Can we train ourselves to be more empathetic?

how_does_that_make_you_feel_

For a good while, I have been thinking more and more about the impact of our behaviour on our success and the success of the organisations we are part of. This brought me to observe people’s behaviour in trying to achieve a goal and the different reactions that each approach caused.

I have also done some experiments myself, trying to achieve the same goal using different behaviours on purpose.

The differentiator in the behaviours I have been observing is empathy

The subjects I have observed are of the type: developer, tester, analyst, business stakeholder, manager, leader.

What I found out is that the difference in the success of people with high empathy versus the less empathetic ones is astonishing. It is a different ball game. Empathetic people, get things done while building strong relationships and creating an enjoyable environment.

On the other hand, I have seen extremely skilled and capable people struggle to get anything done because their lack of empathy for their teammates made them choose behaviours that instead of achieving their goal, frustrated them and in some extreme cases made them withdraw into a corner full of anger and resentment with a common mantra: “they are idiots and they don’t understand”.

Being very empathetic, I feel very bad for them and I want to try to help.

You control how empathetic you are

The first thing I can do to help my less empathetic readers is to demonstrate to you that you are in control and can train your empathy to become more successful.

I believe we decide whether we want to act with empathy or not. Empathy is not in our DNA, it can be learned and improved. How do I know that? 

Let me tell you a story

A few years ago, driven by my burning curiosity, I had managed to get the hang on agile software development and I really thought I knew a lot about it.

Being an extrovert, I thrive when I am in the presence of big groups of people. At the same time, I am also an avid learner and I know that for me, sharing my thoughts in public, is the most effective way of learning something new.

One obvious  way of taking advantage of this two aspects of my character was to start participating actively to some Agile and Agile testing online groups with the honest intent to help people that needed help and learn in the process.

I tried. It was a train wreck.

My goal was learning by helping people resolve their problems, but the result was that I was pissing people off and pushing them further away from subjects that they found already enough challenging before they met me, the annoying Italian dickhead that thought he knew everything.

What was the cause of this disaster?

Was my knowledge on the subject not sufficient? Did I fail because of my incompetence?

No.

I knew enough to help the people starting with agile, I had the necessary knowledge and skills.

So what?

One day, I started following the answers of another person in the group let’s call him Mr. Joe. He was saying the same things I was saying, we agreed on everything, we even spoke a few times about how much we cared for the agile community and how much we wanted to help.

So, same skills, same motivation. Was he annoying people like me?

No. People loved him. They asked him direct questions and thanked him all the time.

I remember in one specific case, I got frustrated as I had spent quite a long time replying to a quite complex question with a good solution, then after I already did, Mr. Joe said the same things I said, in different terms.  and the person asking the question would thank him and ignore me.

Guess what? The person asking the question thanked Mr. Joe and completely blanked me.

Can you imagine? Somebody asks a question. I give him the right answer. Mr. Joe gives him the right answer after me. Mr. Somebody thanks Mr. Joe and blanks me.

I knew something was wrong and I started trying to find patterns, similarities and differences between me and Mr. Joe.

Then one day it hit me.

I was answering to “say the right thing”. Mr. Joe was answering because he cared that the person that asked the question would learn.

I felt stupid and ashamed of myself. I was really down. I realised how self-centered and selfish I had been while acting righteously as the “saviour of agile”.

Discovering bad things about ourselves is painful, but life has taught me that it is also the best thing that can happen to us because that’s the time we can make a decision to change and improve our lives.

I changed, bit by bit, slowly. Before answering any question on the forum, I started asking myself:

This person came to a public forum and asked for help on a subject he doesn’t know well, how might he feel?

How might this answer affect his feeling?

If I say this will he feel bad? How about I say it like this, same message but more positive, will he feel any better?

And it worked.

empathy

Week after week I started to get people contact me privately and thanking me for my time and help. They were telling me how my message had helped them resolve the problem.

I had been doing that exact same job for years and nobody ever did thank me. Then it became a stream of people thanking me for my help.

Be considerate, mindful, empathise with others. They will feel your empathy and compassion. They will want to work with you and their actions will also make you feel good about yourself.

