Empathy might seem like an unnecessary skill for technology leaders, but being able to see things from another point of view can make you significantly more effective.
From an IT leader's perspective, at first blush, empathy might sound like a virtue deserving of one of my five-year-old daughter's favorite quips, borrowed from a recent movie: "A bunch of hippie-dippy baloney." However, empathy can make you a more effective leader, and broadly accelerate your career growth. Like many "soft skills," part of the reason empathy gets a bad rap is overly complicated interpretations of how one practices empathy. For our purposes, it's the simple ability to see the world from someone else's perspective.
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Sitting on both sides of the table
Consider the last time you were having a challenging discussion or presentation. You likely had an objective, whether it was delivering bad news, convincing a hostile audience to adopt a different point of view, or being tasked with being on the receiving end of similar content. Perhaps you marshalled your best talking points, developed slides to argue your point, and went into the discussion prepared for battle. How did it go? If you were the highest-ranking person in the room perhaps it seemed to go swimmingly, with staff diligently nodding affirmation to your every whim, but did you truly convince them of the merits of your case? Among peers were there passionate arguments but ultimately several "immovable objects" pushing each other with no measurable progress?
Now, consider approaching the situation slightly differently. Rather than thinking about what content to present, try to put yourself in the other person's shoes. What might they be concerned about? What are they expecting to hear? What might persuade them to adopt a new position on their terms, rather than being metaphorically beaten into submission?
When you plan interactions based on meeting the other person where they currently are, rather than attempting to talk them into accepting your point of view, you'll likely take a very different and more effective approach.
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For a more concrete example, consider the current state of technology design and implementation. Terms like user experience and design thinking are now common vernacular, and while there are differences and nuances among the various techniques for systems design, they all start with empathy and understanding of the end-user as their core.
In the old days of system design, we'd consider the data we needed to present or acquire from the user, with technical requirements first and foremost, and if the end-user were lucky, some analyst or developer might spend a few minutes trying to organize screens and interfaces to at least make them logical. This left us with overly complex technology that frustrated users. While "frustration" is generally not a core business metric, these systems resulted in lower productivity, longer adoption times, and in the worst case, successful technologies that no one adopted since they were too difficult to use.
Empathy even extends to a basic understanding of how a technology will be used. I've worked with several oil and gas companies, and been in the room when technology for field workers is being discussed. Eyes often roll when a vendor begins regaling the room with tales of the wonders of iPads for every field worker, a solution that sounds great until you consider many of these workers are wearing oily and greasy gloves and working in a dangerous environment. The most basic level of empathy for these workers would quickly realize that tablet-style computers are not the right tool for their environment. In this situation, emerging technologies like augmented reality or voice recognition could be beneficial, or at a more basic level, asking whether its necessary to have men and women working in these conditions interacting with technology at all, and whether the benefits outweigh the inherent risks of their work environment.
Similarly, the new school of systems design isn't about making people feel good and love their accounting software; rather, a system that's designed with the end-user at its core often requires less training, quickly gains adoption, and makes users more productive, all metrics with very real and obvious financial benefits.
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Leading with empathy
As leaders, it can be difficult to find a unifying theme to how we help guide and develop our people. One could likely fill a warehouse with books dedicated to the topic, and it can be difficult to determine if you should "lean in," "be a servant leader," be a "360-degree leader," "start with why", or "go from good to great." When I think of my own career, the leaders with the most impact seemed to understand the challenges I was facing at the time, and provided just the right level of guidance. At some points that might have been some no-nonsense, highly prescriptive tactics, while at others it might have been a gentle nudge in the right direction. In all cases, the very best leaders I worked with seemed to understand my situation, and showed me the path to a better place, exemplifying the very nature of empathy.
As you guide and develop your own teams, try experimenting with a bit of empathy. That first-year analyst likely has very different concerns and perspectives than the manager nearing retirement. Rather than filing them into a contrived model like a millennial, boomer, etc., take a moment to put yourself in that individual's shoes. What concerns would you have? What career challenges are you facing? How do you feel going into this conversation with the boss? As you complete this mental exercise, you'll rather quickly identify how to approach the conversation. Someone who is new to your company and team might be wondering how to fit in, and whether leadership actually cares about their success. A high performer might want to know that her efforts are recognized, and there's someone looking for opportunities where she can excel. Someone who is just punching the clock might need a gentle reminder of what's expected and acknowledgment that they'll not be pushed out of a role where they're comfortable.
While empathy might not have a cute, book title-worthy tagline, you don't need a 300-page tome to readily understand, apply, and see the benefits of applying it to your work and leadership practices.
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