Vince Lombardi, one of the most illustrious coaches in the history of American football, once said that great leaders aren’t born, they’re made—just like anything else—through hard work. The same can be said of great teams.
Merely putting together a group of elite individuals doesn’t guarantee elite team performance. One of the most vital ingredients of high-performing teams is empathy. Google’s Project Aristotle, for example, found that highly empathetic teams had a more equal distribution of talk time across all members during group discussions.
They were also likelier to address conflicts and disagreements within the team instead of sweeping them under the carpet to be dealt with when tensions came to a head.
To build an empathetic team, though, managers need first to understand what makes a good foundation for them. To that end, here are the three critical characteristics of highly empathic teams.
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“It’s just who I am. I can’t change it.” If we all had a penny for each time we heard this kind of response when someone makes a faux pas or displays a lack of empathy for someone else, we’d probably all be swimming in cash. People tend to drop this phrase like a get-out-of-jail-free card; it’s the greatest stumbling block for managers intending to develop greater empathy in their teams.
Belief is the cornerstone of behavioural change. If you don’t believe you can change, you’re likelier to make half-baked attempts at turning over a new leaf than someone who does believe in it.
The same goes for empathy. It’s a widespread false belief that empathy is something you’re either born with or not. Yes, some people are naturally more empathic than others. That doesn’t mean that the rest of us are doomed. Empathy, just like intelligence levels and personality traits, is dynamic over time; it doesn’t remain fixed from birth to death.
In fact, recent studies by Stanford psychologists Carol Dweck and Jamil Zaki found that people who believed that empathy can be cultivated worked harder to improve their empathic skills than those who didn’t.
Practicing empathy is a conscious, effortful choice. Highly empathic teams don’t take this for granted, and they don’t assume that empathy is something you have to be born with to be good at.
A manager who comes in and tells a dysfunctional team to “just try to understand each other” won’t change much. In such teams, no one can see eye to eye; everyone defaults to an antagonistic, “me vs. you” approach to working together. To them, there is no room for empathy, even if the manager screams himself hoarse.
Rather than attempting to force empathy in such situations, it’s better to allow it to surface organically. People are all inherently capable of looking out for each other and understanding one anothers’ perspectives; it’s part of our capacity as social beings.
The catch, though, is that we must recognise that we need each others’ support to succeed. If we feel like we don’t need each other to get by and achieve our goals, we’re less likely to attempt to empathise with one another.
Similarly, to cultivate empathy in your team, ensure that group dynamics are underscored by interdependence. Help people to recognise that team successes are only possible when everyone has clearly defined roles, steps to the plate in equal measure, and co-ordinates their efforts seamlessly. When a team operates with an all-for-one, all-for-one mentality, they’ll naturally practice greater empathy with one another.
The single most unifying characteristic of high-performance teams is psychological safety. These teams feel comfortable taking interpersonal risks around one another; they are unafraid of asking questions, sharing vital information, and disagreeing with one another in problem-solving.
These might seem like straightforward, everyday tasks for each team. However, the greater the threat of being judged or seen as incompetent, the likelier it is that people will choose “saving face” over communicating openly with one another.
In this state of mind, self-preservation, not mutual understanding and empathy, is the top priority. Without providing an atmosphere where people can be fearlessly authentic and vulnerable around each other, managers will fail to cultivate empathy in their people.