Leadership and Empathy at METAFOR: The Foundations of Culture and Human-Centric Design

The art of leadership is an ever-evolving practice, requiring continuous learning, resilience, and vulnerability. Central to this is empathy – an innate ability to understand the human experience. At METAFOR, this philosophy extends into our design methodology and culture, emphasizing a human-focused approach.

This belief not only underpins effective leadership but also enriches our design philosophy. Leadership is dynamic. First, we focus on the values and principles that effective leadership can enhance at work. It is often perceived to be reserved for individuals within a role of positional authority only and cannot be practiced otherwise.

Additionally, we regularly hear leadership and mentorship described as synonymous. While mentorship is absolutely a tool of leadership and incredibly important within our growth as individuals, leadership is so much more. Let us reflect on the ways that every one of us can embody and practice positive leadership skills.

Embodying Positive Leadership: Reflecting on Personal Practices for Collective Growth

Embodying Positive Leadership: Reflecting on Personal Practices for Collective Growth

  • 1

    Practice Self-Awareness

    Know your values, strengths, beliefs, and positive attributes. Conversely, proactively acknowledge and manage your shortcomings. Seek feedback from those you work closely with to hold yourself accountable. Practice humility when leaning into our less productive behaviors that can impede effective leadership.
  • 2

    Build and Forge Connections

    Human to Human connections (H2H)

    We are human; while we all have different wants, we have a shared innate need to belong and have meaningful relationships. To be regarded as a leader is to be respected and trusted. It is earned and not demanded. By showing a genuine interest in the people you work with, leaders can foster a culture of belonging, where individuals can authentically be themselves while feeling valued by their leader and peers

  • 3

    Accept People Work Differently than You

    Everyone brings unique perspectives and may carry out tasks differently than we would. If you encounter a situation where you are under a deadline and feel stressed, or experience an issue, or a task is not completed as expected, you may immediately take responsibility for it to ensure it gets done correctly. While the intended outcome is accomplished, what is the cost of this leadership style?

    Leadership is realizing that the best ideas and outcomes come from diverse thought and discovering many ways to achieve a similar result. As leaders, we are responsible for inspiring, coaching, and leading individuals to produce their best efforts, learning from mistakes, and providing opportunities to grow autonomously.

  • 4

    Judgments Informing Perceptions

    Effective leadership takes self-awareness and the vulnerability to accept when your style may not impact someone in the way you want. Sometimes, it may be easy to formulate perceptions around an individual's performance and quickly judge their ability. Evaluating whether you have served them effectively as a leader is a powerful exercise. Have you provided clear directions, established expectations, adapted to their learning or communication style, and removed any obstacles or barriers to their success? If the answer is no, have you truly supported an individual to thrive and be successful in their role?
  • 5

    Practice Active Listening

    Practice Active Listening

    Genuinely hold space for the conversation. Listen intently, reiterate what you hear, and clarify what is being asked. Be open to receiving feedback that may be hard. Enact and influence change if it fosters a better result for someone. When individuals feel heard and supported, they are invested and can trust you have their best interests at heart.

    We use the ACA framework; Actively listen, Compliment, then Ask a question to clarify and seek true understanding.

  • 6

    Trust Your Teams

    As leaders, it is paramount to establish clear goals and expectations. You must be decisive and purposeful when delegating tasks. METAFOR follows the Strategic Art of Delegation which clearly defines expectations and control.

    Building a high-performance team starts with understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your people. Empower and trust your team's outputs and foster a positive relationship where individuals can seek assistance if they are stuck. When individuals feel trusted and have the autonomy to carry out their work within the assignment's parameters, they are accountable and engaged in its success.

How Leadership Aligns with Maslow's Hierarchy for Individual Growth

Effective leadership is an act of service, a commitment to bettering the experience of others. It is skillfully adapting your style to align motivation and performance with an individual's drivers and preferences. A tried-and-true theory on motivation that exemplifies the need for leaders and businesses and designers to tailor their approach is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. As discussed later, this is especially important when pragmatically planning spaces for vulnerable populations.

For individuals to progress within higher achievement-orientated states of being, they must first fulfill their basic and psychological needs. While the concept seems simple, it must be more nuanced and requires effective leadership to unlock someone's potential. It is important to note that as leaders, we must communicate openly and invest time to understand our people and their motivators, as all individuals have different needs in the continuum.

How Leadership Aligns with Maslow's Hierarchy for Individual Growth
Image Credit: Simply Psychology.org/Maslow, 1943
Often within a corporate setting, we have high expectations for top performance, assuming individuals are already operated at a self-actualized state. Focusing on high performance, productivity, and accountability is crucial, but there's a concern it may overlook other fundamental needs.

The Crucial Role of Leadership when Onboarding

This concern gains significance, especially when considering new hires entering an organization. Beyond the initial phase of learning processes and practices, these individuals are navigating the crucial task of building relationships with peers and leaders, striving to establish a sense of belonging.

The onboarding experience plays a pivotal role in addressing both basic and psychological needs. It serves as a foundation, ensuring individuals feel secure and confident in their decision to join the team. Rather than immediately expecting new hires to deliver top-tier performance, it is imperative to prioritize creating a safe space. This involves fostering an environment where they feel valued, understand the significance of their work, and recognize their positive impact on the team.

