When you begin a new job, you can’t always count on gaining the support of the existing personnel, especially when the organization is going through massive changes. And so, like a child on the first day of school, you appreciate every act of kindness you receive.
I had spent the previous year and a half struggling to connect with my former boss. When it finally became clear that it was time to move on, I quietly asked management if I could be considered for a different position. A short while afterward, I was placed “on loan” with a division across town who could benefit from my skill set as a team leader, trainer, and webmaster.
When I arrived, the staff was in the throes of launching a state-wide electronic learning management system (LMS). My role was to learn the system, deliver instructor-led training classes, run a biweekly user group meeting to troubleshoot user issues, and act as backup administrator when needed. Luckily for me, the system administrator had a kind disposition and helped me learn the ropes. Like me, he was a former trainer and welcomed questions; and like me, his managers had not always been kind.
When you leave a job to go to a new position, sometimes things get worse before they get better. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had stepped aboard the Titanic. Many had already abandoned ship, fragmenting teams and leaving unfinished projects in their wake. Although I wasn’t sure how long the ship would stay afloat, I was determined to make the most of my time there.
About a year later, I was asked to create an online learning module. My humble tool kit consisted of an old eLearning software package and a cheap USB microphone. In spite of my lack of experience, I enjoyed the creation process from start to finish: writing the script, recording the voiceover, designing the storyboard, and adding any free graphics I could find. I didn’t realize it at the time but I had become an eLearning team of one – but not for long.
After three years, the project came to an end. The office shut down and I returned to my former work station.
The time I spent had been worthwhile. My skill set had expanded, and I was fortunate to have worked with some good people, even if it was only for a short time and under difficult circumstances.
When I returned, I was grateful that my former boss had moved on. The system administrator had also been assigned there, but we were not working together. That soon changed when it was decided that the two of us would work as a team to develop training modules on the now fully functional LMS.
As time passed and we collaborated on different projects, we developed a mutual respect for one another. Although we sometimes disagreed on how things should be accomplished, we focused on the goal and offered each other constructive criticism so we could help each other grow.
“People are more willing to step in when they share the same values.” – The System Administrator
NEW SHIP – NEW CREW
About a year later we welcomed a displaced graphic designer to our fledgling team. She brought new life to our projects, and had an unquenchable desire to learn everything about our work. She had also suffered at the hands of a bullying boss, and the system administrator offered her the same kind ear that had meant so much to me when we began working together.
The three of us worked together, always aiming to raise the bar and make each module better than the last. We all made plenty of mistakes, but grace was always offered rather than judgment.
“We help each other without asking. You’re willing to give help and you’re not afraid to ask for help.” – The Graphic Designer
Next we were joined by a seasoned programmer. Due to a radical change in management, seven fellow employees had left her unit, leaving her to keep things running without promise of new hires. She was a proven team player, interested in our work, and we were lucky to be able to bring her on board. As fate would have it, she also happened to be the most empathic person I had ever met.
“We all want it to come out well. We care.” – The Programmer
Just three years after our return, we won the first of our awards for excellence. The team had transitioned from a group of loosely-knit professionals to a highly functioning team of eLearning developers. Frequent informal meetings helped build trust, and our rapport remained strong in spite of the pressures of our increasing number of projects.
We were a team with a diverse set of skills. Dissimilar craftspeople from different work cultures who banded together for a common cause: to master the tools required to create high quality training. And not just for the LMS. Video was taking off in the eLearning world, and we rose to meet the challenge – together.
Overall, our work load had increased exponentially. Around the same time, a young call center employee from another division heard about our team. As a former video editor she brought the expertise we needed to continue our growth. She was eager to learn our craft, full of ideas, and played well in the sandbox.
“Our team is successful because everyone brings a different skill set. Everybody has a concept of what each person can do, but they specialize in their own area.” – The Video Editor
Success is often rewarded by being given new responsibilities. When a colleague from another area retired, I was chosen to take over half of his duties while maintaining my role as manager of our development team. My reward came with an additional employee: a former Marine. Among other things, he possessed great customer service skills – and it was clear from his demeanor that he had a heart for helping others.
“If I have a Marine that’s falling back on me, it’s going to affect the whole team. You have to reach out to them. You’re trying to understand where they’re coming from. It comes down to showing someone that you care.” – The Former Marine
So, what do a webmaster, system administrator, graphic designer, programmer, video editor, and former Marine have in common?
“To listen with empathy is the most important human skill.” – Stephen Covey
Empathy is a word many people use but few understand – because it’s often confused with sympathy. If I sympathize with someone, I retain my own point of view. When I empathize, I step outside of myself to experience the other person’s point of view.
“You’re experiencing a fraction of their emotions and feelings because you see things from their perspective” (Kramer, 2018).
3 TYPES OF EMPATHY
According to psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, there are three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. (Bariso, 2018),
- Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how a person feels.
empathy happens when you share the
feelings of another person.
- Compassionate empathy moves us to take action
Empathic people are good listeners and they withhold judgment of others. They also offer help without asking for anything in return (Rube, n.d.). Showing empathy helps us communicate with our fellow humans in a deeper way. Displays of compassionate empathy build trust between team members, which helps them thrive.
In his book Empathy:
Why It Matters, and How to Get It, Roman Krznaric explains the importance
of showing empathy at work.
the modern workplace is not just about being able to see things from another
perspective. It’s the cornerstone of teamwork, good innovative design, and
smart leadership. It’s about helping others feel heard and understood.” (Krznaric,
So, if empathy is so valuable, how do you cultivate it in the workplace? Some people are naturally empathic, but others not so much. Can it be learned?
The answer is yes.
Empathic leaders bring out the best in their people, and they create an environment that fosters the level of trust high-functioning teams require.
