Open letter to design leaders: Look out for your teams today

To my peers in the design community, in particular the design leaders and design managers who are responsible for others in a professional and business context

This weekend was emotionally draining for many of us, and we need to give the people on our teams space to recover. Don’t ignore it, and don’t expect people to return to business as usual. Instead, it’s your duty to encourage your teams to work through what they’re feeling. 

In our society, we are encouraged to separate our personal selves from our career selves. As employees, we are expected to be units of labor, creating value for the organization. To acknowledge whatever we’re facing in our non-work lives gets us labeled as unprofessional. 

This dichotomy has always been a false one. We are the same person between 9 and 5 as we are before and after. The pandemic has exposed this in a literal way; we’re working where we live, and the reality of our home lives—partners, children, pets, loneliness—seeps through our video conferences. Even so, there remains that expectation of emotional separation, so regardless of how upset you may be at 8:58am, you better pull yourself together for your morning check-in Zoom call. 

In my career I have led numerous design teams, and consulted with many others. Whenever I conduct an exercise to find out the values the team holds, literally every team has expressed this one: Empathy. And it makes sense, as to be a good designer is to be deeply empathetic, because you need to get inside someone else’s head and understand how they will engage with what you’re creating.

Among the disciplines with which they collaborate, designers (and researchers, content people, etc.) are distinct in this empathetic mode. If I were to conduct similar exercises with engineering, product management, and marketing, I doubt empathy would rank as a core value. This isn’t to suggest designers are better; just different. 

So, to the design leaders and design managers: we need to recognize this very real difference, because others might not. Our team members need us to look out for them. Their empathy, which enables their professional success, is not something they turn off when they leave work, and turn it back on Monday morning. It’s been active all weekend, and we need to ensure they have the space to process what they’re dealing with. 

I fear that our cross-functional partners will not share this sentiment, and may expect designers to just get to work. As design leaders, we need to step up and encourage our peers and executives to embrace humanistic values, lead with compassion, and respect the space that team members need. 

This is not a time for productivity, velocity, or other such measures of work. This is a time for listening, reflection, and looking out for each other.

#blacklivesmatter #justiceforgeorgefloyd