In alignment with fostering a safe space where people can thrive in their transition to a new firm, consideration of safety and security are essential within the initial stages of the housing continuum, especially within affordable living developments. Shelters and transitional housing can be fragile environments as the potential risks of underestimating threats or overcompensating fortifications can profoundly impact the psychological health and safety of those vulnerable populations that access affordable living housing models.

Leadership in Design: METAFOR's Integrated Approach to Fostering Well-being in Inclusive Spaces

Physiological and psychological health and safety are as important as our physical environment. At METAFOR, we address this question empathetically while proposing an integrated and pragmatic approach to its solution. A feeling of community and connection in our design is essential to foster a sense of belonging and shared experience, for the end user.

In designing inclusive spaces, it is important to ensure that the physical environment, including residential units, common areas, and administration functions, promotes feelings of safety and security without causing stress or reducing focus. Special focus must be placed on flexible spaces, universal design, ergonomics, indoor air quality, acoustics, etc., as their potential impact on the overall well-being of everyone who will access cannot be underestimated.

The Bridlewood Affordable Housing is an noteworthy project we’re proud of at METAFOR, that the encompasses thoughtful leadership and human focused approach across all elements of the design.

Bridlewood Affordable Housing
Bridlewood Affordable Housing

Moreover, leaders play a crucial role in addressing systemic instances where employees' basic or psychological needs may go unfulfilled. It is essential to examine the conditions or past interactions that might have hindered an individual's self-esteem, sense of security, or feelings of value.

Overcoming conditioned behaviors is an immensely challenging task. Therefore, the emphasis should be on fostering an environment that promotes safe learning and growth. Creating such an environment not only supports individuals in overcoming challenges but also ensures a positive, development-oriented workplace.

How Leaders Can Foster Workplace Well-being

The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) emphasizes that prioritizing psychological health not only boosts employee satisfaction, engagement, and productivity but also lowers health costs, employee turnover, and lost work time. Psychological health is a basic need within the safety level that often gets overlooked. The good news is that we, as leaders, can continue to foster this at work. Especially critical in fostering psychological safety at work as a leader:
  • 1

    Tone and Language Matters

    Be respectful in your communication and be aware of your tone and non-verbal cues. People notice and pick up on the delivery of a message. While the content may be well-intentioned, the delivery can have damaging implications that can be far-reaching and intrinsic in nature.
  • 2

    Respect Different Personalities

    Respect Different Personalities
    We all have unique drivers and personality traits. When trying something new or sharing our opinion, every person has a different tolerance for taking risks and being resilient. Someone who is measured, analytical, or risk-versed will have a more challenging time-sharing new ideas or making mistakes. Do not compare these individuals to others; celebrate and recognize the immense effort it takes to try and foster a safe space based on their individual needs.
  • 3

    Foster Open Communication

    Encourage brainstorming and listening to your people; solicit feedback from those you work with. As a leader, ask how to tailor your approach to understand how best to support someone to achieve their goals. Does your style work for the individual to thrive and drive the best results? You cannot expect to yield different results if you don't open the dialogue.
  • 4

    Focus on Measurable Results

    Fostering a psychologically safe environment is a marathon, not a sprint. Be a positive force that celebrates key milestones of growth. Be empathetic and compassionate. Your efforts to support will truly enable resilience within your people. Celebrate psychological bravery – when someone steps out of their comfort zone, recognize this as an achievement, and do not marginalize or push for more.
  • 5

    Be a Student of Leadership

    Consume knowledge and practice strategies you learn to progress as an effective leader. Foster inclusive cultures where individuals feel psychologically safe to share ideas. There are incredible resources available on leadership, motivation, and engagement. Through paperback books, audiobooks, or podcasts presented as novels or quick synopsis, feel inspired, share ideas, and incorporate these practices in your day-to-day lives. A few thought leaders to follow: Adam Grant, Brene Brown, Simon Sinek, and Amy Edmondson.

When the circle of trust is established, and someone is empowered and accountable, and the deep-rooted conditioned behaviors, challenges and/or experience are accounted for, people can thrive, reaching their true potential.

At METAFOR, we recognize our role to foster an environment and culture where employees can fulfill their psychological needs at work and, within the communities that utilize our designed spaces. This is where core values are essential to defining the guiding principles of behavior in a firm and working with individuals who are alike. At METAFOR, we know who we are and who we aspire to be. We hold ourselves accountable to the embodiment of those values, driven by a common purpose.

METAFOR’s Points of Culture

  • We are Intentionally Curious

  • We are Purposeful
  • We are Loyal Stewards
  • We are Humbly Confident
METAFOR’s Points of Culture

Empathy serves as the catalyst for achieving optimal results from our teams at METAFOR, especially in the promotion of inclusive and integrated design and decision-making processes. We acknowledge the need for comprehensive, integrated solutions to enhance our leadership capabilities and address the diverse impacts of our designs. By creating meaningful environments that enable individuals to thrive, we can all reach a higher state of belonging and happiness.

Leadership and Empathy are the foundation.

Leadership and Empathy are the foundation

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Peer Review


Jeff Lyness, Principal

Architect, AAA, OAA, MRAIC