In my twenty-five-year career, I have had twelve managers. Eleven out of the twelve got the job done, but only five were leaders. And out of those five, three were inspirational because they displayed compassionate empathy. Here’s what I learned from them.
- Recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each team member. This will provide you with the insight you need to help them grow.
- Find out what’s important to each person so you can help them achieve their career goals.
- Be with your team. Make it a point to talk with each team member every day.
- Be accessible. It’s difficult to balance this with your own workload, but it’s critical to the group’s success. Never forget that you’re a part of the team.
- Have meetings, but keep them short. If they can’t be short, bring food (a valuable lesson I learned from my very first boss). And try to keep the tone informal.
- It’s all about the small stuff. Birthday cards are a given, but how about National Pretzel Day? Who doesn’t love a good soft pretzel? Be creative.
- Share all the information you can as often as you can. Nobody likes to be kept in the dark.
- Share your own stories, but only if you think they would be interesting AND beneficial.
- Congratulate individuals and the team for a job well done. Each and every time.
- If you can, work on projects with your team. You shouldn’t stop being a team player just because you’re the boss.
Someone with empathy pays attention to the actions of the people around them – and performs acts of kindness accordingly. On our team it happens every day. It can be a small act, like sharing a funny story when someone’s having a rough day. Or it can be something more time-consuming like helping someone who has a heavy workload, even if their own plate is full. Or noticing when someone’s not quite themselves and letting them know you’re there if they need to talk.
Author and empathy expert Brené Brown believes that “Empathy fuels connection” (The RSA, 2013). I agree. It is the empathic connection that marks the difference between a good team and a great one.
In 2012, Google began a study to determine how to improve their teams. Using data from within their own company, the researchers discovered that good teams shared two behaviors: “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking” and high ‘‘average social sensitivity,” or what most people would call empathy. When combined, these two characteristics resulted in a shared sense of psychological safety, which “more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.”
” … Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs” (Duhigg, 2016).
Simply stated, teams achieve impressive results when they step outside of themselves and focus on each other.
best collaboration includes empathy … it adds a greater depth to the
collaboration.” – The Video Editor
you have empathy for one another you’re going to do better at your job.
Self-centered people don’t collaborate well. Some people sabotage one another.
We operate as one.” – The Programmer
“Whatever we collaborate on
is always better.” – The System Administrator
DEVELOPING TEAM CHEMISTRY
What can you do to create a culture of empathy in your organization? Licensed Master Social Worker Tasha Rube provides some practical advice on how to connect with others using empathy.
- Be an active listener. Avoid distractions and focus on the message being delivered.
- Open up. To practice empathy, you have to share your own inner landscape with someone else as they reciprocate.
- Pay attention to the actions of people around you.
- Withhold judgment.
- Offer help.
I AM DIFFERENT BECAUSE …
I asked my colleagues to describe how they’ve changed since becoming a part of the team. Here’s what they told me.
My confidence level is a lot higher because I come to work knowing that I will end the day with more knowledge and the team is there to support me whenever I fall short. ” – The Former Marine
“I have definitely changed in a positive way. I think this is because I don’t feel judged by my teammates; instead I feel supported and accepted. It’s okay if I don’t remember something or if I don’t know how to do something. Someone on the team will show me how or we’ll learn a new skill together.”– The Video Editor
“I feel valued, appreciated, and respected. I’m so thrilled to work with a great group of people and to have the opportunity to learn so many new and exciting media software applications. It’s been a pleasure to collaborate together and learn from one another.” – The Programmer
“Because of my new environment and the comfort zone [I experience] with my colleagues, I have become more positive and productive. Today, I wear many hats – problem-solver, mentor, motivator and teacher. – The Graphic Designer
“This team accomplishes a lot, partly because of diverse talent and work ethic, but more importantly because of mutual respect and care for each other.” – The System Administrator
STEP OUTSIDE OF YOURSELF
This story is about people complementing each other; overcoming their differences as they share a common goal. The respect we share with each other has allowed us to develop a culture of mutual respect that fosters collaboration. That collaboration is fueled by empathy.
your impact in humanity, not in the likes, but the lives you touch; not in
popularity, but in the people you serve. I found that my life got bigger when I
stopped caring about what other people thought about me. You will find yours
will too. Stay focused on what really matters. There will be times when your
resolve to serve humanity will be tested. Be prepared. People will try to
convince you that you should keep your empathy out of your career. Don’t accept
this false premise.” – Tim Cook, Apple CEO
As my colleague says, “Be kind.” Empathy is contagious. Ultimately, it leads to a happier workforce who work well together and contribute better ideas.
Smart leaders can choose to develop an empathic culture. When they do, they will be rewarded with successful, collaborative teams and improved employee retention rates: a win-win scenario.
until nxt time …
Header photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels.
Bariso, J. (2018, September 19). There are actually 3 types of empathy. Here’s how they differ–and how you can develop them all. Retrieved from: https://www.inc.com/justin-bariso/there-are-actually-3-types-of-empathy-heres-how-they-differ-and-how-you-can-develop-them-all.html
Bariso, J. (2018, January 7). Google spent years studying effective teams. This single quality contributed most to their success. Retrieved from: https://www.inc.com/justin-bariso/google-spent-years-studying-effective-teams-this-single-quality-contributed-most-to-their-success.html
Duhigg, C. (2016, February 25)
What Google learned from its quest to build the perfect team. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html
Kramer, B. (2018, August 13.).
The critical difference between sympathy and empathy. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2018/08/13/the-critical-difference-between-sympathy-and-empathy/
Krznaric, R. (2014). Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It.
New York, NY: Perigee.
Rube, T. (n.d.). How to show empathy. Retrieved from wikiHow website: https://www.wikihow.com/Show-Empathy
The RSA. (2013, December 10). Brené Brown on Empathy. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw