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Why is Empathy Important in Agile?

Updated: Jun 8, 2022

Lately, I have been thinking about Dr.Tia DeMaria's research about organizational empathy and how it can benefit our agile career. She spent more than 5 years researching the process of developing empathy in the workplace, and recently she did a great presentation about this topic with our CEO, Camille Spruill at the TriAgile 2022 conference event.

What is empathy?

"The unique capacity of the human being to feel the experiences, needs, aspirations, frustrations, sorrows, joys, anxieties, hurt, or hunger of others as if they were his/her own…" By Clark, Kenneth B.

What empathy is not

Empathy is not an endorsement. Empathy is not sympathy

"Empathizing with someone you profoundly disagree with does not compromise your own deeply held beliefs and endorse theirs. It just means acknowledging the humanity of someone who was raised to think differently." − Dylan Marron's

Watch Dylan Marron's full talk here:

Sympathy is feeling pity and sorrow for someone, as Brené Brown explains briefly in the video below, pitty sorrow and shame are useless emotions that lead to embarrassment and isolation.

In agile, leadership installs performance-based accountability and creates a nurturing environment that allows people to be vulnerable as they learn and grow, overall, empathy contributes to productivity and a more positive environment.

Types of Empathy

Renowned psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman have identified three components of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy is understanding someone’s thoughts and emotions, in a very rational, rather than emotional sense.

  • Emotional empathy is also known as emotional contagion and is "catching" someone else’s feelings, so that you feel them, too.

  • Compassionate empathy is understanding someone’s feelings and taking appropriate action to help.

7 Ways to Improve Your Empathy

Empathy can be learned, and you can start practicing how you behave in your relationships with others. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Listen and be vulnerable

  2. Be fully present when you are with people

  3. Offer your support

  4. Be curious about others

  5. Ask better questions

  6. Remember that your co-workers don't see the world in an exact way

  7. Be patient and understanding

Nurturing an Agile Culture

Research has repeatedly found that organizations benefit from the diversity of thought. With empathy being such a crucial skill for people leaders of today, nurturing a psychologically safe environment is also the key to a solid culture. According to Dr. Timothy Clark, there are 4 stages of psychological safety that you can practice with your team today.

  • Stage 1 – Inclusion Safety: Inclusion safety satisfies the basic human need to connect and belong. In this stage, you feel safe to be yourself and are accepted for who you are, including your unique attributes and defining characteristics.

  • Stage 2 – Learner Safety: Learner safety satisfies the need to learn and grow. In this stage, you feel safe to exchange in the learning process, by asking questions, giving and receiving feedback, experimenting, and making mistakes.

  • Stage 3 – Contributor Safety: Contributor safety satisfies the need to make a difference. You feel safe using your skills and abilities to make a meaningful contribution.

  • Stage 4 – Challenger Safety: Challenger safety satisfies the need to make things better. You feel safe to speak up and challenge the status quo when you think there’s an opportunity to change or improve.

The takeaway from Dr. Tia DeMaria's session event is simple to understand and many times complex to achieve, empathy equals more agility. We all know that an organization is only successful if the team members are successful. We need more managers and leadership, that follow up with employees that seem disengaged or frustrated and if you are not in a leadership position, show deep respect for your co-workers and let them know that you care. No matter what role you have, approach with empathy and remember that we’re all doing the best we can.

How else can we encourage empathy in the workplace? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

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