sky, Great Britain’s professional cycling team. Where huge, complicated undertakings can easily overwhelm and, therefore, lay abandoned, small, incremental gains can, just for example, turn a ho-hum cycling team into formidable world champions.

A litany of a little goes an awfully long way.


Next: what managers can do to help build empathetic team cultures | Photo by Clem Onojeghuo