Empathy is the foundation of engineering leadership culture these days, but what exactly makes an empathetic leader?
Being an effective leader in the software industry is difficult. It’s a fundamentally creative field, but one that, from the outside, can be perceived as closer to an assembly line than a painter’s studio. In the former, being an effective leader often involves mechanistic optimization. But here in the software world, being an effective leader means structuring an environment where intelligent and creative people are able to do their best work. The most suitable way to do that is by leading with empathy.
Vulnerability is the central point of empathetic leadership. Your team needs to view you as an actual human being, not just some extension of a faceless corporation. One of the most effective ways of breaking through that barrier is being vulnerable. As a society, we’ve known this for millennia – heroes from Achilles to Superman all have their weaknesses because it’s what makes them relatable.
Beyond just making you relatable as a human, it helps build a psychologically safe environment. Over a decade ago, Google’s Project Aristotle settled on psychological safety as one of the best predictors of a highly effective team. Being vulnerable as a leader demonstrates that you feel safe, setting a precedent for everyone else to feel the same.
Some people immediately go to personal details when they think about showing vulnerability, which may be a valid path. But there are plenty of ways to demonstrate this without needing to talk about anything outside of work. With some care, you can openly address career struggles, communication difficulties, or team dysfunctions, and walk your team through the places where you are weak or scared in your professional environment.
Vulnerability helps build trust. Without trust, it’s all but impossible to have a strong, empathetic relationship between a manager and a report. If someone doesn’t trust you, the feedback you deliver (both positive and constructive) will end up discounted and disbelieved, praise will feel hollow, and guidance will be viewed with skepticism.
However, demonstrating vulnerability is only a small piece of building trust. The rest of the trust pillar gets constructed by consistently following through on your commitments and demonstrating good judgment. No matter how much people might feel safe discussing their difficulties with you, if they can’t rely on you then it’s all for naught.
This is a prime area where the little things matter. If the team sees you constantly changing your mind without understanding why, it will make them question your judgment more broadly, even if all the changes are too small or insignificant. Similarly, if you fail to follow through on the little things you commit to, people won’t trust you to follow through on the bigger, more impactful things.
Vulnerability is a strong tool but can be detrimental if you go too far. There’s a big difference between being open about your struggles and shaking the team’s confidence. It’s a subtle art to be open about your difficulties without making your team feel those difficulties, but it can be done. This ensures that you remain a calm, stable foundation for the people on your team.
A manager should be a stress-reducing force for the people on their team. If someone comes to you in a panic about a problem, they need to leave in a calmer state than when they arrived. This doesn’t mean you downplay any concerns, but no one does their best work when they’re running around with their hair on fire.
Similarly, when things happen to the team (a lot of people leave, a lot of people join, direction pivots, etc.), they will be looking to you as a model of response. If you’re panicking or worried, they will be, too. This is also where trust comes into play, because if they don’t trust you they’re less likely to believe your reactions. But if you have the team’s trust and you approach things calmly, you have an opportunity to put everyone on more stable footing.
And now we get to the least tangible of all the pillars: presence. As managers, we are always on stage in one form or another, and we can’t ever forget that. Through all of our displays of vulnerability, trust-building experiences, and stabilizing actions, we are in the public eye. Our teams are looking to us not just for explicit guidance and direction but as models for behavior. Minor transgressions such as getting sarcastic with a colleague or raising a voice in anger have an outsized impact.
This presence extends beyond just your team. Impactful leaders influence their peers and those above them with what they say. However, they also achieve this by being a leader that others want to emulate; I’m sure most people had a manager at some point in their careers where they thought, “That’s how I want to be.” Maybe it was the way they delivered feedback or how they handled an outage, but whatever it was, they provided guidance through showing, not telling. The impact of those moments is immeasurable.
Presence is where empathetic leadership can truly transform into effective leadership. You’re no longer simply building a foundation, but instead are using all of the tools at your disposal to drive your team to do their best work and to help each individual grow and thrive in their career.
While an empathetic leader can be ineffective, I’m not sure that an effective leader can exist in this industry without being empathetic. High-level software engineering requires a creative environment with the freedom to fail and learn, and these ideals help form that environment between a manager and their team.