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Empathy: A Leadership Superpower
Marie Kalliney Executive Director | June 15, 2020
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A TRUE STORY

I was running late to a Sprint Review for a team I was coaching. When I finally arrived and quickly settled in, I was taken aback by what I saw.

The team was new to Scrum, and this was only its third sprint. While the team did have work to demonstrate, one executive was not pleased with what he saw, and in fact, the team had not met all of their commitments for that sprint. The executive criticized the team so harshly about its insufficient sprint deliverables that no one in the room wanted to speak. Most team members dropped their heads and couldn’t make eye contact with him. He continued ranting until he ran out of steam.

How could the manager and I see the team so differently? Some experts call this the “empathy gap”.

Negativity can be contagious, and sure enough, the mood in the room had turned sour.

After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, one brave team member spoke up, and she was angry. She told the executive that the team had tried its best, and that with each sprint, they were learning more about agile and the product they were building. She pointed out that the team’s progress on its learning curve demonstrated continuous improvement, which, after all, is an agile principle. She then calmly—but dramatically—walked out of the room.

I immediately noted a paradox: I knew that just a few years ago, the executive had gone through an agile transformation, so I was surprised that I neither saw nor heard from him signs of empathy for the team and where it was in its journey. If there was anyone who would be empathetic, I thought it would be him.

THE EMPATHY GAP

Days later, I finally had the chance to sit down with the executive on a one on one. I listened as he recounted how his transformation changed the way he looks at teams and work product. That prompted me to ask him how his own transformation had influenced his perception of this team.

He told me something that surprised me.

He believed that because his own agile journey was “easy,” he could not relate to the team’s journey. “They’re backsliding. They’re not taking these changes seriously enough, and if they were truly committed, they would have met their commitments,” he told me.

Empathy, like positivity and curiosity, are all contagious.

I asked him to tell me more about his “easy” agile journey. He explained that early in his career, he joined a team that was already agile, a team that delivered valuable software every two weeks.

He asked, “Why can’t this team do that, too? They’re no different from my earlier team.”

His complaint wasn’t new territory for me. Over the years, I’ve worked with many managers and executives who lead with toughness rather than kindness.

I asked the executive how he felt when that one brave team member left the room. He told me that her behavior was inexcusable, and it only reinforced his belief that the team didn’t want to grow and succeed.

As for his opinion of the other team members, who were silent during the sprint review, he said, “They just don’t care, and that’s why no one else spoke up.”

I was perplexed. Before the sprint review, I had observed a team that was working well. They weren’t perfect, but they had accepted the agile transformation. They knew what it meant to work as a team (as opposed to a group of individuals who worked in small silos), and they respected one another. I also saw a team of learners, people who were curious about agile and interested in learning the process.

How could the executive and I see the same team so differently?

Some experts call this disparity the empathy gap.1 

I learned in my discussion with the executive that shared experience does not always result in empathy. In fact, for this one, it reaped the opposite result. His point of view was, “If I could successfully navigate an agile transformation, so can anyone. This team is no different”.  

I had some answers for him. As I told him, “This team is different from your other team in many ways. First and most significantly, this entire team is new to agile. Unlike the team you joined, no agile experts are on the team or any other team they work with, so there is no one who can give them guidance. They’re working on product that none of us have worked on, so we don’t know the context of what they’re up against. And since neither of us is a member of the team, we don’t actually know what it’s like to be on that team. As with every team, the members’ personalities and skills are unique to them.”

LEARNING EMPATHY

To his credit, the executive thought I made some good points, and he agreed to begin an empathy journey, with me as his coach. We worked very hard over the next year, and he came to understand what empathy means, how it manifests in his daily interactions, and its value in the agile process.

I’ve learned over the years that empathy is highly contextual to each of us, so we started by defining what empathy means to him. I had expected him to say something like, “putting myself in other people’s shoes,” but he surprised me—again. He defined empathy as “asking open questions and eliciting new ideas rather than applying judgment, allowing everyone time to think and talk at their own pace, and acting as a sounding board for ideas instead of squashing opinions and suggestions.”

Over time, he began to show a true willingness to ask for and accept feedback from team members. It took practice—some of the feedback was harsh and might have made anyone uncomfortable. Other feedback was positive; team members appreciated that he kept his word and could be counted on to deliver his commitments. His own introspection led him to realize that he can draw on his experiences of receiving empathy from colleagues, family and friends.

Eventually, he was able to apply his own view of empathy to others, his relationship with his team improved, and they were able to perfect their processes and delivery. He began to relax his body language, and he drew out new ideas by asking questions rather than making demands. The team responded in kind—exchanging feedback, creating new possibilities for their work, and showing excitement! Positivity and curiosity are also contagious.

TIPS FOR LEARNING EMPATHY

Learning empathy isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but it can be done. It takes a lot of conscious effort and a desire to truly change your mindset. I’ve witnessed the (super)power that comes with learning empathy, both professionally and personally, and I guarantee that you (and everyone around you) will benefit when you learn empathy.

Here are some tips:

  1. Start by defining what empathy means to you.
  2. Look for people you work with who model the behaviors and mindset you define as empathetic. Study how they behave and communicate verbally, and gradually chip away at closing the gap between their behavior and mode of verbal communication and your own—one attribute at a time, if that makes it more do-able for you. This tactic works even better if you tell your empathy role model(s) what you’re doing and ask for their feedback on your efforts to deliver empathy. They probably will have great advice and will more than likely share their empathy stories with you, too.
  3. Show yourself some empathy. So often we have self-defeating thoughts. The narratives we tell ourselves are sometimes worse than anything we would dare say aloud to another person. Care for yourself, and you will flip the switch on your own plotline.
  4. Remember that you were once a novice at many things. Think about a time in your career when your job responsibilities, operating model, and people were all new. For many of us, these circumstances coincide with a new job. Think hard about what it would be like if you came to work one day, doing the same job you’ve been doing for years, and your boss said, “The way you’re performing today is almost unrecognizable compared to how you’ve done things before.” How would you want that news delivered, and what could your boss say that would help alleviate some of the shock/discomfort?
  5. Find a coach and work with him/her earnestly. One-on-one career coaches are especially useful in building emotional intelligence and empathy.

Once you have started your work on developing or fine-tuning your empathy, you will begin to see changes around you. Empathy, like positivity and curiosity, is contagious. And when we’re talking about these qualities, being contagious is a good thing!

1Nordgren et al., “Visceral Drives in Retrospect: Explanations About the Inaccessible Past,” Psychological Science 17, no. 7 (July 2006)

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