Empathy vs Altruism in Modern Leadership

The concept of empathy is one that has become popular as a leadership ideal. We expect empathy from CEOs, ask designers to join empathy challenges, and tell people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Empathy is, at its simplest, knowing what someone else is going through. It’s often identified as a counterpart to sympathy and is seen as an important quality of modern leadership.

But setting empathy as a gold standard in leadership has its downfalls [1]. Empathetic leadership relies on personal experiences with situations that are atypical for you and assumes similar tolerance levels for discomfort. More importantly though, it assumes that experiencing something is the same as understanding.

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Fostering Collaboration Across Cultures

Diversity doesn’t come without tension. The key is to know how to make it into jazz and not discordant noise.

Stereotypes are shortcuts our brains use to make fast decisions (especially when there is too much information or potential unknowns). We tend to infer a lot about others based on our past experiences, whether it’s accurate to do so or not. As the world becomes more connected and our interactions more immediate, we interact with people unlike us every day without even realizing it.

Our brains, being the prediction machines that they are, take these stereotypes and form an idea of how interactions will go.

Illustration: Design vs Development

As a quick example let’s look at the work-centric, cross-cultural environment between Design and Development.

A stereotypical concept of a Designer might be that they are:

  • untidy
  • unencumbered by deadlines
  • value form over function
  • generally “right-brained”

A stereotypical concept of a Developer might be that they are:

  • fastidious
  • unencumbered by manners
  • value function over form
  • generally “left-brained”

Objections over these questionable stereotypes aside, these two groups objectively look like completely different cultures. Each have their own language or jargon that sets them apart. The etiquette of how to interact with their work is different. Humor among these two groups can be impossibly nuanced, but it ties them together.

These things act as communication barriers and can hinder a process called the Negotiation of Meaning.

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Building a Culture of Safety

When I think back over the many communities I’ve been part of over the years — whether at work, as a volunteer, or in a church — those that were most vibrant had many things in common. They had leadership that was engaging, they had regular gatherings, and they were clear about who they served. As I’ve grown into my own concepts of leadership, I have come to recognize that one of the largest (and most hidden) things they had in common was a dedication to cultural safety. Letting people come as they are, and honoring that, was foundational to how they operated.

Safety can mean different things to different people, though, so here’s a quick overview of how I see it.

Types of Safety

  • Physical Safety – The ability to remain free from bodily harm. For my current work in the WordPress project, this mostly comes up in relation to in-person events.
  • Psychological Safety – The ability to express yourself freely. This comes up in all of the community’s communication channels, from Slack and team blogs to twitter and events.
  • Social Safety – The ability be your whole self among others. This, naturally, comes up in all of our spaces both in-person and on-line.
  • Moral Safety – The ability to reconcile your work with your morals. This comes up mostly with volunteers in WordPress.

Though I’m sure this isn’t a comprehensive list, I do feel that these four kinds of safety line right up with some basic needs of healthy modern communities: personal safety, open communication, inclusivity, and aligned values.

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