George Stefanis

Empathy at work, lessons from the army

26 Jan 2017

Back in 2008 I was serving in the Greek army. It was a dull and boring period of my life, but not without learnings.

During one of these dull mornings, i was sent by my major to do a really mundane task (it was so mundane that i don’t even remember what it was anymore). When i came back i was visibly upset by the lack of sense this task made for me, but i tried to be stoic, hide it and move on. But my facial expression, unfortunately, never lies. My major read through me and he told me the most profound thing anyone told me during that year.

“One day, during a conflict, I might ask you to grab this iron stick, tie it with a wire and run up the hill and place it there. You might say that this was a dangerous and stupid task and you might complain. What you don’t see though is the big picture. The big picture is that this action of yours is paramount into setting up the communications with the other side of the squad. There are times in life that the big picture can’t be shared with you either for strategic reasons or because it might not be clear to me either”.

You might be wondering how any of this relates with empathy at work. Bare with me.

Team X doesn’t care

During the last 10 years I’ve been working with different teams and a common think i hear often is “Team X doesn’t care about Y”. At first it was “the system engineers don’t give a shit about us”, then it was “the business analysts are living in their own bubble”, then it was “the customer support doesn’t understand us”, then it was “the delivery consultants are taking all the glory”, “the developers develop useless stuff”, “the designers are spending their days drawing fancy pictures” and the list can go for ever.

Here’s the thing, before passing judgement to any group of people try to spend some time in their shoes. More often than not, people in team X are humans too and they care. A lot of them surely want to do the right thing, but in the process they might lack some information or a bit of knowledge that you think it’s common sense(but it’s not). How do i spend time in their shoes? TransferWise has this thing called side-by-side. During these sessions one of us from the team spends time with our Customer Support answering customer questions and problems. This is an eye opening experience for everyone. The developers do it, the analysts do it, our founders do it, hell… even our investors do!! And i’ll tell you what, it’s super nice. You get to come closer to our customers and have a bigger empathy towards them. Plus you get to meet new customer support people.

Roger Ehrenberg

One of our investors, Roger Ehrenberg, talking with customers.

This is just one thing that you could do. Even if you don’t have a customer support team you can spend time with the people that you understand the least. Go and participate in a developer planning session, or a design session or shadow a business analyst and talk with the customers together. Make notes. It will be a wonderful experience because it can teach you what problems each team is dealing with. It will make you happier. It will, hopefully, make you more calm.

Big picture.

You now understand the people. Cool, you are awesome. Now try to see the big picture. Why are they doing this? Why are they ignoring your amazing suggestion? You understand each other and after all it makes so much sense. Right?

No! It doesn’t. You consultants talk with so many people that you couldn’t possibly know. Your customer support is talking with all sorts of clients. The waitress is dealing with all the peculiarities of all sorts of people. The developers or your designers are dealing with so many limitations and problems that it’s hard to comprehend.

When you are suggesting that they should now work on feature Y and someone says no don’t get upset. Try to see the big picture, and if you can’t try harder. Talk with more people, spend more time with them. Bring different people together. This isn’t an opportunity for an argument. This is an opportunity for you to bring people together and keep the conversation going. In a nice and constructive way.

Is that enough?

No it’s not! It’s not even the most important thing. The most important thing is to remember that these are people too. They are people that woke up in the morning, left their families, kissed their kids goodbye and came to spend time in the same space as you (virtually or not). They are people with their problems, fears and ambitions. They are not black boxes, they don’t have to do any of this.

So next time you yell at the business analyst, or the waitress, or the custom support person or anyone else, ask yourself. Would i do that to my loved ones? Would i yell at my friends? Would i like others to yell at me?

Be nice, be empathetic. It pays dividends.

This is a waste of time!

Someone said in a meeting recently “Should we spend time for all that culture stuff”? That was such a bad and misguided question. Taking care of a company/startup/band/collective culture is not a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have!! I can’t stress this enough. You need to care about these things, you need to take the extra mile, because when people are empathetic with each other and understand each other they become a nice, oiled machine. A force of change and disruption. A bunch of individuals is nothing.

So take the time, be nice first, come together with the people around you and try to understand them. Don’t look for arguments, don’t be an ass. Then do design that fancy page, develop this useful APi or write this amazing document that explains everything. But first be nice.

P.S Even you made it all the way down there you deserve a picture of me in the army, digging a hole in the ground for no real good reason.

George digging something

Digging a hole.

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