It’s fair to say that most of the problems in this world stem from a lack of empathy. If you are unable or unwilling to connect with and consider someone on an emotional level, it will show in your behaviour towards them. This disconnect creates friction at best, and conflict at worst. It’s not something that we consider in the workplace nearly as much as we should.
Empathy is crucial for any business on both the internal and external levels. Internally, we need harmonious communication and behaviour to create the best results possible and to have as happy a team as we can. Externally, we need to display empathy with our clients in order to build ongoing trust with them, and we need to be empathic towards the end user’s needs, desires and behaviours to make the product successful.
At Despark, we believe that empathy should be considered a key skill that can be trained and built up. That’s why it’s one of our five values.
The components of empathy
According to emotions research guru, Brene Brown, there are four components to empathy:
- Being able to see the world as others see it
- Being non-judgmental
- Being able to understand another person’s feelings
- Being able communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings
What could these components mean in the workplace context?
Being able to see the world as others see it — remembering that your teammate may have had a different upbringing and background to you, may have a different world view, different religious, moral and political beliefs and so on. Even if you don’t agree with their viewpoint, can you try and understand why they feel that way?
Being non-judgmental — not treating a member of the team differently because of how they are feeling or their viewpoint. It’s OK to disagree, but can you accept that their view is different and that they shouldn’t be judged for it?
Being able to understand another person’s feelings — maybe you think a teammate’s reaction to something is unwarranted, but that’s because you’re not built the way they are. Can you try put their reaction in the context of how they may have been made to feel in the working environment or personal issues they may be going through? If you think someone is acting in an unusual or unwarranted way, there’s always an explanation — whether it justifies their actions or not.
Being able communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings — so you’ve tried to understand why someone on your team is behaving the way they are or why their opinion might be different, but are you conveying that understanding correctly? Choice of language, tone and timing are crucial when dealing with such matters. For example, if someone is struggling with their work, calling them out on it in front of their team mates might not be the best approach.
In order to become empathic, people should first feel safe to show vulnerability. According to Brown: “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling” . In practice, this means not being afraid of failure or receiving a luke-warm reception when sharing ideas. To engender this, we have to create safe spaces in which people can feel free to experiment, attempt to innovate, and even fail.
“No idea is a bad idea in a brainstorm” is a common maxim that describes this approach, and in those situations it’s important to make sure all voices are heard. Even the quiet and silent ones. If someone doesn’t speak up or offer ideas in a brainstorm, it may be that they are scared of rejection. It’s worth asking such people directly what their opinion is to ensure that they are included, and offering people the chance to submit ideas in private via email or through one-on-ones.
This culture needs to be created from the top-down. The leadership need to allow platforms where their ideas and opinions can be challenged. An office full of ‘yes men’ and ‘yes women’ is not a breeding ground for innovation and creativity. It should be encouraged that ideas be submitted from anyone, no matter what their position in the organisation. As they say: a good idea is a good idea, regardless of where it came from.
Practicing empathy inside the team builds stronger relationships that can stand the test of conflict. Being open for honest and sometimes rough feedback is essential for our group dynamics. One should not be afraid to go into a constructive argument with a colleague; those are the moments that help people and businesses grow together.
Empathy grows with better communication. Planting the seed of empathy into a team starts with talking, sharing and listening. Our commitment to being fully transparent since the beginning of 2017 is part of our way of doing this.
Empathy at Despark
Engendering good communication is a major challenge in any organisation. Team-to-team communication was a major issue for Despark a few years back; it was totally absent in most of our projects. Now, with a more inclusive process, we have everyone on board with every project from the beginning — producers, designers, developers — so that the communication between us can flow easier and clearer while we’re building the product. But sometimes, communication still breaks down despite our best efforts.
Trust issues are the elephants in the room for Despark. We are not yet at a stage where everyone feels safe and confident to share what is on their mind. In his book ‘The Five Dysfunctions Of A Team’, Patrick Lencioni identifies lack of trust as one of the major problems for organisational harmony. It results in a lot of time wasted through people exhibiting defensive behaviours instead of solving the actual challenges at hand. This, of course, is directly connected to people being unable to show their weaknesses and be open to one another.
Our path together taught us that although empathy is a feeling and cannot be measured, there are things that can actually help us become more empathic as both people and as a business. The more you practice, the easier it becomes for you to choose to be empathic in a certain situation.
How to train your empathy muscle
- Talk more with both clients and employees. Nurture communication and take other people’s perspectives on all topics/problems. Don’t just leave it to email; pick up the phone or have a video call. While it’s obviously important to keep a record of communication and what’s been agreed, email is a cold medium and can be responsible for a lot of miscommunication and misinterpretation of tone. These pitfalls can often be avoided with face-to-face or at least voice-to-voice interactions.
- Never hire against your values. Hire and fire according to them. We believe that our great culture at Despark comes from hiring the right people who share our ethos and outlook. Getting the right talent means being able to give them that level of trust, and that helps to create the informal atmosphere that we believe is crucial to working together as a team.
- Never judge vulnerability; advocate for it. Learn to give — and especially receive — feedback. Encourage your group members to challenge you and to stress test your ideas and make them feel like they can always come to you with an opinion.
- Foster innovation for a better world. Have a vision for the future. Help others through your products and services. Don’t let profit be your sole motive.
- Don’t be a blamer. The first question should never be “whose fault is it?” Blame is one of the main reasons we miss opportunities to display empathy. Working on a solution to a problem together is more productive.
In the spirit of transparency, we admit that our team at Despark still lacks the level of empathy we would like — but we’re getting better and we have made huge progress from where we started. Building empathy requires patience, persistence and time, but the results can be transformative for your business.