Cultivate empathy and curiosity among your team.

One of the central operating principles that makes diverse teams work successfully – what makes them effective – is the effort they make to get to know one another’s experiences. Approaching collaboration with empathy and curiosity is what enables those efforts to succeed.

What do I mean by empathy?

There are different ways of thinking about empathy, and to illustrate them I like to use the example of Counselor Deanna Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation. (If you’re not a Trek nerd like I am, hang with me here – the metaphor should still make sense.)

The character of Troi is from a planet where everyone is an empath, which means she’s able to sense the feelings of others, a valuable trait in a ship’s counselor. When she does her most effective work on the Enterprise, she’s aware of the feelings of others (even over a video call), but she isn’t experiencing those feelings herself, at least not to the same degree. She’s able to identify what’s going on for the other person emotionally, and advise Captain Picard on how to take that into account in his actions.

There are times when Troi does experience the feelings of others deeply. Those are, generally speaking, not good times for the Enterprise, nor are they good times for her. The intensity of the emotions she’s taking on prevents her from being able to take action to address the underlying issue – and at work, we have to be concerned with addressing the underlying issue. Unless we are trained therapists, we don’t have the expertise or authority to really address the experience of those feelings themselves, and to try to do so from your position as a manager will cross a personal boundary for most employees.

So, when I say that you need to cultivate empathy among your team members, I’m talking specifically about empathetic awareness. (You don’t have to be Betazoid to develop that kind of awareness!) It’s not important that your team members feel each others’ frustration and joy as if it were their own; it is important that they understand how to identify others’ emotions and take those emotions into account as they act.

Or, as I often say, feelings are not facts, but they are data. We can and should learn what the data tell us, and take those learnings into consideration as we make decisions at work. (It’s also important to note that the feeling-deeply sort of empathy is not accessible to everyone – but the good news is, you don’t need it to be.)

Curiosity drives empathy. Listening supports both.

One of the most valuable assets just about any employee has is their curiosity. A constant push to know more, to explore ideas, and to understand others’ perspectives is at the foundation of successful collaboration, and following that curiosity creates the space for empathetic awareness among your team members.

You might be thinking “how can I cultivate this on my team? Aren’t empathy and curiosity are traits that adults either have, or don’t?” And it may in fact be easier for people to work together on a diverse team if they come onto the team already inclined toward those approaches. But as a manager, you can identify the specific behaviors in which curiosity and empathy manifest on your team, and make those behaviors part of your employees’ job description.

For example, in a program management role, you might expect the employee to find ways to regularly listen to the needs of your constituents and adapt the program to better meet those needs.

You can also help to cultivate the underlying skill that lets employees enact their curiosity and empathy at work: active listening. In next week’s post I’ll talk about ways that you can model active listening for your team.

How does this tie back to equity and inclusion? One of the main obstacles that people from marginalized groups face at work is that people with more identity-based privilege lack an understanding of the unique challenges that one encounters simply by being of a particular race, gender presentation, or disability status. By creating an expectation that acting with empathy and curiosity are core to doing their jobs well, you establish empathy and curiosity as core to your work culture. By creating a work culture that emphasizes enacting empathy and curiosity through active listening, you open up space for people who face those obstacles to be heard and taken seriously, and for their more privileged colleagues to join them in solving those problems together.

Intentional culture

A bouquet of spring flowers viewed from above, against a white tabletop

Imagine it’s your first day on a new job. You’re excited about the role that you’ve taken on, you’re excited about the company – what you know about it so far, anyway – and you’re eager to get started.

How do you start to understand the culture of the organization? I’m not talking about the mission, vision, and values – although you should definitely also know what those are – but the concrete ways that those values play out (or don’t) in your relationships with your coworkers.

In a co-located space, you can rely on clues from the space around you, especially visual cues if you’re a sighted person and auditory cues if you’re a hearing person. Without consciously thinking about it, you can glean the answers to a lot of questions:

  • Is the unofficial team motto “work hard, play hard”?
  • Are people around you eating lunch at their desks or getting up to go outside for a walk?
  • Is there a lot of non-work “water cooler” chat?
  • Can you see the various office cliques that form around non-work conversations?
  • How are people dressed?
  • Are plans being made to spend time together outside of work? (Who is left out of those plans?)
  • When talking about work, are there a lot of silos and territorial approaches, or are projects approached more collaboratively and cross-functionally?

These are all cues about how we act and relate to one another that don’t exist if you’re working remotely (and, by the way, are a lot harder to pick up if you don’t have access to sight or sound, or if it’s difficult for you to read social cues for whatever reason). Often, we pick these kinds of things up organically, by observing how our more established coworkers interact with each other (and, if they are especially nice or have a good onboarding protocol, how they interact with us).

When we’re new to a remote environment, whether we’re used to physically working together in person or not, we have to build up those elements of culture intentionally as if we were asking those questions for the first time. Left to our own devices, remotely, most of us won’t initiate a conversation that isn’t directly relevant to work, so we lose some of the connections that we establish with co-located colleagues that way; plus, in work-related conversations, we have to learn how to convey our intended tone without always relying on in-person social cues.

As a manager, it’s important to ask yourself: how do you think questions like the ones I’ve framed above should be answered on your team? What are the answers to those questions that best reflect your company’s core values? Then, make that answer explicit and work with your team to figure out the best ways to enable it to happen. Some considerations that might come up:

  • How will you approach scheduling in a remote environment?
  • What channels work best for which types of communication?
  • Can you identify cliques that already exist and what impact they’re having on who has power and influence at work? (I promise there are cliques influencing power at work, and if you’re not thinking about who’s in them and why, they are very likely to leave behind your colleagues from minoritized and underrepresented backgrounds.)
  • How can you provide intentional space for non-work conversation in meetings that you run?

It will feel forced and awkward at first to do things like announce in your chat app that you’re going to lunch or stepping away to take care of your family: you are forming new habits, and if new habits were easy to form, we would all have impeccable flossing routines. Be candid about the fact that it feels forced and awkward, and encourage your team to let you know (maybe by means of an anonymous form they can fill out) if “forced and awkward” starts to cross a line into “uncomfortable and invasive.”

I’m not the first to observe that remote management requires a level of intentionality and focused communication that’s easy to let happen naturally in a co-located context. In this article by Juan Pablo Buriticá, and Katie Womersley, Buriticá writes “Remote teamwork doesn’t happen by accident, but through deliberate systems and practices around communication, coordination, collaboration, organization, operations, and culture.” Those deliberate systems and practices, I’d argue, are worth your time to create even if you think you’ll be fully co-located post-quarantine.

Establishing a culture that’s intentional, explicit, and focused on your core values is critical to the success of a remote team. When applied to co-located teams, it helps to ensure that the culture that develops among your staff is aligned with the values you want your organization to reflect and the mission you want to achieve. Even if your organization is entirely co-located, you shouldn’t be relying on teamwork happening by accident; instead, I encourage you to consider the ways you’ll do things now that you don’t get to rely on happenstance.