It’s a win-win, we are both happy, why don’t you try?

5 Easy steps for Testers to Influence Developers

nobodylistenstomeA classic problem for testers in agile contexts is the fact that they feel they are not listened to by developers. Testers, often rightly, warn developers from doing stuff because the consequences could be very bad, but developers in many cases don’t listen to them.

This is very upsetting, testers find themselves lonely within an agile team because of this. They get frustrated and if they keep on asking and screaming their needs they risk being alienated by their team members becoming completely ineffective while growing dissatisfied with their job.

But, but, they are right in telling the developers what to do! WTF?

When working as a tester in an agile team you’ve got to develop a skill that before you really didn’t need that much.

It is called influencing. Before when you worked in your separate QA department/test team you didn’t need it because there was a test manager that was fighting the battles for you and deciding the test strategy to be applied.

Things have changed, you’ve got to become good at influencing.

This is what Gus did when he moved to an agile team as a tester many years ago.

First I tried barking orders, screamed and shouted, but it din’t work at all, so I decided to adopt a different approach.

  1. I started to really listen to what developers said instead of listening for finding gaps in their thought
  2. I listened and listened and listened a bit more
  3. Third I started asking questions showing real interest in what they were doing. Being mindful of their fears and feelings. I made sure they knew I was there to help and that we were all in the same boat
  4. I started praising them when they did something good, for example thanking them for adding testability to the application. Things like “without Roberto’s design I would have spent weeks doing what I can do now in 10 minutes, thank you so much Roberto, you made my life better”
  5. I started coaching them on how to test by testing with them. When they saw what testing really involved, they understood its importance and challenges and started asking interesting questions about it.

Who will developers listen to?

Now compare the developers’ reaction when faced with a suggestion raised by Gus to the one that Jack gets. Jack is a tester that uses the classic approach of “what the hell are you talking about? This is going to explode in production!”

You feel like this
Jack

Who do you think will be able to influence developers actions when something important for testing needs to be done?

Not Jack.

Me? Often, I always got the developers at least to listen to me and a lot of the times we did it my way unless somebody in the team had a better idea.

So, do you want to be Jack and keep on moaning about developers that don’t understand anything about testing?

If I were you I’d take Gus’s approach and build your influence within your team, start now, start listening.

3 Simple Steps to Help Overloaded Teams

dublin-rain-491-390x285It was a wet and dark morning in Dublin when I sat with team X for the first time.

I had been told: “Gus, these guys are struggling, they really need your help. They are always late, and everybody complains about the quality of their work, it’s bad, very bad”.

I expected a demotivated team of technically poor developers with its members playing video games or youtube videos instead of doing their job, but I was wrong.

No developer was slacking or pretending to work, on the other hand, I saw people with worried faces shuffling around, some listening to angry customers, some head down into code, some testing and quietly cursing.

To a newcomer, they looked super busy and doing their thing.

I perceived the first hint of trouble later in the day. I went to talk to some of them, just introducing myself and telling them that I was going to work with them to try to make their life easier. Each and every one of them was too busy to talk. All of them had something urgent, being a production issue, being a customer waiting behind their backs, or a release they had to finish by 5pm. Sorry, sorry Gus, I really can’t now, I have this blah blah…

I took it in and let them alone for the day. The day after, I kept on observing without saying a word. The amount of pressure that I saw applied on to these poor kids was frightening. In the same day I saw 8 different people go to the same developer and demand he finished something he was meant to have finished already. The requesters were different people and asked for 8 different things, all quite angrily.

The subsequent days, my observations stressed more and more this situation, the people were pushed over the limits and by trying to finish things quickly and relief some of the pressure were skipping steps and introducing new problems, new issues to work on, and so on.

I kept on observing and asking questions here and there, but the people saw me as somebody that couldn’t help them with the code, hence quite useless. I had to do something different.

On the 4th day, in the morning, after their standup, I told them to stop doing what they were doing and come and have a chat with me.

