Psychological Safety and Empathy

As I was saying a couple of weeks ago we are in the midst of designing our Emotional Intelligence Trainer for People Not Tech's Psychological Safety Works solution. This isn't a fixed term exercise. Between our Agile mindset and ways of work and the fact that we are breaking new ground for teams and humans at work in general, it's likely we'll always have it part of the next Design Sprint.


So far, what we know beyond any doubt is that, to train leaders have more Emotional Intelligence so they are better equipped to create the much needed Psychological Safety of a productive team, we have to keep them focused on three things: Leadership (a seemingly nebulous area we'll be dissecting in next episodes); Positivity (a sine qua non condition I spoke about before that largely requires suggestions and habit formation but is highly trainable and transformational in effects) and last but definitely not least - Empathy.

"When we are engaged in shared mind awareness, the possibilities for mutual aid and collaborative problem solving abound" says Helen Reiss, MD and her book The Empathy Effect has informed much of what we do alongside the myriad of other studies that show, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that having empathy correlates directly to success in a business environment.


Reading the studies and figuring out what fits in our context is eye-opening indeed and I can only hope woke HR is parading the results of say Miao, Qian "Leader Emotional Intelligence and Subordinate Job Satisfaction" in 2016 to management or that at least they are showing how Momm, Liu, Wihler, Kolin and Menges found that "Emotions Recognition Indirectly Predicts Annual Income" in 2015, but shining a light and then putting together a team building exercise the likes of the fall-back-trust one that has become the butt of all Hollywood jokes, is not going to be enough.


Having and bettering empathy will become the number one skill that will keep people employable in the near future. That leaders ought to have it in spades as it is cornerstone to anything they do and it's their gateway to creating happy, productive and psychologically safe teams, should go without saying.


But it doesn't.


No less because among all other wrongly labeled "soft" skills, empathy is the most complex to construct.


There is very little in the way of practical advice on how to create empathy but the little there is requires in-person interaction.


There are a few different ways of breaking down the types of empathy but one of the most intriguing models postulates the following exist: Cognitive (the ability to intellectually comprehend the emotions of others -which incidentally includes self-knowledge as a prerequisite-); Affective (the ability to emotionally relate to others); and Conative (the actions stemming from the mimicking type of deep relating that happens when we so feel so connected to others we emulate their behavior subconsciously i.e. yawning)


The latter is the hardest of all three and whenever you hear of a team's magic serendipity with stories to suggest they share a mind or even a heart, such as what they exhibit in the army in heroic combat situations, they are displaying this type of deep empathy, which typically takes years to build and requires deep knowledge of each other.


To try and short-circuit that, the most efficient of exercises are around improp and intelligent human closeness and when PeopleNotTech does workshops it's a lot easier to employ those and almost force empathy but seeing how the Psychological Safety Works solution is a digital vehicle, the challenge is tougher.


What we decided to focus on at first, is how to improve Cognitive Empathy by teaching people how to recognize emotions and Affective Empathy by setting up monthly team challenges.


Being that we aren't building a one-size-fits-all solution and we are focusing on gathering data regarding what each team needs and how each team leader acts, we analyse the behaviour data and we may suggest exercises to develop active listening, monitor sharing of emotional data (such as doing "1-high and1-low" exercises periodically -say incorporated in retro's- or encourage emotions pattern recognition in our solution.


We don't yet know which one of these will have the best success rates but since we score leaders on empathy month-on-month it's likely we'll start seeing patterns as to which is more efficient in making people more empathic.


In this Design Sprint we're testing a children's emotions recognition app aimed to help kids - in particular, those on the spectrum as they struggle with this more than neurotypical children (much like software developers, some would argue!)- understand social cues including facial expressions, body language, etc. We're testing this with four different groups - 2 of which are children and 2 are adults with different professional affinities- and I am excited about what we'll learn.


Not only what we will learn to better our solution but what we may all learn and how we all feel about having to learn it. (See what I did there?:) Because make no mistake about it, empathy is not easy, does not come naturally to us all and is not a trivial soft skill we can do without but the foundation of the next phase of work where the number one predictor of employment is one's humanity.


Who reading this can't do better at putting themselves into someone else's shoes? And when our capacity to do our job productively and soon, of grabbing our job from the claws of automation, hinges on the hypothetical wear (and tear!) of those shoes, shouldn't we be eternally trying on a new pair?

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