How empathy can help you build a great product and a great team

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Doing some research on the subject of design thinking, I stumped upon the term “empathy” and interesting enough, it is the starting point and the most important aspect of design thinking.

The way design thinking mentions about empathy is that it is a way to put yourself in the user’s shoes and observing in a empathetic way. This is done to  focus more on the human aspect, trying to feel for the person who lives in the context and has a series of needs that can be satisfied.

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The design thinking model

[em-puh-thee] – the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

The whole aspect of empathy makes a lot of sense because simply put, it is a method to know a person and their desires. However; interestingly enough, empathy loses its importance when the focus moves from product users to development teams.

It is important for leaders to communicate with your team members, they want to know you understand where they’re coming from and what they’re feeling. So, how do you as a leader show empathy at the work place? Here are some critical steps to demonstrate empathy:

  • Listen – Listen to understand. Refrain from processing the information too soon and arrive at solutions
  • Understand the feelings – Keep a balance in understanding what is being said and the feel with which it is being communicated.
  • Reflect back to what is being said (“so what I hear you say is….”)
  • Validate their feeling (“I understand your feeling….”)
  • Assure support and conclude the conversation
  • Make no false commitments – Don’t sympathize and make false commitments. This can impede trust.

Showing empathy, and reflecting back feelings when appropriate, not only demonstrates good listening, it shows you care for the team and provide a sense of security to encourage the team to ideate, innovate and take risks.

As a leader, your behavior tells the employee  you care; increases the transparency and at the same time, helps you and your team member build trust.

So next time you have a conversation with your team, pay a little extra attention to how empathetic you are towards them. The payoff will be totally worth it.

Leadership by action – 8 things leaders do to “lead” teams

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“The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” –Ralph Nader

What is leadership? Search on google and there are millions of articles that expectedly share similar and common attributes of what makes a great leader. Leadership is my present special interest given that it pretty much drives the success of failure when trying to get organizations and teams embrace change.

Continuing my research on the subject, I recently came across a couple of podcasts by Michael Hyatt where he covers multiple facets of leadership. I highly recommend you watch some of these on youtube.

 Having been through a huge amount of research around leadership as part of my ongoing research, my key focus was to connect these leadership attributes to real actions. Here is my list of 8 attributes (in no specific order) supported by actions that will give you ideas and help assess how you can adapt your leadership style to create maximum impact. Some of the listed attributes might sound too basic, but these are a significant part of the cultural change.

Vision and alignment – Leaders are leaders only because they have the unique attribute of being able to get the best out of their team in their quest of building unique and value driven capabilities. However; teams doing the work are generally caught unaware of the overall vision of what they are building as they have not been enrolled in the vision and have a very narrow vision on the overall product. Additionally, as the vision changes, the effort to alignment to the change of vision is missing.

Getting the vision in order, alignment to any change of vision and socializing the vision with all teams and validating their understanding is a critical aspect of leadership. This allows teams to maintain focus and leverage leadership to avoid impediments.

Come down to the level of the team – A common issue around leadership is the level at which they operate. It is common for leaders to delegate the work of coordinating with teams to the senior or middle management. This causes the leadership to loose visibility into the day to day issues teams face around the initiative.

Leaders need to find time to spend time on the ground and get a feel for the challenges teams are facing and build confidence by staying informed if not completely involved.

Don’t influence just because you are a leader – Leaders don’t need to be in charge to be influential. Most leaders want to be in charge because they have the position, however; what makes you a great leader is when you can create a influence by creating an environment where you team members can feel safe to fail, allowing them to ideate and innovate in the quest of creating something awesome.

Influence at the next level is always drive by the influence one gets from their level above. So, how you as a leader influence your teams creates a flavor for how the influence will trickle down to the lowest level. Actions are the best way to show you are a leader.

Build trust – This is one of the key issues with leadership. Because leaders do not spend as much time with the teams on the ground, they do not trust the teams to get the work done. Part of the issue has to do with the perception leadership and management have of the teams.

Having a conversation with the team, listening to them, showing that you care and creating an environment of innovation and celebrating failure are some of the things leaders need to do to build trust.

Encourage self managing teams – This is a big culture shift. Teams need to be able to make their choices if they are held accountable for the outcome. Unfortunately, teams get the blame even when the leaders make decisions without consulting the teams.

Ensure you as leaders share the same set of goals and values. Once this is done, every action taken needs to align with the end goal and adhering to agreed values.

Be discontent with status quo – Great leaders are discontented with status quo. Not saying that they control the teams, but they challenge then team to deliver more, better and something that is valuable.

Every interaction a leader has with the teams should encourage the teams to be self critical allowing them to make continuous improvement their second nature.

Keep things simple – Most successful organizations have the most simple structures and processes. As per the recent stats on Forbes regarding Netflix, the company has been able grow at a brisk pace (sales worth 7.16B) maintaining simplicity of its structures and processes.

Leaders should question the existing structures in trying to keep organizational structures less complex. As they build trust with teams, they should be able to do away with strict process controls and create teams that are self managing, self organizing and value focused.

Walk the talk – Leaders are catalysts for leading change and hence need to be great change agents. I came across this great metaphor about the aircraft safety procedure where parents are told to put on the oxygen mask before they help their kids. Similarly, leaders should be able to embrace the practices and behaviors first before they expect the teams to change.

So, as a leader, have a list of things you expect from your teams but before you share the list with them, assess how would you meet those expectations.

I am sure there are many more things you as a leader could do to make a difference. If there is any that you think is critical and should make it to the list, please leave a comment. Let the learning continue.