Building Trust with Empathy

posted on 3 Jan 2021

Have you ever joined a new job or team and wondered, how do I build trust with my team? If your work requires collaboration, this is an inevitable question. Building trust is a crucial milestone for any new role. It is tempting to think the answer is simple - do good work. Good work is important, though rarely enough. Gaining trust requires changing people’s beliefs, no easy feat. Trust takes a lot of work for it is valuable currency.

Bees linking two swarms

Yet, Building Trust 101 is a topic seldom discussed. Because we feel uncomfortable with the idea of what the absence of trust implies. Or, as Stephen M. R. Covey noted,

“We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviour.”

Regardless, I think it is helpful to know where one stands when starting a new role. I always assume my Trust Reserve resets and I need to go about building it from scratch.

How does one go about building trust? And how do we know we are making progress towards it? It’s not something you can put a clear metric on. It would be nice to see a graph with one’s weighted moving average trust score over time, but to my knowledge, this graph doesn’t yet exist. The short answer is, it ain’t easy. But you knew that.

Building empathy then requires gaining a first-hand experiential understanding and appreciation of one’s new environment.

I do think there are several tangible areas one can work on that help establish trust. One of them is building empathy. Doing something new is in effect, changing one’s environment. Building empathy then requires gaining a first-hand experiential understanding and appreciation of one’s new environment. It is walking in the shoes of those who have been there before to know what got us here before we go about making changes.

A few years ago, I joined a team well-established in their charter and responsible for systems that had evolved over a decade. We had many internal customers, and we ran bespoke services for each of them. I found this to be a curious pattern. While it had advantages, it resulted in close to a hundred binaries running in production and making sense of it all for someone new was close to impossible. Naturally, I wanted to to push for simplifying this to make things more manageable. Instead, one of my first projects was to add another binary for a high-priority project.

Adding to the existing complexity felt like I was making it worse. However, this gave me a much better appreciation for fundamental reasons why the pattern was popular in the team. The system provided many benefits such as near-perfect isolation for vastly differing customer needs, fewer bugs per binary and a low operational burden. This understanding helped me better design the next system, which would take these into account while reducing the engineering time and production footprint.

As new customers came to us, we piloted the new system with a few of them. They could get started in a matter of minutes on their own with the new system instead of waiting for weeks for an engineer to free up on our team and build them a bespoke solution. My team could now focus more on making the system better instead of one-off solutions and fixes. Slowly, confidence in the new system grew as did my team’s trust in me. My next proposal of migrating all customers to the new system did not outlandish anymore. I doubt this would have happened if I had not taken the time to build empathy.

This a recurring theme - making lasting changes in teams depends on building trust, which in turn depends on building empathy for the team. Personally, I find this to be a useful way to be effective in new roles. I hope you do too.

Categories:  #management