Business Needs vs. Human Needs: The Case for Empathy at Work

This article is an abridged version of Shawn’s talk during Scrum Alliance’s ACRLO 2020.

Shawn Cheng
Sep 15, 2020 · 8 min read

TL;DR: Our current assumptions and expectations of “The Workplace” no longer serve us. We need to adapt our systems and processes to strike a balance between Business Needs & Human Needs. Empathy is the key to helping us understand the Human Needs that are unique to our organization — and create a workplace that makes us feel seen, heard and supported.

All illustrations in this article is designed by @gwenific. Credits: Tribeless PLT @tribelessco.

First off, disclaimer: I’m not an agilist. I first found out about Agile through the Agile Coaching Retreat 2019, when I was invited to give a workshop on Empathy. It was also where I heard about the word “team coaching” for the first time — an oddly on-point summary of the work we do at Tribeless.

Tribeless, in a nutshell, is an empathy training company. We teach teams how to have empathetic conversations. It may sound like a really niche thing to do, but my passion for this stems from my own life:

Because my work experience has been anything but empathetic.

I started working since I was in high school.

I still remember my first job in vivid detail.

It was at a Pizza Hut nearby my house. I was 16 years old, and addicted to video games. Part-time jobs were just a way for me to earn more of them.

On that fateful night, the game of choice was DoTA, and I was on a losing streak. I came into my evening shift with a face that could rival thunder.

Within one hour of my shift, my manager pulled me aside and said:

Stunned, I nodded and walked away. My head was spinning with shame and confusion. I took a 5-minute break, packed up my feelings into a small box, and went back to work as if nothing happened.

I’ve had 10 more jobs since then, ranging from promotional sales to real estate to corporate innovation. Didn’t matter if I was lugging pallets of beer during Chinese New Year, or sitting around a boardroom table over Friday night retrospective, all of my bosses had pretty much the same mindset:

“If you’re feeling bad, who cares? Do I pay you to cry? Get back to work!”

These experiences taught me one thing:

All of us know the feeling of having pull an all-nighter with your colleagues, because the deadline for the big presentation’s tomorrow.

Or when we’re juggling between multiple projects and teams and WhatsApp Groups, so much so that we’ve definitely gone beyond 40 hours/week.

Even more so now with the COVID-19 situation, working from home just got a lot more complicated. (Boundaries, what’s that?)

Yet, when an emergency happens at home, can we talk about it openly with our colleagues?

Do you feel safe enough to show that you’re not feeling well, or that you are in a bad mood — without it impacting your performance review?

The scales are imbalanced.

I’d like to share with you a lens today through which to view this challenge — and a framework we use at Tribeless to navigate it.

The dichotomy of work: Business Needs vs. Human Needs

In an organization, there are two needs: Business Needs and Human Needs.

Business Needs are things like cashflow, competitiveness, and market share. We track them through metrics like Revenue, P&L, etc.

Then there’s also Human Needs like belonging, recognition, and meaning. We track them through turnover rate, employee engagement, etc.

There are intersections between Business Needs & Human Needs, and you can see this in how we currently reward our teams.

The more productive our teams are, the more it benefits the business, so we reward them with promotions and compensation, everyone feels recognized and fulfilled, and we all go home happy. Win-win right?

Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

For all you gamers out there

There are many situations whereby Business Needs are in opposition of Human Needs. If you’re in a position of management or leadership, then you’re probably familiar with these dilemmas:

  • We love it when our teammates are productive, but don’t want them to burnout at the same time.
    (Take a break man, but remember the deadline is tomorrow!)
  • We have that one team member that’s damn good at his job, but he’s a complete asshole though.
    (Hey, that’s our rockstar you’re talking about!)
  • We want our features & products to be delivered quickly and efficiently, but preach about team-wide collaboration.
    (How many man-hours did that take again?)

When push comes to shove, our existing working environments tend to reward decisions that prioritize Business Needs, and neglect Human Needs.

What do the neglected / penalized Human Needs look like?

  • A team member is perceived as unreliable for taking a sick leave (or any kind of leave, really).
  • A team member is told to “just to get over it” when they are genuinely upset about something.
  • A team member is called into his manager’s office and shamed the moment their performance drops.

We’ve created an environment of hyper-competitiveness & productivity, at the cost of employee burnout and mental & emotional well-being.

This is what we’ve inherited from our previous generation of leaders.

It may have worked for them, but it’s no longer working for us — a generation where work means more to us than just a salary or a 9–5.

Now, we need start figuring out new ways — systems, processes, habits, rituals — to strike a balance between Business Needs and Human Needs.

So how do we deal with this?

We’ve heard from all the gurus: Brené Brown, Simon Sinek, Amy Edmondson. They call the solution different names: “Vulnerability”, “Psychological Safety”, “Diversity & Inclusion”.

An environment where we feel seen, heard, recognized and supported.

An environment that encourages us to focus on impactful work, rather than work for work’s sake.

An environment where we acknowledge the full spectrum of Human Needs.

And the way to do that… is with Empathy.

The Empathy Box v2.0 — created after 2 years of iterative testing.

Empathy is the key to finding the balance between Human Needs & Business Needs.

Before even attempting to address the Human Needs of our teams, we first need to understand the humans that carry them.

What expectations do they have of others? How do they feel about the current working environment? What needs do they have that management has been neglecting?

At Tribeless, we define empathy as the capacity to be able to see parts of yourself in everyone else.

And the way to do that, is by having empathetic conversations.

We created the Empathy Box — or its digital cousin, #EmpathyCircles — as a way to hold space for these conversations to happen.

The Empathy Box is a simple, powerful facilitation tool that provides a structure for empathetic conversations to unfold. There are several components to it, but the one we use to guide our conversations is the Response Cards.

Response Cards (www.empathybox.co)

There are five Response Cards in total:

  1. Show Some Love (to express resonance and appreciation to the speaker),
  2. Help Me Understand (to dive deeper & clarify any assumptions we have),
  3. Share An Observation (for us to take note of any shifts in mood, tone and behavior, or even character traits that came out through the story),
  4. Offer An Alternate Perspective (for us to share a personal experience that helps reframe or offer a different interpretation of their situation), and finally,
  5. The Wild Card (for you to take action on something you’ve wanted to do from the conversation! It can range from a hug to an accountability call).

Empathy comes naturally to us, but it’s not easy to do it intentionally. These five cards provide a framework for us to practice empathy consciously and respectfully as a team.

To thrive in an unpredictable world, we need to create consistent, intentional spaces to check in and align as a team.

Not just professionally, but emotionally, too.

I hope this talk has inspired you to think more deeply about the kinds of conversations your team is having — and how we can create the space to explore our Human Needs, together. ♦︎

Thank you for reading/attending my talk!

My name is Shawn, and I’m the CEO and Head of Curriculum Design at Tribeless. We’re the creators of the Empathy Box, and it’s virtual cousin, #EmpathyCircles.

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