Update: July 7, 2016
When we developed our core values, we were advised not to use the word “empathy” values because it was “too soft for the tech industry”. I felt strongly about including it but conceded to my doubts.
Today, we’ve proven that empathy is THE core skill that’s required to work our complex projects. It’s also the glue that binds our team together.
We’ve updated the core value “Think of Others” to “Act With Empathy.” I became compelled to do this on the plane to Portland to keynote at .NETFringe when I was reading the book Practical Empathy by Indi Young.
In it, she says:
“Empathy is a noun — a thing. Empathy is an understanding you develop about another person. Empathizing is the use of that understanding — an action. Empathy is built through the willingness to take time to discover the deep-down thoughts and reactions that make another person tick. It is purposely setting out to comprehend another person’s cognitive and emotional states. Empathy then gives you the ability to try on that person’s perspective — to think and react as she might in a given scenario.”
Empathy is a critical skill that people must develop in order to work well on our team. So much so, that we listed it as the first value. (Well, that and now we’re happy that all the core values just happen to be in alphabetical order now. ;)
Three years ago, my business partner and I were debating whether or not to give our consulting company another go. We thought long and hard and decided to dive back in. Only this time, we’d do it better. Instead of starting with the services we’d offer, we were going to start with our core values.
Working with our friends at The Spark Mill, we participated in a strategic planning retreat to help us get clarity. We emerged with the goal of building a workplace culture “centered around empathy, autonomy, and balance.”
The next step was to define our core values. There were pieces of research from people like Brené Brown, Dan Pink, and Carol Dweck that we liked, so we started saying little catchphrases over and over. It took about six months of finessing, but eventually, we nailed our core values down to five. They are the nucleus of our company: the center of all decisions, big and small, for the Corgibytes executive team and staff. Here’s a look at each one in detail.
Act With Empathy
In many technology companies today, shame is the motivational tool of choice. However, this command-and-control management style is an artifact of the manufacturing era and does not provide a competitive advantage in today’s interconnected and information-rich environment. Companies that attempt to motivate through fear and ostracizing are often left wondering why their best employees, many of them women, leave en masse.
Brené Brown describes empathy, the act of thinking of others, as the antidote to shame. If we are to build a workplace where people feel respected and contribute their best selves, empathy has to be at the center. Thinking of others requires us to be vulnerable, to allow for uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. As Dr. Brown puts it; “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
At Corgibytes, we each keep a daily journal as a wiki page where we practice describing our day. Journals are intentionally professional, personal, and public. Having work journals that everyone can read gives our team context into the choices we’re making so we support each other as needed. We also post daily stand-up meetings where we list what’s in our way. Sometimes what’s blocking us is a technical issue, but it’s often something personal in nature, too.
Note: This value started out as “Think Of Others” but has since been updated to more accurately reflect the meaning.
Adopt a Growth Mindset
Is intelligence fixed? People who are praised as smart or for a particular skill tend to think so. However, science is showing that this worldview severely limits human potential. At the forefront of this research is Dr. Carol Dweck, defines a growth mindset as “based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.”
High-achieving individuals with a fixed mindset are most prone to experiencing Imposter Syndrome, the feeling of not being good enough despite evidence to the contrary. Dr. Valarie Young shares how “imposter feelings crop out most during times of transition or when faced with a new challenge.” Just how empathy is the antidote to shame, adopting a growth mindset is the antidote to Imposter Syndrome.
While learning something new, it is also helpful to be aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is a cognitive bias where people who objectively are less skilled feel more superior and project their ability to be much higher than it is.
This concept of the duality between Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger effect was summarized by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell when he said: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Communication is Just as Important as Code
At Corgibytes, we eliminate the binary belief that people are “technical” or “non-technical.” Everyone is expected to be both. Folks who come from a computer science background participate in sales calls and help with blog posts, and everyone, no matter their role, is expected to learn how to code.
To preserve a culture of autonomy, we push for asynchronous communication that allows people the most scheduling flexibility. To achieve this, we use the following ChatOps stack: Slack, Todoist, GitHub (including issues and wikis) Google Docs, and custom built APIs.
Routine communication occurs across teams and with clients, including daily stand-ups, daily journal entries, weekly retrospectives, weekly client check-ins.
We have developed a framework for reducing context switching costs based on the movie “Inception.” The more ideas within ideas an individual is holding at a given time, the less prepared they are to collaborate. Synchronous collaboration works best when individuals have the opportunity to wrap up their mental models.
Calm the Chaos
Urgency leads to errors; frenzy to frustration. At Corgibytes, we focus on developing the steady working rhythm and calm mind that works best for solving complex problems. Here are some specific things we have implemented:
- Eliminated office hours and company holidays. The staff is encouraged to work in a way that matches their personal productivity.
- Notice how language choices can influence stress. Ex: sprint vs. iteration
- Praise staff for self-care and results rather than effort.
- Introduce a framework for stepping away from the keyboard to solve a complex problem: 80% of your brain, 80% of the time.
- Mindfulness training through yoga classes three times per week.
Craftsmanship in Context
When a team is focused on solving complex problems with many interdependencies, transparency and access to context becomes imperative. Additionally, as discussed by General Stanley McChrystal in his book, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, winning business strategies today are based on responsiveness and agility rather than the efficiency models of organizational behavior that defined the 20th-century manufacturing era.
At Corgibytes, we focus on providing context in a variety of ways:
- Encouraging pair and mob programming
- Technical discoveries for each project
- Small commits that use the description box, which is the best source of documentation because rationale comes up when you run
- Use wikis to document daily communication, environment setup, meeting notes, etc.
As a result of this empathy-focused culture, Corgibytes recruits and retains talent (despite its location in a mid-market city), maintains a gender-balanced technical team, and regularly receives praise and increased business from customers based on the high quality of service. The vision that we had when we first started is now a reality, thanks to keeping our values clear and visible.