by JoAnna Springsteen
Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson coined the term “psychological safety” in 1999. It means “an absence of interpersonal fear” in social or work settings. One of the most potent ways to help people feel psychologically safe is to encourage the development of empathy.
Leading with empathy contributes to cohesion between team members and explores “how” and “why,” encouraging people to be authentic results in the freedom to take the necessary risks to do their best work.
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand, acknowledge, and even share another person’s feelings, unlike sympathy, where we are glad we’re not in the position of others. Being empathetic allows you to consider options you may not have previously seen.
Why is empathy important?
Anyone in any part of an organization can lead with empathy. This is not limited to only those in leadership roles. Many of us have been taught not to express feelings, opinions, or emotions in society and the workplace. We may tend to “bottle” things up, creating uncomfortable situations that impede progress. Leading with empathy encourages people to work through issues and conflicts in positive ways, encouraging them to stick around because they have found a safe place to change and grow.
Here are five keys to leading with empathy:
- Listen first.
Listening and absorbing what someone says can be a powerful tool to help create empathy in any setting. Know the difference between hearing and listening. Ensure you’re actively listening to what others say. Leave any assumptions you have at the door. Don’t try problem-solving. Sit in the present moment and listen.
- Respond by creating space for people to express themselves without judgment or fear.
Ask open-ended questions. Make space for the person to express themselves in unfettered ways. Don’t judge, and don’t try and fix. If you hear something concerning that does need to be discussed more in-depth, ask for permission to do so, and then do it in a way that doesn’t violate the trust of the individual.
- Open up and be vulnerable to create trust.
It’s okay to put yourself out there by telling stories or sharing experiences that make it easier to relate to you. Being vulnerable is about opening yourself up, allowing others to ask questions, and creating a dialogue. It’s okay to be imperfect and let those imperfections show. Show that you embrace your imperfections, and that trust will start to build.
- Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, especially if you disagree.
Step back, listen, and learn again. Try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and shift your perspective. Seeing things from multiple perspectives helps you open up to more diverse ideas you may not have considered. It also shows others you are willing to change your mind based on new information.
- Don’t solve problems for people.
Set people up for success; don’t hand people your answer. Encourage them to seek their own. Ask questions that help them think through the problem. Allow people to use you as a sounding board. Sometimes, an idea sounds different when you say it out loud. As a team member, remind people that they are already empowered to solve the issues before them. They don’t need you to micromanage or give permission.
Encouraging empathetic behaviors gives everyone more space to learn, which helps create psychological safety. When we put all the weight of solving a problem on one person’s shoulders, we’re alienating those folks we rely on repeatedly, which creates a type of psychological safety debt (like tech debt) that can escalate to resentment between team members. Developing trust with a team where you feel comfortable enough to open up and express yourself takes time. Leading with empathy means you are instrumental in creating an environment where people feel comfortable opening up.
Empathy opens the door to human connections. Connections lead to an unconscious commitment to another person. People who lead with empathy tend to have strongly bonded teams that can work through issues more effectively than dysfunctional teams. Solving problems is all we do in software development. It stands to reason that teams with empathetic leaders produce work of higher quality and possibly at a faster rate. While psychological safety is everything to a team, empathy is the foundation for creating psychological safety. Leaders are the people we choose to follow. What things do you practice to lead with empathy?
This article was inspired, in part, by our Flexion Fundamentals, which are principles that each Flexioneer follows to increase optionality in one facet of our work or another. These fundamentals include:
- Embrace diversity
- Listen with humility
- Never stop learning
Please see the following studies for (some) data on teams, leadership, and empathy:
- Research: To Excel, Diverse Teams Need Psychological Safety
- Psychological safety and the critical role of leadership development
- Why psychological safety at work matters and how to create it
JoAnna Springsteen is a Scrum Master working to build stronger, healthier teams. She focuses on the people side of software development, using empathy and psychological safety to remind people that empowerment comes from within. JoAnna also really digs collecting meaningful metrics that help teams make data-driven decisions for continuous improvement.