The modern workplace features a lot of ambiguity.
Whatever your role, to get anything done, “everybody needs to be able to drive consensus,” says Jon Kolko, author of the new book Well Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love. While Kolko’s career has looked at how smart designers can identify needs in order to solve problems people didn’t know they had, empathy turns out to be an important business skill no matter what you do.
It’s also a tricky one, since in its pure form, “it’s something that can’t be achieved,” says Kolko. “It’s the ability to see something through someone else’s eyes, and walk in their shoes. To do that, you’d have to be them.” So instead, “think of it on a spectrum. Your goal is to get as close as you can.” When you understand why people do what they do, you can achieve things you couldn’t if you just focused on your own desires. Here’s how to develop the skill.
First, you need to adopt a positive view of human nature. When your smart colleagues do stupid things, “optimistically, pretend for a second that they’re doing stuff with the best of intentions,” Kolko says. If you could imagine a good reason for this behavior, what would it be? “It almost always comes down to some sort of incentive structure,” says Kolko. A colleague is cutting corners because she’s worried about a deadline. Once you understand the constraints, try to play with the constraints. Ask her what she’d do if the project had to be done in an hour. Ask what she’d do if she had all the time in the world. You’ll likely get some insight into her thinking.
If possible, when you observe problematic behavior, “try to walk a mile in their shoes,” says Kolko. Literally follow people around for a few hours. Ask to try one of their tasks so you understand their challenges and satisfactions.
Once you understand what motivates someone, you can appeal to that desire as you try to get what you want. To be sure, this can seem underhanded. “That’s been the flip side to design marketing forever,” says Kolko. “We’re trying to help you, but it’s absolutely active manipulation.” Likewise, “I don’t know what the workplace looks like when everyone’s trying to manipulate everybody else.” But a better way to view it is that understanding people’s desires so you can reach a solution is just necessary for getting things done. “Think about it as if it’s problem solving,” says Kolko. “Everything becomes a design problem on some level.”