Can compassion in business help challenge the ‘toxic tech’ stereotype? April Wensel, founder of San Diego-based Compassionate Coding, certainly believes so.
Speaking at Impact Summit in Glasgow last week, Wensel explained how, in her experience, a lack of diversity and a myriad of unethical products have generated a negative atmosphere both in the public sphere and within the industry itself.
That’s not to say that there isn’t positive innovation ongoing around the globe. However, in her opinion technologists often “hide behind the comfort of hard technology” while a lack of focus on the importance of “soft skills” is negatively impacting the industry.
“We talk about technical skills a lot, and that they’re often more important than soft skills; a term that I don’t really like,” Wensel said. “The problem here is that a lot of the issues we see in tech are because of this lack of soft skills and this lack of caring about people.
“The solution that I can think of is to teach technologists to care about people in a practical way and to show them how. For me, the essence of this is compassion.”
Indeed, any fundamental culture change within tech must begin at a personal level and will require inner-reflection and consideration of one’s values to develop a compassionate, people-focused culture. In the long-term, this culture change could help cultivate a stronger industry.
“Compassion has to start with yourself; the way you treat yourself,” Wensel explained. “When we go to work we think we need to shut down our emotions and that we have to be serious and be very efficient robots. That’s not the truth – we are all human beings and we all have emotions.
“I love the idea of self-compassion,” she added, explaining that, both within the confines of work and in life, people should treat themselves how they would treat a good friend. When dealing with adversity or mistakes, talk in the same encouraging or positive manner as you would to a friend.
“I think this is something really important to practice,” she said. “Once we have compassion for ourself built-in we can move to the next level, which is having compassion for your local community.”
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Within the context of her talk, ‘local community’ referred largely to the workplace environment in which one operates. A positive workplace environment requires open dialogue and consideration for each other’s needs, she explained. Amidst the hustle and bustle of one’s daily work routine, simple actions can go a long way.
“Sometimes when our co-workers fail to deliver something we expect, our immediate response is to think ‘oh they’re just lazy’ or that they’re a poor performer,” Wensel said. “Instead, take a minute to consider what’s going on in that person’s life. Why are they not performing?”
It seems that a year rarely passes without stories of toxic work environments in the tech industry; staff worked to the brink ahead of deadlines, poor practices within organisations and questions raised – often by employees themselves – over ethical issues. While these are issues of workplace culture as a whole, at an individual level these changes can go a long way to breeding a more positive environment.
Wensel insisted that employees must consider whether their work is beneficial to society and not aiding in human misery; another key aspect of developing compassion in tech.
“You have to think about whether your work is causing suffering; can someone use your work to harm other people?” she said, referencing last year’s employee protests at Google over its involvement in US Military projects.
Hundreds of Google employees spoke out against the tech giant’s involvement in Project Maven, which used machine learning to observe and analyse massive amounts of surveillance footage taken by unmanned aerial drones. This event, in particular, underlines both an example of industry employees taking action over an ethically-questionable situation, but also adherence to a historical workplace culture that insisted employees ‘don’t be evil’.
The benefits of compassion are visible, Wensel explained, with companies experiencing greater employee and customer satisfaction while even experiencing greater financial benefits. Compassion for the self and compassion for colleagues is integral to developing positive workplace environments and, long-term, consumers will reap the benefits of this mindset.