Dec 18 | 2023

How to build empathy in a UX team

by Dave Robertson

One of the most important things to do when managing any kind of team (but especially a creative one) is to create a culture of safety and security within that team. Members need to feel like they are supported and their contribution is valued, otherwise output tends to suffer. We also want to make sure that as much as possible, our staff enjoy themselves at work because life outside can be demanding and unpredictable.

Empathy is a particularly important skill to build in a field like UX design, where the outcomes that we produce often depend on diligent and accurate questioning and research, and a real connection to the user. This is important not only when doing the research, but also when discussing the outcomes and deciding on the right way forward.

So how can we do build a culture of empathy within the team? There are a few different ways:

  1. Share your vulnerability: as a leader, your staff want to see is that you are in the trenches with them. They need to feel like you will be there to back and support them, and crucially, that you can empathise with them when things are difficult. A UX manager who goes for an extended lunch when the chips are down would not be helping foster a sense of trust within his/her team, but it can be more nuanced than that. A manager who sits quietly and doesn’t show vulnerability can come across as cold, unfeeling and unrelatable. Reduce intimidation by sharing past failure or a time you were criticized, and how it made you feel.
  2. Build a culture of seeking help: you want your team to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and to understand that sharing knowledge is helpful and encouraged. You can also aim to transition from rewarding individual contribution to rewarding team contribution. This can help build team spirit and reduce the siloing of information.
  3. Hold regular meetings with your team: this is a pretty common one, but make sure that the meetings are structured and relevant to people. I’ve worked at companies before where team meetings went on for hours. We had a good laugh, but didn’t achieve much. With careful suggestions and an evidence based (ie gentle persuasion based on evidence) approach, we can change these meetings into helpful sources of information that provide a bonding experience for team members, and an environment where people feel comfortable offering conflicting views.
  4. Promote network building internally: encourage team members to think about people they can go to if they need advice on any aspects of their job.

These are just a few ways that a manager can build empathy and understanding within a team. With persistence and a human-centred approach, we can improve results and outcomes for everyone, and build a team that feels comfortable supporting its members and taking risks.

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