How an Empathetic Approach Can Solve Problems

Han Wang

Engineering Manager at Google Inc.


When Good Employees Stop Growing

What can be done when someone you manage feels that they have reached the top tier of their learning curve 一 and refuse to be pushed any further?

I had a team of four managers. One of the managers in my team has been working at the company for a long time and has a lot of domain and technical knowledge. He transitioned from IC to a manager. The other 3 were one of the first managers I had recruited, and in essence, feedback from them led me to realize that the long-tenured internal manager did not seem to help others learn and grow. “I can’t help you with that stuff right now,” was all they would say, which brought down the overall team velocity.

Critical Practices for Team Member Learning and Growth

Talk It Out:

I sat down to talk about what was going on at their end. “Hey, I know you’ve come a long way to grow yourself from an engineer to a senior manager, what do you think your next steps look like?” I phrased it in a way whereby it became a discussion about their aspirations and career growth and how they would like to get there.

From their description of what they wanted to do, it was clear to me that he focused a lot on his own achievements and those of his team. I did not hear anything related to the broader engineering organization or helping other cross-functional groups move forward.

Provide Mentorship:

I pinpointed the fact that they have been entirely focused on themselves and their team. As a manager advances higher on the career ladder, the focus should be more on creating impact at the cross-domain and overall team organization level. I brought in some examples from my perspective; but of course, not everything I do has benefited my team and the organization.

I also shared some helpful tips on how they could help other team members learn and grow from their domain knowledge. After all, the plan was to have a shared team effort instead of being selfish.

Create Action Plans:

In the next six months, his attitude changed, and I received all kinds of positive feedback from other team members and managers. Finally, we had gotten the team back on track. The key to outlining some specific outcome-driven results that involved others and ensuring that the communication was oriented towards collaboration. I made sure he understood the collaborative and high ownership culture within the organization. The best thing to do was not jump directly into a conclusion based on what I thought was the problem because the truth was typically a couple of steps below what’s on the surface.

Start With a Question:

When it comes to employee performance issues, a lot of managers might jump to conclusions. However, I learned through the years that whenever there’s a problem, I start talking to the person with an empathetic question 一 what do you think will happen? Bringing ownership to the person and asking them about it makes a difference. Because there might be some context, I could be lagging, but it turned out that the manager was focused only on themselves and their team.

Lessons learned

  • Be an empathetic listener and manager. Understand what the other person is trying to say or where they might be coming from before directly addressing the problem or taking any actions.
  • Cultivate an environment where people can learn and grow from each other.
  • Make sure that people are taking ownership at all levels. When it comes to a framework if something does not go right, ask the right questions and get to know the situation. Also, don’t forget to understand how you can help others to improve the situation.

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Han Wang

Engineering Manager at Google Inc.

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentCareer GrowthCareer ProgressionSkill DevelopmentIndividual Contributor RolesLeadership Roles

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