How Leaders Sneak Empathy Into Product Team Culture

Originally published on

From Eye Rolls to Infectious Team Culture

Walking into a meeting and telling your team you’re going to increase empathy is not effective unless you’re looking for eye rolls. “Empathy” conjures soft skills of emotional intelligence and “I feel” type conversations.

Empathy is imagining and researching how other people experience the world. What does it even look like when a team has empathy?

I’ve worked as a product leader, UX designer, and consultant under lots of CEOs and creative leaders over the past dozen years, from companies the size of eBay and Nike, to smaller companies. I’ve noticed that when a leader infuses the team culture with the right empathetic outlook, things change for the better.

As a creative leader, your goal is not to make everyone on your team empathetic. Your goal is to infuse empathy into the culture by what you do and how.

The culture of a team is the collective attitude and behavior of a group. Your purpose is to build a team that thinks deeper, cares more and understands the challenges people face. (Challenges your product or service aims to alleviate.)

Shift Your Teams Perspective

There’s a big gap in perspective when you’re working on software as an engineer or designer or product leader. The gap is this: Most of a teams effort is fixated on making a product that works well from their perspective. Too often those who make the software don’t see how people experience the software.

For a lot of the companies I’ve worked with, I’ve made videos of how users experience the company’s products to share with the team working on the project.

One video showed a store manager’s process of using the software we were replacing. I shadowed the manager’s morning. I saw how she set up for the day by logging into to multiple computers. Then saw her print paper to go along with her iPad. I then followed as she navigated a series of disconnected software systems to pull up product details and inventory numbers.

The video was hard to watch, especially for team members who loved the old software they’d made. However, it allowed them to see past the software issues which were easy to fix and address issues outside their domain. In the video, the boxes used for shipping were either very small or very large. The boxes were awkward to handle and wasted a lot of space. Going beyond software two engineers did some quick research and made a recommendation for cardboard box providers which allowed for adjustable-sized boxes.

That shift in perspective elicited empathy — without my ever mentioning the word.

By seeing the pain of others the team was empowered to create a product they were proud of. Proud not just because the software worked but because it helped others. That’s the perspective shift. Each team member didn’t per se have empathy tools themselves, but the culture of empathy grew from seeing other people’s pain.

You can sneak empathy into a team culture by sharing how others experience the world. Doing so changes the team conversation and questions from, “Does the the product work?” to “Does the product work for people?”

3 Ways to Infuse Empathy into Team Culture

These are personally tested. Testing one of these tools will likely improve how your team thinks, create a new perspective, or give a new level of ownership over the product’s user experience to your team.

1. Lead Thinking With Language.

Generally, as a leader, you can affect a group’s thinking by changing how you speak. Others will follow. Others will ask you why you talk the way you do. Language gives you a place to lead without permission.

• Intentional Labels:

Labels are shortcuts to concepts. Consider how you talk about people that use your product or service. We often adopt whatever labels were used before us. Do you call people using your products “users”, “customers”, “consumers”, “associates”, “members”, “heroes”? Know why you use a label.

• Don’t Call People Stupid:

If someone can’t figure out how to use your software or service, don’t assume they are stupid. Instead, make the hypothesis that they lack domain knowledge. Instead, you have an opportunity to understand people better. Calling people stupid is not helpful and gets in the way of doing important work.

2. Humanize with Direct Storytelling.

Enable “users” to become people, and let them tell their own story. When your team can see their work in the context of how other human beings live and labor, it makes their work tangible. Hearing a story first-hand brings validity and realness to the challenges people face.

• Voice: Allow people to speak

Interview people who use your products and services. Regardless of the medium you use to interview (writing, audio or video) capture directly what people say. Quoting people directly honors their voice. Team members hearing direct quotes allows them to find their own insights in what they hear.

• View: Capture a video story

One of my favorite sayings is “See what’s there, to know what’s not.” A video of users quickly turns them into people. Authentic videos are best. You don’t need to spend money or resources on high-end video production. Use a phone or GoPro. Keep it simple. Show people in their world.

• Value: Share the story

Once you’ve interviewed and shot video of people, you should share in a simple fashion with your team. There should be no hint of marketing. You want the opposite of marketing. You simply want to give team members a peek into someone’s life and where it intersects with what you make. Share a highlight of what you found. Share direct quotes or video and then ask others what they see. Value people’s story by taking the time to listen.

The idea here is to gain insights and enable the team to have their own insights by seeing others’ pain and challenges.

3. Amplify Understanding with Data.

When we think about empathy we often think of art, feelings, and emotional intelligence. We can forget there is a big place for data and research which can shift how we view the world. There are times when imagining someone’s pain is not enough. You need to have the data to back up what you see happening or use data to find out more clearly what’s going on.

A number of years back I worked on a website home page that was getting 5 million unique users a month. My job was to improve the user experience through design and be an advocate for the user. The home page real-estate was precious. Ads on the homepage generated between $3 to $7 a click. Moving an ad was an $90,000 design decision. There needed to be a strong reason to make design changes.

We brought a mix of people from the local community to our office. A research leader with a plan prompted people to perform tasks. The tasks tested hypotheses we had about the website. Through the process, we gained an understanding into where the current site experience failed. We codified our findings and evidence and took it to meetings.

Data Brings Gravity to Stories

Many companies use data to find peoples pain points and improve their products.

  • LiquidPlanner, a project management software company, discovered that 75% of users start a project with their template feature.
  • HubSpot learned that only 25% of people were scrolling down their homepage and 10% of home page visitors are there only to login.
  • found “labels that weren’t resonating with customers.”
  • Charity: Water has tons of data on communities without water (1 in 10 people in the world doesn’t have access to clean water) which they pair with stories.

These companies used data to improve their products and understanding people better. Match data with stories to amplify what you’ve learned as you share with your team.

The lesson here is that sometimes you can’t just share stories, challenges, and pain. The truth is, sometimes the business goals and user goals may seem at odds with one another. Finding where they intersect takes digging.

Data can be used to bring empathy to your team.

Team Culture Starts with Leaders

The common thread in all these tools is to give a team access to the humans on the other side of their work. These tools enable a team to have their own insights based on the pain they see. The first step in empathy is listening to others.

As we enter a season of being WOWed by intelligent automation, people will be left out of the machine loop unless leaders build teams of listeners and critical thinkers.

Team culture starts with leaders. If you want to build empathy, lead the team to listen. Take the time to hear. Maybe the way to slip empathy into team culture is through the ears.