Believe it or not, It was almost impossible to get them off their seats.

no-thanks-were-too-busyThey felt they could not leave the sinking ship, they needed to continue trying to flush the water out with their hands. Did I have a powerful drain pump and could save the boat easily? They didn’t have time to learn how to use it, they needed to keep on shovelling with their bare hands.

I eventually got them into a room. We had a retrospective. I disguised the retro to be something else, because I had heard from one of the developers: “we don’t do retrospectives anymore, what’s the point if we don’t have the time to change anything?”

That’s a very valid question. Very.

The team was obviously overloaded and didn’t have the maturity and the necessary negotiation skills to express that to their customers and stakeholders. They had reacted to the overload with what I call the “headless chicken approach”. It works like this: “Just do all you can, forget about quality, process, product, customers, just run for your life and even if your work product is terrible, people won’t be able to blame you, as you work like a donkey every day.”

fuck-it-let-s-just-panic-and-run-around-like-headless-chickensDo you think this is uncommon? Well think again.

The first step we took was to visualise the work in progress. The guys were using Jira with no physical board and didn’t realise how much work they were really taking on. The board was scary, full scary I mean.

As the work came from many different products, another thing that we did was separating the products into different classes of service.

By doing this we immediately saw that one product had most of the tickets, why? We don’t know yet, but at least we are aware of it now.
After this very simple step  the team members started having conversations that were beyond the need to finish MyNewFeature, they started looking at current priorities and talking about the whys of the bad situation they where in.

Then they started talking about experiments to fix it.

They were improving the system.

I looked outside the window, the sun had come out.

p9220189_dublin_hapenny
What were the 3 steps we made that enabled the behavioural change?

  1. Acknowledge we were in an unsustainable situation that needed changing
  2. Agree the team had the responsibility and the authority to improve it with my support and management agreement
  3. Visualise the work they were already doing

 

Just this small change had transformed a group of intelligent people acting like headless chickens into people that were trying to improve a complex system, not bad for a weeks work I’d say!

If you are curious stay tuned and I will tell you what happened next, no more chickens, I swear.

The new episode of the story of Team X is out

If I want to be treated like a professional I should act like one

Drunk-Surgeon-801916Developers and testers often complain that they are not recognised as real professional experts, I wonder why.
One category of respected professional experts is for example heart surgeons.

Now let’s imagine I go talk to heart surgeon Mike and go

<me> I need heart surgery
<Mike> Sure we will schedule it
<me> No no no, I need it now because I have a dinner appointment tonight
<Mike> OK, that’s fine we’ll do it quickly, I won’t even wash my hands

Would you trust Mike as a real professional expert? I wouldn’t

Now let’s think about a common scenario where Product owner Jeff comes to me (developer) and says

<Jeff> I need the new payment feature
<me> Sure we will schedule it
<Jeff> No no no, I need it by tomorrow, we need to comply with regulation
<me> OK that’s fine, I’ll hack it together for you and I won’t even write tests

How can i expect to be treated like a professional?

Thanks for the idea to Marcello Duarte (@_md)

 

Talk to me for God’s sake

If you remember this, you're old
If you remember this, you’re old

E-mail is a great tool, it was the first killer app of the Internet, that directly demonstrated the intrinsic value of the network well before the web became useful.

Before e-mail, people that lived far away could communicate through slow traditional mail, expensive phone lines or simply travelling and meeting each other somewhere. The competitive advantage of e-mail was huge and as a consequence its adoption was fast and furious.

It was a no-brainer for any company to use it. We can save time and money with little or no effort, yippeee!

Being an e-mail salesman was the easiest job in the world, I was one.

But, hang on a second, why the hell would you use e-mail if you have to ask a question to your team mate sitting next to you?

A conversation is cheaper than e-mail, a conversation is faster than e-mail, a conversation includes much more information than e-mail, a conversation will finish there and then with a solution.

Let me try to sell my new product: Internal e-mail For Lazy Asses©

Send mail one more time
Send mail one more time

Dear co-located colleagues,

Internal e-mail For Lazy Asses© will allow you to avoid getting up your arse all day while you’re comfortably coding and watching the deep youtubes

In the likely event you suddenly lost your tongue or had your mouth welded by accident, you will still be able to communicate with your team mates and be productive!

