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23 Nov 2020

5 min read

5 tips for leading teams with an empathy-first approach

Here's me trying to sum up my time as an engineering team lead as I move into DevRel in 2021.

⚠️ This post is over two years old and may contain some outdated technical information. Please proceed with caution!

As my time as an engineering team lead comes to an end and I move into DevRel in 2021 - I wrote about how I prioritise empathy in tech teams over everything - something that will continue to stay with me firmly as my career continues to evolve.

I’ve been working as a technical lead for almost six years. During this time I’ve had the opportunity to work with diverse groups of people to build a variety of different products including e-commerce platforms, energy switching services, brochure websites and personal gifting experiences to name but a few.

Regardless of the product, in-house company or client, external factors or urgency of deadlines – these very different experiences have one thing in common: every single team has been an incredibly high-performing and collaborative group of people.

What’s my secret?

For those that have worked with me, you might attribute this to the rigorous weekly processes that I support the team to put in place: prioritisation sessions, team retrospectives, Wednesday planning sessions (the day here is very important!), morning stand-ups and afternoon catch-ups.

You might also credit success to the unrelenting autonomy that I encourage within teams, ensuring that people are given the freedom to be creative, experiment, and own the way that products are built and delivered.

But these are all just ways of working. And what I want to talk about today is a way of being.

Being human beings

Human beings are complicated. We are a bag of experiences, emotions, fears, hopes, dreams, preferences and choices. Some of us have big families, some of us live alone, some of us care for others. Some of us are extroverted, introverted, somewhere in between. We learn in different ways, we respond intuitively to music, language, colours, weather, seasons, other people.

We’re all so incredibly different, yet all so incredibly interlinked by our human need to be heard and understood.

Good leaders make you feel safe

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It sounds incredibly easy to be empathetic in theory, but whilst the stresses of the 2020 global pandemic and beyond keeps us firmly in survival mode, it’s increasingly tricky, but also increasingly important to practise empathy with our colleagues.

As human beings, we need psychological safety now more than ever. Now is the time to come together to lift each other up and out of survival mode, so we are free to explore, create and experiment, in order to reach our full potential at work.

Here are my top five guiding principles that help me prioritise leading teams through an empathy-first approach.

1. I am not a manager

The most prevalent way to develop an empathetic relationship with your team is to be part of the team. Notice that I never refer to team leads as ‘managers’. Your role as a team lead is to provide direction, support and protection – not to ‘manage’ or ‘take charge of’ in the traditional sense.

If you, as a team lead are integrated with your team, are involved in (but not necessarily leading) team ceremonies, pair-programming with developers, and architecting roadmaps with product owners – you are much more likely to understand and share their feelings as a result of being in the same shared situations.

2. You are not a resource

This is a tricky subject when working at a product studio that adopts an agency model, where clients are often billed by the hour for people’s time. The most impactful thing you can do is humanise your team and refer to people as people – not resources.

3. You can only go as fast as you can go

We have to go faster! We must increase velocity! We should deliver at pace! Do this ASAP!

I think Basecamp (Guide to Internal Communication, the Basecamp Way) said it best: “Urgency is overrated, ASAP is poison.”

Until every part of a developer’s job is automated (I give it until the year 2100), human beings can only go as fast as human beings can go. We can only define requirements for a product so quickly, only prioritise the roadmap so efficiently, only type on our keyboards so fast, and release changes when they’re fully tested and ready.

Without delving into a completely different topic on the toxicity of arbitrary deadlines – you, the team and its individuals can only go as fast as you can go. Ensure that as a team lead you are offering your team this level of protection from external pressures. Allow your team the space to be creative, grow, explore, and factor this into estimates, roadmaps and time planning.

4. You are never ‘too’ emotional

Your team members are not machines. They are human beings with complex emotions and hormones and chemicals and feelings and thoughts and a life to live outside of work. Sometimes days are more challenging than others – and that’s okay. Encourage your team members to take care of themselves and to take time and space away from their computer screens.

Lend your team members a compassionate ear when they need it. Encourage them to explore their challenges and successes with you and get to know them as people. In doing this you’ll be able to build up a clear picture of how your team will respond to certain situations, so you’ll be able to proactively prepare to protect them if the need should arise.

5. This is just a job

The most important lesson I’ve learned from Steve Parker, Product Owner and one of my most valued colleagues at Code – is despite how passionate you are about your craft, don’t put too much pressure on yourself at work.

After all, it’s just a job. (I can hear this in his voice, now). There are more important things to be worrying about.

No one’s going to die (at least at Code).

Originally posted on

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Salma is looking at you, with a rather large smile. She's pointing across herself up to her left, with a very tatooed arm. She's wearing a black shirt and black rimmed glasses.

Salma Alam-Naylor

I'm a live streamer, software engineer, and developer educator. I help developers build cool stuff with blog posts, videos, live coding and open source projects.