The Difference Between Employee Empathy and Customer Empathy

It’s 10:00pm. The team is sitting around a table, cranking. You can feel the tiredness hanging in the air, like a ghost that’s bent on making it’s presence known. The big due date has been looming for months but somehow it turned into tomorrow and you’ve found yourself in the situation that you all promised you wouldn’t be in month ago.

Then…out of the corner of your weary, bloodshot eye you see it. It’s [insert co-worker here], and they are on their cell phone.

Texting. TEXTING!?!

Again. AGAIN!?!

BAH $%&@!!!

Here you are, typing your heart on to put the finishing touches on [insert big deadline item here] and there they are – sitting over there relishing in the disconnect of their digital life. Well let me tell you, we’re not standing for it anymore. Nope, not today. Your mouth jars open and before you can catch yourself you see a bunch of startled faces responding to the ‘Hey! Let me tell you….’ statements that you clearly must’ve just vocalized. And all of a sudden, a very long night just turned into a much longer night.

So often in design thinking and creative work we talk about building user empathy, but rarely do we take the time to build empathy and dialogue with those sitting a few feet over. When a project comes in, our first inclination is to assign roles, put a plan on it, and get the ball rolling. It might work, right up until it doesn’t, and then it fails in a big way. It’s those moments in the 9th hour, with fires burning and emotions high that you start to question each other, and it just so happens those are the last moments you want to be questioning your own team. Sure, your team mate might have been just goofing off, but it very well might have been their mother’s birthday that they almost forgot, or one of their children that has been battling a cold, or just a well deserved break before diving back in. These false assumptions are the ones that show up in the worst ways at the worst times.

We use a really simple tool to help build this understanding early and often in team settings – Personal Persona Sheets:

As you’re kicking off a project, spend an 30-60 minutes having each person create their own Personal Persona sheet. It doesn’t need to take long, just 5-10 minutes. Then give each team member the floor for another 5-10 minutes to share out what they created. Here are the categories we ask each person to capture:

– Your Name

– Communication Style – How do you tend to bring thoughts to your team? Are you the person with the big, lofty ideas, or are you the person who is a master of seeing roadblocks? Should your teammates expect concrete, well thought out details, or half-baked ground breaking sketches?

– Personality Type – How do you typically show up? Are you an in your face, call it like it is person? Or are you the silent one processing to yourself? Or (dare say it) passive aggressive combination of the two?

– Strengths – In moments of need, what can your team count on you to shine in? Are you the team comedian? The visual facilitator? The one known for spurring coffee walks to unwind?

– Mindshare – The most oft forgotten, and perhaps most important. What else is going on in your life that might have you distracted or prevent you from being present in the moment? It could be family, personal, emotional, or something else, but let’s be honest – we’re all human. When your team catches you texting…again…what is it that’s going on?

You can customize these to whatever works best for you. Sometimes we include things like personal excitement for a given project, or biggest fears around the work being done, or skillsets most trying to improve. There are no right or wrong answers. The point is to have the conversation, to level set amongst the team before diving headfirst into the trenches of hard work. Give it a try, there’s little to lose.

Andy Hagerman
[email protected]
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