Photo by Manik Rathee.

Managing with Empathy

Practical examples of crafting a more productive work environment

Daniel Ryan
Aug 19, 2013 · 4 min read

I’ve been asked a lot about my management style. Recently, I simply said, “empathy”. Which surprised me, because I don’t think I’d ever really thought about it that way, but it’s totally true.

It’s been called “servant leadership” and “bottom up management” but no matter the nomenclature, it’s about treating employees like human beings and empowering them to do their best work. Since one of my core tenets is “Lead by example”, I thought I’d give a couple of practical examples of how I’ve done things, instead of debating the finer philosophical underpinnings.


This one might seem impractical in most workplaces at first, but there’s a lesson here for any office. As you might imagine, the work days at Obama for America (the president’s 2012 reëlection campaign) were long, with good reason. But it takes its toll on people over time. My colleague Lauren Peterson came up with the idea of guaranteeing folks two nights each week that, no matter what, they’d be out the door by 8 p.m. We quickly adopted this on my team and referred to it as “time to do human things”. A few people asked me if they could come in at noon instead. That let them pay bills, buy groceries or just get some much needed sleep. The “in by noon” option quickly became the more popular choice.

This kind of program only works though if it’s actually enforced. There were far too many reasons to stick around just for 30 more minutes, but overworked people are less productive. One study shows that workers who put in 60 hours per week are 25% less efficient. Now, the best solution here would be to have a 40-hour work week. That’s considered unfeasible in many work environments like startups. Try a mandatory downtime schedule for a month and see if it doesn’t improve work quality and morale.


Seems obvious, but how many managers actually do it? Building rapport is one of Forbes’ 5 ways to earn trust as a manager. It’s impossible to overstress how important trust is between a manager and their team. The additional benefit of doing it over lunch is it’s a more casual setting, away from the office and isn’t seen as yet another meeting.


It’s easy to get so over-scheduled with meetings that you never spend any time with your team. This is such a critical part of any manager’s job, though, that it should be put on the calendar, too. Regular office hours (that everyone is aware of) or just a few hours each day spent mingling with the team serves several purposes. Not only does it help build that ever important trust factor, but it gives a chance for you to learn about and address problems early.


At many jobs people are expected to be available via email or phone after hours. Well, if people have to work at home, they get to bring a bit of home to work, too. This includes social networks (which can actually boost productivity). It might also include allowing pets in the office. Even if you can’t go so far as letting Fido come to work, at least drop the Internet filtering.


The team celebrated boss’s day by covering my office with streamers and filling the floor with balloons.

There’s a difference between “fun” and “enjoyable”. It seems like you can’t get your startup funded without ping pong or foosball, but that’s not the point here. At OFA, both the Digital Department and the Front-end Team had “morale officers”, folks tasked with making our environment a little better. Chris Wolff and Anh-Thu Huynh filled this role for the front-end engineering team. Birthdays were an especially good time. Chris started the tradition of buying crazy hats for the birthday person and we’d surprise them at some point during the day with singing and beer.

Vikings! Birthday Card. Photo by Manik Rathee.

The sentiment is an old one, but treating your team the way you’d want to be treated in their position is the core of all of these. Take the time to get to know everyone who works for you. Be appropriately involved in their lives. Listen to and address their concerns. Celebrate their successes and help correct their mistakes. Learn from them and teach them what you know.

Nothing about this is hard, it just takes the commitment to do it. I’d love to hear examples of what works in your office, too. Let me know @dryan.

I. M. H. O.

The Editorial Page

    Daniel Ryan

    Written by

    Head of Technology @ragtag_team. Formerly Director of Front-end Development for @BarackObama and Technologist in Residence for @gigtank.

    I. M. H. O.

    The Editorial Page

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