Crafting an Empathy-Driven Approach to Management

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By Mona Patel

This article was originally published on May 26, 2015 at The original article can be found here.

Like yours probably are, my office bookshelves and Kindle library are chock-full of management and leadership books, and I’ve used bits from these books to help me hire employees and craft our business culture.

But notice I say “craft our business culture” and not “manage employees.” As a user experience expert, I’ve learned it’s best to intentionally approach management in an investigative way; to first understand and empathize with the user (the employee, in this case), and then design solutions that map to their needs. In theory, with this approach, you would have to manage less because you have created processes, structures and plans that support employees’ real needs and wants.

The question is, can you really walk in your employees’ shoes and see things from their perspective as a leader? Is it empathy (feeling what they feel, achieving oneness, a sense of unity with others about their view, etc.) or is it projection (having the illusion of understanding their view when it’s really just a way of seeing our own perspectives and biases from a different lens)?

To help me answer that — and learn how to check my beliefs vs. facts about my team — I developed some hacks to help me clear away assumptions and become a better, more empathy-driven leader.

Work Everywhere

Taking back-to-back meetings and spending most days behind closed doors makes you a productivity warrior, but it also disconnects you from employees. It’s hard to get a true read on the office vibe if employees think you’re too busy to say hello or make eye contact. I have a desk in the open co-working space and a private office, and I work from each location depending on the tasks that day.

On days where I’m writing or mainly on email, I’m in “the pit,” soaking in the office vibes and connecting with everyone. These days are like quick litmus tests and remind me that we are all in the arena together. As vulnerability researcher Brené Brown has reminded us through her research and TED talks, a key component of empathy is vulnerability and the ability to put yourself out there, sharing your ideas with the world without shutting down your ability to care what people think. I purposely integrate myself into the common space so I can check and tweak how things are going in very subtle ways. I care and act on what they think about the projects we work on, our internal reporting platforms, the chairs they sit on, and even what coffee we stock.

Schedule 5 Minutes Each Week to Play Detective

Take a quick stroll around the office to see who is working solo versus collaboratively. Listen in on a client meeting and focus on the tone of the meeting versus the content. Watch an interaction between colleagues and the non-verbal behavior during it. Have someone join you for your mid-afternoon coffee run and only ask questions. Look at their demeanor when they walk in; whether they smile and greet you; whether they dilly-dally near the coffee or get right to work; whether they take notes at the meetings or whether they volunteer to do the follow-up work (or even do it without being asked).

All of these situations give you cues about how an employee feels about working with you, and the insights are much better than what you get by asking, “Is anything wrong?” Taking on a detective role for a few minutes a week can give you real data to check your assumptions, remind you of your bias, and help you see what you need to see, not be egocentric in your empathizing.

Design for Humans, Not Employees

Design and furnish your offices for how you want people to feel; for what your brand and business culture look like in action. I tried to design our new office space to appeal to creative humans, not employees. A Lego wall, creative lighting, a thinking/just chillin’ swing, comfy couches, private mini-offices, public co-working spaces — some features worked out and some didn’t. Send out a questionnaire that asks your team where they felt most inspired and continue to refine your space to match the kinds of spaces they use and want.

Use “Problempathy” to Reformulate Problems

My gut tells me that while we can try, pure empathy is unlikely, in design and in management. So, we came up with a modification: Problempathy. Where empathy is about putting yourself in the user’s shoes, Problempathy is about putting yourself in the problem’s shoes; e.g., when we are redesigning an app, we take on the perspective of the app. Problem statements now sound like this: “I wish I could do more, but my designer forgot a feature that would have really helped the user,” or “I’m embarrassed I keep crashing.”

For employees, we use Problempathy to look at our scoping process from a proposal’s perspective rather than a client’s. Or, when we revamped our org chart, we looked at the problem from the chart’s perspective. As a result, we ended up with something radical and different in the form of intersecting circles rather than a traditional hierarchical organization chart.

Using Problempathy with employees has been eye-opening; we are both trying on a new lens, and I’m able to see more problems (and facts) more objectively than before. Most importantly, it gives us both a safe way to talk about problems from the same side of the table, removing some of the defensiveness and assumptions that cause blind spots.

Bottom Line: Hiring Is an Investment

By hiring an employee, I’ve made a decision about where they fit in my vision for the company; they’re an investment in my company’s future. It would be short-sighted to not care what they think and thoughtlessly say they could go work elsewhere if they were unhappy.

Are these hacks perfect? No. Do they make things better? Absolutely. And as we often say in user-centered design, that is enough…for now.

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