How to Quickly Foster Empathy Within a New Team

How to Quickly Foster Empathy Within a New Team

Empathy is about standing in someone else's shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.

– Daniel H. Pink

In 1965, Bruce Tuckman proposed that all teams experience four stages of development — formingstorming, norming, and performing. Essentially, a team has to overcome their independent identities, their fears of mistrust, their intolerances, and their impatience before team members are actually capable of fruitful collaboration. Unfortunately, most organizations either neglect or outright reject the hard work required to form truly meaningful bonds among a team (or wrongly conflate happy-hour drinks with relationship building).

If you find yourself struggling to develop candid, respectful, and productive relationships among a team, here's an exercise to encourage empathy within the team.

Life Story Sharing

  1. Assemble your team for 60 minutes. This exercise works for both small and large teams.
  2. For 5 minutes, ask everyone in the room to silently reflect on a single, simple question: What were the three or four most crucial events in your life so far, and how have they shaped the person you are today?
  3. Now, pass out a blank sheet of paper to everyone on the team. Make sure you instruct everyone to NOT write their name on their piece of paper. This is an anonymous exercise.
  4. Give everyone 15 minutes, silently, to capture each of their major life events and reflect, in writing, on the person they are today. Be sure to coach your team to only include details they are comfortable with sharing.
  5. Collect everyone's paper. Shuffle them and then redistribute these pages at random. No one should get their own paper back.
  6. Give everyone five minutes to read the paper you've handed back to them. Ask that everyone respect the level of effort put into the stories by remaining silent for all five minutes.
  7. Now ask everyone in the room to stand up and to find the person that wrote the story they are holding. Instruct them not to yell out, not to flash the page, or seek out just the handwriting, but to ask those around them about the key elements in the story itself.
  8. Closing: Once everyone has found the original author of their paper, ask them to keep that piece of paper somewhere close to them at work (e.g. in a desk or locker) to always remember the humanity of those around them.

Takeaway: How your team approaches this exercise will tell you a great deal about their willingness to work as a team. Each team is different, and there is no "right" way to respond, but your team's response will demonstrate the amount of work ahead before the group of individuals is truly ready to operate as one team.

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