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.