3 Ways Empathy Can Help Your Career

Back when I had a career coach, (her name is Teri Dahlbeck and she’s amazing) one of the most important lessons she taught me was the power of empathy. Like many people, I was fairly young in my career, assumed I was always right, and I would occasionally get into arguments with folks about who was right or wrong about a product feature, metric, business decision, or some other detail. She accurately identified this early on, and we spent a lot of time discussing how empathy can solve many of the problems.

The dictionary definition of empathy is : the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings. It seems simple, but the application in the workplace is often fairly complicated.

In this post, I want to cover three areas in my career where empathy has been incredibly helpful:

  1. Defusing conflict with co-workers
  2. Communicating and selling others on priorities (especially when those people don’t report to you)
  3. Having more effective 1:1s and interactions with direct reports

Defusing conflict with co-workers

It’s really common to see conflict arise between two people who both think they are right. In general, both mindsets come from a good place – maybe an engineer is trying to defend their technical architecture, maybe a product manager is just trying to get things shipped, a designer is defending the brand or product identity, and a marketer wants to maximize their acquisition spend.

However, there’s the potential for a lot of conflict as these goals all can easily conflict. Speed to market often means corners get cut at the code and design level, marketing always wants more opportunities for landing pages and data for acquisition, and there’s a limited number of resources to go around.

As a player in this game, empathy is often underutilized. Attempting to view the world through the lense of your business partner often provides perspective you won’t naturally have. I’ve seen lots of product people harm the efficiency of their team by only pushing their own agenda with the roadmap without taking the time to think through and understand the needs or viewpoints of their business partner. Take the time to understand why your co-workers feel and think the way they do. Think about the nature of your request in light of the priorities that they are being asked to manage for the business. It often makes the reasons for the conflict more clear and provides you with alternatives.

One big way you can change: talk in terms of the needs of your business partner instead of just your own. Approaching someone with a line such as “this needs to happen by tomorrow” vs “I understand why you are worried about doing this so rapidly. In the future, we will try to fix that issue to address your concerns. Unfortunately, we have to try to meet the deadline for tomorrow and do the best we can” have had totally different results in my career. The first response shows only concern for timing and getting things done. It doesn’t show any empathy for the person you are working with, or a concern that their needs will be addressed in the future. The second response, which maybe takes 5 minutes more, creates a conversation about the issues, shows that you understand what your co-worker is going through and care about it, and demonstrates that you want to work with them on it in the future. That’s going to reduce conflict, make the person want to work with you, and also inspire them to get things done in a quick manner.

Here are a couple of other examples that have worked for me and that I’ve helped others with:

  • Don’t immediately assign blame in conversations about conflict. Instead, approach a difficult conversation saying that maybe you were wrong and want to understand how the conversation broke down. Oftentimes, the person you are working with will move from being defensive to instead also admitting their faults and move from a defensive position to a place where they want to work through issues with you.
  • If you sense passive aggressiveness from a co-worker, don’t let it sit under the surface. Address it with the person, but do it in a way that doesn’t assign blame. Potentially ask what’s wrong and how you can help. You are now identifying a problem and also helping to resolve the issue. Similar to earlier, don’t approach assigning blame to the person. Instead, approach trying to understand what’s wrong and how you can help with it

Communicating and Selling Others on Priorities

As a PM, empathy has always played a big role in bringing teams together. Framing priorities for your team in a way that makes sense based on their concerns and thoughts is a much easier way to get team members bought in than just presenting priorities as things that need to be accomplished.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • When explaining priorities to an engineering team, don’t just have a laundry list of things that they are going to work on and then say these are the most important things for the company/our team at this moment. Engineers (and everyone) generally want to know that the task they are working on matters for the business. So spend a bit of time explaining how each project or task ladders up to a key business priority or metric that your team is responsible for. Also, give engineers the opportunity to provide feedback on your priorities. The key here is to be clear about the theme or metric you are trying to hit and why your priorities are aligned to hit it. This gives engineers and other partners a chance to provide structured feedback. You are now also framing the conversation around a perspective that enables your partners to feel like you are asking them to take on important, valuable tasks
  • Get feedback from partners all the time. Empathy becomes easier if you are constantly talking to team mates and establish an open environment of constant feedback. Run retrospectives and encourage everyone to provide at least one piece of feedback. And have these meetings constantly to ensure transparency. It’s not hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes if they are constantly talking about the problems they are facing and how you can help them.
  • Spend time with your partner functions outside of prioritization, brainstorms, or other progress types of meetings. Set up meetings with teams occasionally to get their ideas on the current business goals or their feedback. And don’t use these as opportunities to instruct or correct their thinking. Instead, just listen. You don’t have to do everything that they say (in some cases, you may not be able to change much), but the fact that you take the time to listen and as least consider their feedback gives them a sense that you care and want to work closely with them.

Better interactions with your direct reports

This last part is really relevant once you have a team reporting into you. Spending time thinking about how your team feels can go a long way into building a great relationship.

Here are a couple of great examples:

  • Don’t ever tell someone on your team you need to talk to them about something important, but then not have time to do it until the afternoon/next day/etc. From the employee perspective, they are now going to be a combination of worried/excited depending on how things have been going with their career. They are now going to spend the entire day thinking about this meeting with you instead of actually being able to focus on their job or get anything done. And most of the time, you probably are not firing or promoting that person, so you’d be better off just grabbing time with them and delivering the message directly. Think about how your employee perceives these interactions – don’t just worry about your own time management.
  • In 1:1s or direct interactions with your team, spend time understanding what your team members are going through. Lots of good content has been written on 1:1s – here are some great links from HBR and from Forbes. The main point I’d emphasize is I like to open up every 1:1 with the question, “how are you doing?” I’ve found that this often takes the conversation in a really valuable and interesting direction and gives your employees to talk to you in an unstructured manner. Basically, if you are using 1:1s as just a time to get a status update from your direct report, you’re not using the time properly. Use it as a time to understand what people on your team need, how you can support them, and what challenges they are facing right now. And to re-iterate a point from many articles, do your best to keep to your 1:1 schedule and don’t cancel them. It shows that you truly care about your team members.

I find that a lot of people don’t try to put themselves in the mindset of their partners or employees at work. Taking a bit of time to step back and do this can often increase team cohesion and speed of execution. Another great article on this topic was posted on Lifehacker and is also a recommended read.

Have any thoughts or tips? Would love to hear them in the comments.

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