4 Culture Hacks To Become A More Empathetic Leader

How can you truly walk in your employees’ shoes? These 4 hacks will remove assumptions and help you become a more empathy-driven leader.

Photo: Mona Patel, Founder and CEO of Motivate Design; Source: Courtesy Photo
Photo: Mona Patel, Founder and CEO of Motivate Design; Source: Courtesy Photo

My office bookshelves and Kindle library are chock-full of management and leadership books. I’ve used insights from these books to hire employees and craft our company culture.

But notice I say craft our culture–not manage employees. As a user experience (UX) expert, I’ve learned it’s best to intentionally approach management in an investigative way. First, understand and empathize with the user (the employee, in this case), and then design solutions that map to their needs. In theory, with this approach, you manage less because you have created processes, structures and plans that support real needs and wants.

The question is, can you really walk in your employees’ shoes and see things from their perspective as a leader? Is it empathy or is it projection–the illusion of understanding their view when it’s really just a way to see our own perspectives and biases from a different lens)?

To help me answer this question — and learn how to check my beliefs vs. facts about my team — I developed hacks to remove assumptions and become a better, more empathy-driven leader.


1. Work everywhere

Back-to-back meetings with most days spent behind closed doors makes you a productivity warrior, but it also disconnects you from employees. It’s hard to get a true read on the office vibe if employees think you’re too busy to say hello or make eye contact.


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I have a desk in the open co-working space and a private office. I work from each location depending on the tasks that day. On days where I’m writing or mainly on email, I’m in “the pit,” soaking in the office vibes and connecting with everyone. These days are like quick litmus tests. They remind me that we are all in the arena together.

As vulnerability researcher Brené Brown has reminded us through her research and TED talks, a key component of empathy is vulnerability–the ability to put yourself out there and share ideas without shutting down your ability to care what people think.

I purposely integrate myself into the common space so I can check and tweak things in very subtle ways. I care and act on what they think about the projects we work on, internal reporting platforms, the chairs they sit in, and even the coffee we stock.


2. Play detective for 5 minutes each week

Take a quick stroll around the office to see who is working solo versus collaboratively. Listen in on a client meeting and focus on the tone of the meeting versus the content. Watch an interaction between colleagues and the non-verbal behavior.

Have someone join you for your mid-afternoon coffee run and only ask questions. Look at their demeanor when they walk in; whether they smile and greet you; whether they dilly-dally near the coffee or get right to work; whether they take notes at the meetings or whether they volunteer to do the follow-up work (or even do it without being asked).


Photo: © Monkey Business, YFS Magazine

All of these situations give you cues about how an employee feels about working with you. These insights are much better than a response to, “Is anything wrong?” A few minutes a week can give you real data to check assumptions, remind you of your bias, and help you see what you need to see; and not be egocentric in your empathy.


3. Design for humans, not employees

Design and furnish your office space to invoke how you want people to feel; what your brand and culture looks like in action. I tried to design our new office space to appeal to creative humans, not employees.

A Lego wall, creative lighting, a thinking/just chillin’ swing, comfy couches, private mini-offices, public co-working spaces — some features worked out and some didn’t. Send out a questionnaire that asks your team where they felt most inspired and continue to refine your space to match the kinds of spaces they use and want.


4. Use Problempathy™ to rework problems

My gut tells me that while we can try, pure empathy is unlikely, in design and in management. So, we came up with a modification: Problempathy™. Where empathy is about putting yourself in the user’s shoes, Problempathy™ is about putting yourself in the problem’s shoes (e.g., when we redesign an app, we take on the perspective of the app).


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Problem statements now sound like this: “I wish I could do more, but my designer forgot a feature that would have really helped the user,” or “I’m embarrassed I keep crashing.”

For employees, we use Problempathy™ to look at our scope development process from a proposal’s perspective rather than a client’s. Or, when we revamped our org chart, we looked at the problem from the chart’s perspective. As a result, we ended up with something radical and different in the form of intersecting circles rather than a traditional hierarchical organization chart.

Using Problempathy™ with employees has been eye-opening; we are both trying on a new lens, and I’m able to see more problems (and facts) more objectively than before. Most importantly, it gives us both a safe way to talk about problems from the same side of the table, removing some of the defensiveness and assumptions that cause blind spots.


Bottom line: Hiring is an investment

By hiring an employee, I’ve made a decision about where they fit in my vision for the company; they’re an investment in my company’s future. It would be short-sighted to not care what they think and thoughtlessly say they could go work elsewhere if they were unhappy.

Are these hacks perfect? No. Do they make things better? Absolutely. And as we often say in user-centered design, that is enough…for now.


This article has been edited.

Mona Patel is Founder and CEO of Motivate Design, a user experience research and design shop. She is also the author of the bestseller Reframe: Shift the Way You Work, Innovate and Think. Connect with @monapatel on Twitter.


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