4 Ways to Encourage Empathic Collaboration

How to Encourage Empathic Collaboration

Have you ever been in a meeting where everyone is speaking over each other? Or how about one where no one is speaking up at all? In both of these scenarios, the right people might be in the room, but that won’t lead to breakthrough ideas if they can’t figure out how to work with each other.

Effective collaboration is fueled by empathy—an awareness of others and an ability to detect their emotions and understand their perspective. To come up with truly innovative solutions requires new ideas. And to bring new ideas to light requires seeking a diversity of perspectives and creating a welcoming space for people to share their ideas without fear of judgment.

Leaders who are skilled at empathic collaboration know that voicing an opposing opinion can be a moment of tension for a member of their team, but that those tense moments are the greatest opportunity to unearth impactful ideas. They design ways to intentionally push their people beyond their comfort zones and guide them through the process of creative problem solving by providing support—asking questions instead of calling shots—at critical steps along the way.

To build your capability for empathic collaboration, start by asking more questions, actively listening, assuming a curious mindset, and building on others’ ideas. Then, work to encourage empathy and creative collaboration across your team by taking these four steps.

1. Bring in a diversity of perspectives

Lay the groundwork for innovation by building a diverse team—one where people bring different perspectives, skill sets, backgrounds, and experiences to the table—and uniting them under a collectively held goal. Research shows that diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams by significant margins, especially on problems that require creativity, new thinking, and synthesis of knowledge.

On a project with an airport, IDEO was challenged with improving the baggage handling process. The team encouraged engagement by recognizing the expertise of front-line employees and designing fun incentives, like games to guess the weight of bags and special pins that employees could earn only by sharing an idea. By gathering a diversity of perspectives from across the organization, they surfaced a wealth of potential solutions.

2. Make time to build trust

The key to maximizing the benefits of a diverse team is making sure each person feels able to bring their fullest self to work, so focus on establishing a culture of trust and belonging to enable those vulnerable moments.

At Google, a two-year research project across 280 teams surfaced strong evidence that building trust and psychological safety leads to better collaboration and innovative outcomes. Leaders can build trust by demonstrating vulnerability and empathy and encouraging honest communication. “Gain trust by being real,” says Alan Ratliff, IDEO senior experience lead. “Speak like a human.”

3. Hold the space for tensions and positive friction

Tensions naturally arise when opposing perspectives meet, but that’s not a bad thing when approached with the right mindset. IDEO explored the upside of tensions through a partnership with the Sundance Institute Theatre Program. The partnership resulted in Creative Tensions, a unique live event series where participatory theater met collective conversation. Opposing viewpoints were assigned to opposite ends of an empty room and participants reflected their perspective on the issue by where they stood—or moved to—within in the room. The resulting dialogue inspired open conversation around challenging topics.

With your team, keep an open mind and make it a rule to assume the positive of each other—that every person’s intention is to contribute to the shared goal. Also, raise awareness of individual biases so that you can identify if a reaction to a new idea is out of instinct or evidence.

4. Make others successful

“On any giving project, I’m always looking for the person who is the flower facing the light,” says Susan O’Malley, Head of Strategy and Office of the CEO at IDEO, about supporting people who are actively looking for growth opportunities. As a leader, you can inspire your team and build trust by demonstrating your desire to help each individual grow into their potential. Set the tone for collaboration instead of competition—make it clear that there isn’t a limited supply of success and one person’s growth doesn’t impede the growth of another.

Paul Bennett, IDEO’s chief creative officer, has helped hundreds of people advance their careers at IDEO by paying attention to what inspires and motivates each individual. Don’t assume you know what people want. “It’s not about being in the room having all the answers,” Paul says. “Your job is to have the great questions.” By helping each individual develop their skills and tap into their strengths, you’re increasing the chances for empathic collaboration.


To learn more about harnessing the power of diverse perspectives and creativity to develop innovative solutions, sign up for our 5-week online course, Cultivating Creative Collaboration.

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