The Power of empathy: Stories and best practices of how to lead and strengthen design teams through empathy and authenticity

Taking charge starts with opening up

Taking charge starts with opening up

What makes a fantastic design team is more than just a group of talented, hardworking designers. They’re united by a leader who engages and collaborates with them through empathy and authenticity, staying connected and transparent, and empowering clear communication and strong collaboration.

If vulnerability, honesty, and connection were in a Venn diagram, they’d intersect to form authenticity, a word that has risen through common use in the past decade. Authenticity has become, as Harvard Business Review stated in January 2015, the “gold standard for leadership.” It opens up communication and builds trust and rapport — all critical attributes of a strong team. Just as importantly, a huge part of authentic leadership is empathy.

Empathy is a critical part of the creative process when it comes to understanding the user and consumer. But more than that, as University of Houston research professor and author Brené Brown says, it “fuels connection by feeling with people.” Designers know that the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes is key to product success. And now, leaders who value and exemplify the same empathy within their companies and teams are also finding that it fuels happiness and satisfaction in the workplace — and a happy team becomes a productive team.

The dream design team is able to seamlessly come together, strategically and creatively, to not just produce beautiful, user-oriented products and experiences, but also to work positively through challenges, mistakes, and setbacks. The creative leader keeps this collaboration — and morale — motivated by staying supportive throughout both the successes and struggles.

Whether you’re coming into an established team or starting with fresh hires, figuring out how a team works together — and building on that — turns a merely productive team into a united powerhouse. Udemy’s head of product design Phil King told First Round Review, “As a leader, you don’t just want your team to be effective individually.” For a design team to effectively critique and support each other’s work, he says “start by knowing how the different members of the team are currently working together.”

Creative needs and work habits, communication styles, and talent distribution are all strong intel gained from everyday interaction and observation, and they’re critical for smoothing out collaboration bumps. But understanding and gaining the trust of employees goes much further and deeper — and this is where empathy comes in.

Empathy — building trust.

In the same way that you don’t notice how high the lawn is until it’s past your ankles, the trust and rapport of a team grows bit by bit from everyday, consistent efforts of connection and empathy — and it starts with leadership. As a team leader, you can be successful at commanding a project workload but fail at engaging with your team if you’re not learning their creative motivations and inspirations. Gary Vaynerchuk, CEO of VaynerMedia, names empathy as one of the biggest reasons for his success, particularly in leadership. “I don’t manage any single one of them the same way,” he wrote on Medium. “You need to be able to figure out what actually drives them.”

The Interaction Design Foundation’s “What-How-Why” Method for understanding users easily translates to employees, using observation, conversation, and intuition to tune into the emotional drivers behind behavior. This includes the joys and fears that can reveal motivations for creative, professional, and even personal goals. Ultimately, this all gives the insight that helps a leader encourage and direct professional growth, but it also gives you the expanded common ground that can avoid demoralization and alienation. Feeling understood, especially by a manager or leader, is validating and builds trust and loyalty.

But connection goes further than just asking questions. In her TEDxHouston talk, Brown said, “In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen — really seen.” This, in essence, defines a crucial part of connection and authenticity: vulnerability.

Vulnerability à transparency à empathy.

Part of the vulnerability of leadership means leading honestly and being engaged — and this means taking responsibility for mistakes and failures, admitting lack of knowledge, and being with team members when they scrap a project and start over. It’s not a beach party, but as CEOs (and NFL coaches, U.S. presidents, military leaders, and so on) have found, it gets you mileage in team trust and loyalty.

When Rob Forbes saw his PUBLIC Bikes company go dead on arrival, even after positive media coverage and buzz, he spoke openly about it with his staff: “I said, here’s the truth, I have no idea why it’s not working. All I know is that I’ve never been so wrong in all my life.” Describing the days following the “epic collapse” on his 99U talk, Forbes says he told his people how much he appreciated them and that, if they were game, he was willing to start over with them.

Forbes certainly isn’t the first to vulnerably admit failure to his entire company. Robert Goizueta, CEO of Coca-Cola during the New Coke failure of the 1980s described at a later company celebration the fallout of that endeavor as an example of “taking intelligent risks.” He urged all of his employees to take intelligent risks at their jobs, saying it was critical to company success. He also shared that he once received a letter addressed to the “Chief Dodo.” Admitting his mistake to his employees strongly conveyed that “learning failures” were not only tolerated, but encouraged.

“By embracing humility, creative leaders advantage their organizations and themselves,” Doug Guthrie wrote in Forbes in 2012. “Leaders must not only recognize their failures but also acknowledge them publicly. In being wrong, they can find both authenticity and opportunity.”

This is true both in- and outside of the office. In Harvard Business Review in 2002, Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes argued that Ulysses S. Grant’s business failings, as well as his personal struggles, gave him a stronger sense of humility and empathy that helped him understand and connect with soldiers and made him more daring in military strategy. And Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager John Sears once observed, “Most of our better presidents learned to empathize through suffering…tragedy or failure. There is something about losing and coming back from it that burns character into a man’s soul, breeds confidence without arrogance, and makes a man believable when he talks about problems.”

Not knowing, being wrong, and making expensive and career-altering mistakes are all overwhelming and scary things to admit. When we don’t prepare mentally for failure, it can bring up surging emotions of fear and shame. Working through failure requires honesty, acceptance, and the willingness to be imperfect, which in turn means cultivating a strong sense of self, humility, and security. This is part of what it means to be “seen,” to be vulnerable, and to be authentic. By leading with vulnerability, creative leaders can use uncertainty, false starts, and setbacks to strengthen a team along with the successes and breakthroughs. This may not happen overnight, but with engaged and honest conversations over time, it does happen. And engaged, honest conversations only happen from a place of vulnerability and empathy.

When creative design leaders let themselves be seen and work to understand others, they can better encourage and support their teams, creating strong teams of connected, driven, happy designers. Great teams are a result of consistent, daily effort and alert engagement — because team and individual dynamics are never static, which means they can’t be taken for granted. Leading with authenticity and connecting through empathy are the keys to strong communication and collaboration — leading to successful and inspired work.

For a contrarian view, be sure to read Don Norman’s thoughts on why he doesn’t believe in empathic design.’

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