Empathic Collaboration

My product-focused engineering team at Credit Karma works on a wide variety of projects: designing product experiences, building front-end features, spinning up back-end services and  analyzing data. We interact with a diverse set of people to get these things done. At one point, we might be asking for help from a platform engineer, and at another we could be collaborating with a copywriter. Framed another way, we spend a large part of our days receiving and interpreting the feedback, requests and guidance generated by other people — and generating feedback, requests and guidance of our own.

This sort of work involves a lot of two-way communication traffic, and the bumps in the road are plentiful.

For starters, Credit Karma has more than 800 employees across three offices; it’s impossible to have a meaningful connection with every person. A lot of communication ends up happening over Slack. And though we may well understand the goals and constraints of our team, it’s rare that we fully understand the goals and constraints of the other teams with which we work.

A lack of in-person communication, personal relationships and shared context is a recipe for miscommunication and misunderstanding. Collaboration is a challenge! However, we’ve found that the habits we’ve built around empathy are a powerful counterbalance.

Let’s rewind a few months to when I wanted to add a text input field to gather member feedback on a user experience my team was building. The rationale made sense on my end, and I knew how to code it. Everything clicked in my head, and I was pumped!

I quickly ran the idea by the other relevant teams to get their buy-in and… Oops! Not everyone was on board. Now what? Perhaps I could use a dose of empathy. I explored questions that helped me shift my perspective: What are their concerns or constraints? What timeline are they on? How is their performance judged? Knowing those answers would help me better frame the idea when presenting it to them again.

In some cases, I had also fallen short in providing context from my side. Adding an input field for gathering feedback makes sense when you know that my team’s priority is to build experiences that are valuable to our members. And from our past experiences, hearing directly from members is crucial to achieving that — but I hadn’t communicated any of that.

When I went back to those other teams with my newfound insights, I found that I had to switch my communication style; sometimes that meant avoiding technical jargon. Using empathy to guide my vocabulary helped get everyone on the same page. And it turned out that my updated approach worked well — everyone got on board!

We also strongly believe that assuming good intentions should drive our interactions. In part, that means using nonjudgmental and helpful vocabulary rather than vocabulary that is accusatory or vague.

For example, imagine that my teammate submits a pull request and I notice that a React component he created needs a lot of work. I could jump to the conclusion that he was lazy and didn’t think his code through. I might leave a comment on the pull request to the effect of, “This component is a mess and needs refactoring.” That would probably get the job done, but it isn’t constructive.

Instead, my first step is to try to understand what led him to this design to begin with. Perhaps he was caught up in some other complexities of the pull request and didn’t realize this component might not be readable to someone with fresh eyes. With that mindset, I could comment with, “Is it possible to refactor this component to make it more readable? Maybe you can pull out the modal code into its own component and move the click handler to the utils file.” Unassuming, check. Helpful, check. Empathetic, check.

Admittedly, an approach rooted in empathy takes additional time and energy upfront: asking questions and understanding context, being thoughtful about language, being perceptive to how things are received, and iterating from there. Sometimes it takes an extra five minutes to prepare for a meeting; other times, it takes significant effort to restrain ourselves from jumping to conclusions in the middle of that meeting. However, the benefits in the long-run are unquestionably worth it. Interactions that are informed and empathetic lead to effective collaboration.

Plus, if you have the option to make your workplace warm, happy and friendly, why wouldn’t you take it?

About the Author

Vertika Srivastava

Vertika is a Software Engineer at Credit Karma