You will be able to demonstrate you are working on something while actually not giving a shit about it, because, let’s be honest, if you did, you would go and talk to your colleague and not sit on your arse for days waiting for an answer that you haven’t got in 3 days.

You will be able to avoid troubleshooting or even bother thinking about a problem if you forward it to your full team!

You will be able to conceal your body language so that nobody will know you haven’t got a clue about what you’re talking about; when suspicion arises, you can attach old confusing and obscure threads that will implicitly demonstrate you have known the topic all along

Somebody else will eventually do your work, yippeeee!

So, are you buying it?

Little Tim and the messy house

The messy kitchen
The messy kitchen

A cute little boy, Tim, lives in a messy house.

In the morning Tim’s mum, Tina, spends an hour looking for rubbish in the house, when she finds some, she writes a note on a piece of paper where she describes the steps that she followed when she found it, and sticks the note in one of 5 different drawers. Each drawer is labelled “Severity 1”,  “Severity 2” and so on down to “Severity 5”.

Tina and Tim’s uncle Bob, meet every evening to discuss the daily findings and after arguing for a good while they agree on how to file the notes written during the day into 5 folders with labels “Priority 1”, “Priority 2” and so on up to “Priority 5”.

Tim’s father, Oleg, every morning picks the folder with label “Priority 1” reads the notes Tina wrote, follows the steps, finds the rubbish and throws it in the bin. He then writes an extra note on the piece of paper saying that he has thrown the rubbish in the bin. If the Priority 1 folder is empty, Oleg picks the Priority 2 folder and follows the same process. Some times Oleg cannot find Tina’s rubbish even when following her written steps, in this case he adds a note saying “there is no rubbish there!”. Sometimes Tina takes it personally and Oleg sleeps in the spare room. Oleg barely ever opens the folders with Priority 3 to 5. Such folders are bursting with new and old notes from many years back.

Tina spends an hour a day rechecking the Priority folders to see if her husband has added his notes. When she finds one, she will follow her own steps to make sure that Oleg has removed the rubbish from where it was as he said he did. If he did it, she will shred the original note, if the rubbish is still there she will add a note at the bottom saying, “the rubbish is still there, please go and pick it up!”. She will spend some more time adding some extra information on how to find the piece of rubbish. Sometimes, while she is tracking some old rubbish she finds some new, in this case she creates another note and adds it to a drawer.

Each piece of rubbish was filed neatly
For each piece of rubbish, a report was filed neatly

From time to time uncle Bob calls around asking for rubbish reports and rubbish removal trends. In these occasions Tina and Oleg spend the night up counting and recounting, moving sorting and drawing before they send a detailed rubbish status report.

Strangely enough, no matter how hard Tina and Oleg work at identifying, filing, removing, reporting and trending rubbish, the house is always full of shit and uncle Bob is always angry. Tim’s parents are obsessed in finding new rubbish but they don’t pay much attention to family members dropping chewing gums on the floor, fish and chips wrapping paper in the socks drawer, beer cans in the washing machine and so on. After all Tina will find the rubbish and following their fool proof process they will remove it!

One day Tim calls her parents and Uncle and sits them down for a chat. He suggests to stop throwing rubbish on the floor and messing up the house so that they can reduce the amount of time spent finding, removing filing and trending the rubbish. He also suggests to get rid of the folders labelled Priority 3, 4 and 5 as nobody has done any work on them and after all the existence of a minuscule speck of dust on the bathroom floor is not going to make their life uncomfortable. He also suggests that Tina calls Oleg as soon as she finds some rubbish so that he can remove it straight away, without the need for adding notes.

Uncle Bob tells Tim that what he says is nonsense, because the family are following a best practice approach for rubbish management and in agreement with Tina and Oleg locks him up in a mental facility.

Everybody lived unhappy ever after.

Have I eventually gone bonkers and started talking nonsense?

No, I haven’t suddenly gone crazy. I am Tim and I want to change the world.