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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Empathy and Respect: What Makes Teams Great

Empathy and Respect: What Makes Teams Great post image

I’ve been known to bring up research on collective intelligence in many situations, e.g. here, here, or here. In my personal case, the research findings heavily influenced my perception of how to build teams and design organizations. The crucial lesson was that social perceptiveness and having everyone being heard in discussions were key to achieve high collective intelligence. This, in turn, translates to high effectiveness of a team in pretty much any flavor of knowledge work.

Since the original work was published, the research has been repeated and findings were confirmed. Nevertheless, in software industry we tend to think we are special (even though we are not) and thus I often hear an argument that trading technical skills for social perceptiveness is not worth it. The reasoning is that technical skills easily translate to better effectiveness in what is our bread and butter—building software. At the same time fuzzy things, like e.g. empathy, do not.

The research, indeed, was run on people from all walks of life. At the same time every niche has some specific prerequisites that enable any productivity. I don’t deny that there is specific set of technical skills that is required to get someone contributing to work a team tires to accomplish. That’s likely true in an industry and software development is no different.

As a matter of fact, enough fluency with engineering is something we validate first when we hire at Lunar Logic. The way we define it, though, is “good enough”. We want to make sure that a new team member won’t hamper a team they join. Beyond that, we don’t care too much. It resonates with a simple realization that it is much easier to learn how to code than it is to develop empathy or social perceptiveness in general.

The whole approach is based on an assumption that findings on collective intelligence hold true in our context. Now, do they?

Google is known to be on their quest to find what’s the perfect team for years. Some time ago they shared what they learned in a few year-long research that involved 180 Google teams. It seems they confirmed pretty much everything that has been in the original Anita Woolley’s team work.

It’s not the technical excellence that lands teams in the group of accomplishers. By the way, neither is management style—it was orthogonal to how well teams were doing. The patterns that were vividly seen were caring about other team members and equal access to discussion time.

What’s more, the teams which did well against one goal seemed to do well against other goals as well. Conversely, teams that were below average seemed to be so in a consistent manner. The secret sauce seemed to work fairly universally against different challenges.

What a surprise! After all, we are not as special as we tend to think we are.

I could leave it here, as one of those “You see? I was right all that time!” kind of posts. There is more to learn from the Google story, though. Aspects that are mentioned often in the research are norms, either explicit or implicit. This refers to specific behaviors that are allowed and supported and, as a result, to organizational culture.

When we are talking about teams, we talk about culture pockets as teams, especially in a big organization, may differ quite a bit one from another.

It seems that even slight changes, such as attitude in group discussions, can boost collective effectiveness significantly. If we look deeper at what drives such behaviors we’ll find two keywords.

Empathy and respect.

Empathy is the enabler of social perceptiveness. It is this magic powder that makes people see and care for others. It pays off because empathic person would likely make everyone around better. Note: I’m using a very broad definition of empathy here, as there is a whole discussion how empathy is defined and decomposed.

Then, we have respect that results in psychological safety, as people are neither embarrassed nor rejected for sharing their thoughts. This, in turn, means that everyone has equal access to ongoing conversations and they are heard. Simply put, everyone contributes. Interestingly enough, it is often perceived as a nice-to-have trait in organizations but rarely as the core capability, which every team needs to demonstrate.

Corollary to that is an observation that both respect and care for others are deep down in the iceberg model of organizational culture. It means that we can roughly sense what are capabilities of an organization when it comes to collective intelligence. It’s enough to look at the execs and most senior managers. How much are they caring for others? How respectful are they? Since the organizational culture spreads very much in a top-down manner it is a good organizational climate metric.

I would risk a bold hypothesis that, statistically speaking, successful organizations have leaders who act in respectful and empathic way. I have no proof to support the claim, and of course there’s anecdotal evidence how disrespectful Steve Jobs or Bill Gates were. That’s why I add “statistically speaking” to this hypothesis. Does anyone have a relevant research on that?

Finally, there is something that I reluctantly admit since I’m not a believer in “fake it till you make it approach”. It seems that some rules and rituals can actually drive collective intelligence up. There are techniques to take turns in discussions. On one hand it creates equal access to conversation time. On the other if fakes respect in this context. It challenges ego-driven extroverts and, eventually, may trigger emergence of true respect.

Similarly, we can learn to focus on perception of others so that we see better how they may feel. It fakes empathy but, yet again, it may trigger the right reactions and, eventually, help to develop the actual trait.

In other words we are not doomed to fail even if so far we paid attention to technical skills only and we ended up with an environment that is far too nerdy.

However, we’d be so much better off if we built our teams bearing in mind that empathy and respect for others are the most important traits for candidates. Yes, for software developers too.

in: culture, recruitment, software business, team management

2 comments… add one

  • Tomek December 11, 2016, 2:12 pm

    Very good one. I believe that most people know how Respect is important but forget abou Empathy. But in fact they shouldn’t be seperated. Sadly, they often are seperated.

    “it is much easier to learn how to code than it is to develop empathy or social perceptiveness in general.” <- fav one, 100% truth

  • Joshua Knott April 3, 2017, 3:30 pm

    You are probably a fantastic and brilliant leader. However, your writing style is extremely frustrating for a native English speaker. This post doesn’t read like the post of a company owner. It has the grammar errors and bad habits of a kid in high school.

    You must read Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style” and Stephen King’s “On Writing Well.”

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