10 mins

Adopting and promoting an empathetic approach to leadership can ensure team and company-wide success.

The role of engineering leadership goes beyond being a technical mastermind who is orchestrating code and algorithms. Engineering leaders stand as the pillars of their teams, and true success lies in not just guiding the direction of projects, but also shaping their teams’ culture. It’s the ability to connect, understand, and lead with empathy that truly makes a difference. 

Drawing from my leadership experiences at Apple, Tile, and Zynga, I’ve developed an empathetic management framework. Much like in gaming, where players navigate through different levels, facing challenges, and unlocking achievements, this framework guides leaders through the intricate maze of modern-day leadership. It’s not just about reaching the end goal but about enjoying the journey, learning from each challenge, and growing with every experience. 

The core pillars of empathy  

It’s crucial to lay the foundation by understanding the very essence of empathy. Brene Brown, a renowned vulnerability researcher, defines empathy through four key components that every engineering leader can integrate into their leadership style. 

Seeing the world through others’ eyes: In the bustling corridors of our tech companies, every individual carries a unique story. Take, for instance, the junior developer. Fresh out of college, their eyes shimmer with excitement, but there’s also a hint of nervousness. By understanding their perspective, we can provide the right guidance, ensuring they navigate the waters with confidence. 

Being nonjudgmental: Innovation often stems from the most unexpected quarters. Remember the last time a team member proposed an out-of-the-box solution? It might have seemed unconventional, even radical. But by approaching it without judgment, we open the doors to possibilities. After all, today’s unconventional might just be tomorrow’s standard. 

Understanding feelings: The world of tech is not devoid of emotions. Behind the screens and codes, there are real people with real feelings. When a team member seems stressed or overwhelmed, they might not be seeking solutions. Sometimes, all they need is assurance, a simple gesture that says, "I understand, and I’m here for you." 

Communication: Empathy isn’t a silent observer. It’s an active communicator. It’s not enough to just understand what someone is going through; it’s equally important to convey that understanding. Whether it’s acknowledging a team member’s efforts, addressing concerns, or simply lending a listening ear, effective communication bridges the gap, fostering a culture of trust and collaboration

The empathetic management framework 

Each phase of the empathetic management framework presents its own challenges and rewards, guiding leaders toward a more inclusive and empathetic leadership style. 

Phase one: The inclusive leader’s foundation 

In the vast gaming universe, every game begins with the central character: player one. In our leadership narrative, that protagonist is us. As engineering leaders, we’re responsible for both setting the technical direction and outlining the tone of our teams’ culture and ethos. 

Lead with vulnerability: Reflecting on my leadership journey, there were moments of uncertainty and times when the path forward wasn’t clear. Yet, it was in these moments, when we admitted our lack of knowledge, that we often stumbled upon the most groundbreaking solutions. Vulnerability isn’t a weakness; it’s a strength that fosters innovation and trust. 

Be humble and fair: In the collaborative environment of tech, every voice holds significance. The fresh insights of a new intern can be just as valuable as the seasoned expertise of a senior architect. By treating every opinion with respect and fairness, we create a culture where innovation thrives, and every team member feels valued.

Commit to continuous learning: The tech landscape is ever-evolving, presenting new challenges and opportunities at every turn. But alongside this technical evolution, there’s also a journey of personal growth. As leaders, our learning isn’t confined to the latest programming languages or tech trends. It extends to understanding human emotions, biases, and experiences, ensuring we lead with both knowledge and empathy. 

Empathetic leadership is a continuous journey

Leadership is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a journey filled with peaks of achievements and valleys of challenges. As we navigate this path, it’s essential to remain self-aware. Recognize biases when they creep in, actively challenge them, and admit mistakes. When faced with a crossroads of judgment and curiosity, always choose the path of understanding.

Phase two: Building an inclusive culture 

If the first phase was about self-awareness and personal growth, this phase is about extending that growth to the collective – the team, the department, and the entire organization. It’s about creating a culture where every individual feels valued, heard, and empowered. 

Culture isn’t merely a by-product of top-down directives or decisions made behind the closed doors of boardrooms or executive team meetings. Instead, it should be intentionally crafted, drawing insights from employees across all levels. While culture manifests in everyday interactions, from casual coffee machine chats to late-night brainstorming sessions, it’s essential to recognize that these moments aren’t just spontaneous occurrences. They can be shaped and influenced by the ways of working we adopt. Yet, all too often, we leave such a pivotal aspect of our organizations to chance. 

Defining core values: 

During my time at Tile, one thing became abundantly clear: our success wasn’t just about the products we created but the people who created them. Our values reflected this belief. They celebrated the passion, creativity, and diversity of our team. For each of our five core values, we had a list of behaviors that exemplified each value. For example, the value “start with trust” was accompanied by behaviors such as providing visibility and communicating often, listening actively, and embracing meaningful feedback

Integrating values into processes:

Values are not just words; they’re actions. It’s essential to ensure that these values are integrated into every process, from brainstorming sessions to code reviews. It’s about asking the right questions: are we fostering an environment of open dialogue? Are diverse perspectives being considered? Are we making decisions that align with our core values? 

Practical strategies for embedding empathetic leadership: 

Below are some practical strategies for successfully embedding empathetic leadership which we used during my tenure at Tile. 

