Teams, not individuals, are the future of work. As organizations mobilize to solve increasingly complex problems at an ever faster pace, cooperation and trust between employees has become paramount. But how do you move teammates from collegial behavior to true collaboration? By building their empathy and compassion.

For people to feel comfortable suggesting new ideas, they need to know that others in their group will support, or at least not criticize, them. For people to work together, they need to know that both labor and credit will be shared. In short, they need teammates who understand their feelings (i.e. empathy) and care about their wellbeing (i.e. compassion).

Research from Google’s people operations department — its term for human resources — confirms the importance of these two qualities. When the tech giant conducted a wide-ranging study on its workgroup, it found that one of the best predictors of a team’s level of achievement was being led by a manager with a supportive and caring demeanor — for example, making time for one-on-one meetings with social chit-chat and helping co-workers solve problems. Results-orientation and technical skills were important, too, but people were most productive working under a boss who also showed an empathic, compassionate side.

Some companies, such as Slack and Zappos, say they recruit and hire for these qualities in an effort to bolster a culture that emphasizes teamwork. But how do you increase empathy and compassion in an existing group and organization, especially in traditionally competitive workplaces or ones in which many people are working remotely or asynchronously?

When it comes to empathy and compassion, the most powerful tool is a sense of similarity — a belief that people’s interests are joined and, thus, that they’re all on the same team and will benefit from supporting each other. Consider an example from the first World War. British and German troops were fighting a long, bloody battle in the trenches outside of Ypres, Belgium. But on Christmas Eve, the British began to see their foes light candles and sing familiar carols. Soon, these men, who had previously been trying to kill each other, came out to greet one another, share stories and celebrate the holiday together. For a brief period, they re-categorized themselves as members of the same group, in this case defined by religion, and felt a new camaraderie.

You can achieve a similar effect by emphasizing or introducing even less significant similarities. For example, Claremont McKenna’s Piercarlo Valdesolo and I conducted an experiment in which we had participants tap their hands in synch — or not in synch — with another person, who was later unfairly stuck with an onerous assignment. Half of the people who had tapped in unison with their partners offered to help with the task, compared with only 18% of those who were out of synch. The in-synch tappers reported not only feeling more similar to the strangers with whom they’d been paired, but also more compassion for them, and those two measures increased in tandem.

If you’re a manager looking to increase these qualities, and therefore cooperation and trust, on your team, structure the working environment to foster those feelings automatically. Take time to learn about team members, find commonalities or shared interests and begin to highlight them in discussion. Develop a team identity and encourage people to categorize themselves as part of it. Engage in some out-of-office activities that enhance a sense of cohesion. It might sound silly, but if caroling and tapping can work, so can team T-shirts.

Originally published at on December 12, 2016.

Originally published at


  • David DeSteno

    Professor @Northestern, Occasional Book Author & Opinion Writer, Scientist Interested in Using Emotion-Based Mechanisms to foster the Greater Good @daviddesteno

    David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, where he directs the Social Emotions Group. He is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and the American Psychological Association, for which he served as editor-in-chief of the journal Emotion. His work has been repeatedly funded by the National Science Foundation and has been regularly featured in the media, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CBS Sunday Morning, NPR's Radiolab and Talk of the Nation, and USA Today. He is the author of Emotional Success, The Truth About Trust, and co-author of The Wall Street Journal spotlight psychology bestseller Out of Character. He has written about his research for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Harvard Business Review, Pacific Standard, Mother Jones, and The Atlantic. David received his Ph.D. in psychology from Yale University.