To Be Empathetic

The principle of empathy is to put yourself in the place of others, respect and understand their thinking, and form a common feeling between each other. For example, in a romantic relationship, having empathy is an effective way to enhance mutual understanding and mutual tolerance. In case of any setbacks, empathic couples will not complain or blame each other, but encourage, understand, and support each other, so their relationship will become more harmonious. Usually, an empathic person will have a psychological tendency to care and understand everything around him, when he disagrees with others, he can still respect them and tolerate such differences; and when he has any friction with others in behavior, he can understand them with kindness, and is willing to find a win- win solution by integrating factors of both sides from a higher perspective.

To solve communication problems, distributed teams shall think about fostering empathy and emotional resonance. On many occasions, the decisions of other teams will make us feel confused or even dissatisfied, empathy can make us think from their standpoint, then we may discover many facts that we’ve overlooked. In other words, if we do not sw'itch our perspective, these facts are unlikely to attract our attention. Therefore, empathy indirectly removes barriers to communication in many ways and allows communication to develop in a positive direction. It should be pointed out that both offshore and local teams need to cultivate empathy.

The empathic offshore teams will help us grasp customer expectations more accurately and maximize the value of their work. Offshore teams have a lot of work to be confirmed, if they cannot get a timely reply, what will we think? Is the customer not paying attention to offshore teams, or does he have more prioritized tasks on hand? If we have pointed out some impacts from delayed response, could the customer make a better judgment? As a technical service provider, offshore teams are concentrated on technical architecture and logic implementation. When any change occurs to the requirements, we mainly care about the impact on technologies themselves, while customers only focus on business value and make judgments based on the assessment of business value.

I had been member of an online business hall project entrusted by a foreign telecom company, we used a plug-in to record the user log information, so that we could find the cause of an error as quickly as possible. This function was of great significance for testing and future product environment, so when we arranged the story cards of user functions, we also arranged the related story cards for logging. But the customer opposed such an arrangement, and requested to arrange as many function story cards as possible, and leave the logging story cards in the end. At first, our developers were against this request, because it would increase the debugging difficulties during the test. Later, we learned the customer’s standpoint, it turned out that he expected all stakeholders to see the available functions as soon as possible and collect their feedback; without the approval of stakeholders, he would have to change the requirements no matter how perfect the preliminary work was. Later, a consensus was reached between us and the customer, that is, the story cards for functions and logging could be made separately for now, and combined in the future at the request of offshore teams.

If we are a local team without empathy, we may easily shelve or dismiss the recommendations made by offshore teams, and tend to exclude offshore teams from attending the decision-making meetings, since we can cut the odds of trouble. When offshore teams make a mistake, our first reaction is to blame them. In contrast, if the same thing happens to someone at our side, we will look for excuses for him. Given this, if we could learn to be empathic, I think more than half of the communication problems will disappear.

Now that empathy is so important for distributed teams, w'hat can we do to foster empathy step by step? Based on my more than ten years’ experiences in working w'ith distributed teams. I’d like to propose some suggestions in the following aspects for different teams to practice:

■ Organize cross-team activities. We can call in different teams to join in an ice cream social event, or play an ice-breaking game or an across-region treasure hunt game through videophone. Our team and an Australian team once participated in the quiz of the Melbourne Cup horse racing. Both teams bought a lot of snacks and drinks, choosing their favorite horses to guess, everyone enjoyed the process as if they were really being together.

■ Create a photo wall containing people from all teams. Mark the pronunciation of everyone’s name, or write interesting somethings about this person; or post all their photos on a map wall and put each of them at the location of their native place.

■ Cultural exchanges between each other. These activities can be done in a more interesting way, such as asking offshore teams to introduce the culture of the place w'here the local team is located, or vice versa. The advantage of doing so is to encourage both parties to learn about each other’s culture, customs and habits; in case of any misunderstandings or mistakes, the other party can make correction and explanation, thus creating more opportunities for discussion and interaction.

■ Remote meetings are interspersed with small talks and chats. Those attending the meetings may once in a while talk about weather, local events, major competitions, or other topics that are not related to work.

■ Send food packages to each other. This method originated from an event initiated by the Americans during the Second World War. It was designed to send food packages to one’s family members fighting on the battlefield in Europe, but now' it has become an expression of concern for the people far away from home. At seeing the snacks sent by the other team, the recipient team will be excited for several days, w'hich is good for their bilateral cooperation.

■ Some video conferences can be held in kitchen, activity room, or other venues that are not as formal as workplace, and everyone can discuss some light topics.

■ Think problems from the other party’s standpoint. Offshore teams differ from our local team in business, environment, and cultural background. What we take for granted may be something new for them; what we feel as easy as pie mean take them a long time to investigate; and our meeting timetable may coincide w'ith their lunch time.

■ Of course, the best way is to create opportunities to visit each other.

Finally, remember that empathy and respect are complementary, and the supreme guideline read out at the retrospective meeting also reflects this principle. No matter what we have discovered, considering the knowledge category, technologies and capabilities, available resources, and actual situation at that time, we shall understand and firmly believe that everyone has done their best. In other words, in the absence of evidence, we must firmly believe that offshore teams have both eagerness and determination to do a good job, just like our local team. If any outcome does not meet our expectations, we should first make self-examination and ask ourselves “How could a rational and kind-hearted person made those decisions?,” “If we’ve provided them some information or support, can we prevent these things from happening?” "Did we ignore any of their information?”

There are many ways to build trust between teams. Likewise, there are more than one causes that break trust. But the most important thing to watch out for is the formation of the sense of opposition, that is, treat the other party as “counterparty,” w'hich is very harmful. We should take offshore teams as part of us, and stress the cultivation of empathy during our collaboration. If this way, the potential obstacles for the collaboration between distributed teams will be significantly reduced.

But we need to understand that empathy is not a shield, a guess or a presumption. We should keep carrying out the user survey, and ask customers to do their own part. We can’t imagine the customer scenarios by ourselves, and undertake all of the workload. As compared with offshore teams, our local team is much closer to end users.

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