Inclusive meetings 

Every voice, whether from a seasoned manager or a new hire, should be equally valued. At Tile, we ensured that our meetings were platforms for open dialogue, by having a facilitator help ensure that folks weren’t cut off or dismissed, rotating responsibilities for who took notes, and removing judgment and questioning during the brainstorming portion of meetings. 

Including values questions during hiring 

In the fast-paced world of tech, skills evolve. Today’s cutting-edge technology might become obsolete tomorrow. But values? They’re timeless. While skills are teachable, values are inherent. Hiring processes should prioritize alignment with core values, ensuring that onboarded individuals share in the company vision and ethos. 

Company-wide yearly evaluation and discussion of core values

Values should be engaged with, as opposed to left static. At Tile, the entire company convened annually for a reflective discussion on our core values to achieve this. 

This was a genuine evaluation of how we were embodying our values and areas where we could enhance our alignment. Through a transparent rating system, every team member could voice their perspective, leading to rich discussions with the executive team. The culmination of these discussions wasn’t just insights but actionable steps for improvement, ensuring our commitment to these values was ever-evolving. 

Celebrate folks who exemplify the core values 

Recognition plays a pivotal role in reinforcing behaviors. At Tile, we celebrated those who embodied our core values through custom Slack emojis that represented each value. Team members could use them to instantly acknowledge and appreciate peers who showcased these principles. 

But our recognition efforts didn’t stop there. Every quarter, the entire Tile team had the opportunity to vote for individuals they felt were the epitome of our values. These were more than just accolades; they were a testament to our collective commitment to our ethos.

Traffic light check-in 

Every morning, as part of our daily standup or meeting, each team member would share their “color” for the day – green, yellow, or red. This wasn’t about work progress but personal well-being. Green indicated they were feeling great and ready to engage fully, yellow signified something was amiss, and red meant they were facing significant challenges that day. 

This practice wasn’t about judgment or solutions but about sharing and understanding. For managers, it provided insights into the team’s emotional landscape, allowing them to lead with compassion. For team members, it fostered a sense of camaraderie and mutual empathy. Knowing a colleague’s challenges meant interactions could be more understanding and supportive. 

The traffic light check-in wasn’t just a daily ritual; it was a daily reminder that behind every task and project was a human being with emotions and challenges. 

Phase three: Aligning inclusion with business goals 

The final phase of the empathetic management framework is about strategically aligning our inclusion efforts with our overarching business objectives. 

At the heart of inclusion lies empathy which helps to foster an environment where every individual feels seen, heard, and valued. It’s the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, and in the context of leadership, it translates to creating spaces where diverse voices and perspectives are not just welcomed but celebrated. Inclusion, in essence, is the practical manifestation of empathetic leadership. 

In the corporate world, it’s easy to treat empathy and inclusion as a mere checkbox, something to showcase in annual reports or flaunt in PR campaigns. But true inclusion goes beyond surface-level metrics. It’s not just about having a diverse team, but how that diversity drives innovation, creativity, and business growth. 

Every business, whether a budding startup or a global tech giant, has goals. These could range from expanding into new markets, launching innovative products, or enhancing user engagement. But how does inclusion fit into this picture? The answer is simple: diverse teams bring diverse perspectives. 

Imagine brainstorming a product feature for a global audience. A team that’s diverse in nationality, age, gender, and life experiences will undoubtedly have richer insights than a homogenous group. They’ll consider nuances, cultural sensitivities, and unique user needs that might otherwise be overlooked.

But the benefits aren’t just external. Internally, inclusive cultures, driven by empathetic leadership, witness higher employee satisfaction, reduced turnover, and enhanced brand loyalty. After all, when employees feel valued and see their contributions making a real impact, they’re more invested in the company’s success. 

Empathetic leadership and inclusion in action

But what does inclusive leadership look like in action? It’s about being receptive, responsive, and responsible. An example of this was when a new engineer met with me and highlighted an arbitration clause in the employment agreement. Such clauses, often overlooked, can be unfavorable, especially to underrepresented groups. When they raised the concern, I immediately brought it up to the head of HR and legal, and the employment agreement was changed within a week. This wasn’t just a policy change; it was a statement, a testament to our unwavering commitment to every team member, irrespective of their tenure or title. It also highlights that perfection is not what you’re striving for – it’s about realizing this is a journey, and being willing to listen, admit mistakes, and address concerns when they arise. 

The future is empathetic 

As we stand on the cusp of a new era in tech leadership, one thing is abundantly clear: empathetic leadership is not just a trend; it’s the future. 

As engineering leaders, our role transcends beyond codes and algorithms. We’re architects of cultures, nurturers of teams, and visionaries shaping the future. While we might not always have the overarching authority to implement company-wide changes, our influence is profound within our teams. It’s here, in these close-knit groups, that we can sow the seeds of empathetic leadership, fostering a culture of empathy and inclusivity, setting a precedent.

Empathy is our most potent tool in this journey. It’s about understanding emotions, yes, but it’s also about leveraging them to drive success. It’s about recognizing the aspirations, fears, and potential of every team member and channeling them toward collective growth. 

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Leading engineers when you aren't one yourself
Leading engineers when you aren't one yourself