Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another… but who cares! As project managers it’s our job to plan, execute, monitor, and close projects. We are trained, certified, and experienced professionals that drive for outcomes, not live in kumbaya with others! – Wrong! I hope you read the sarcasm because something quite impressive happens when project managers show empathy.

I once worked with an experienced project manager on a very large improvement initiative. This project involved over 10 IT departments, numerous requests and change tickets, and ended up saving the company millions of dollars. My role was to support the project from a Lean Six Sigma perspective and to identify waste and introduce process standardization. The project manager over this initiative did a wonderful job at engaging the stakeholders, listening to everyone involved, and addressing concerns. She showed empathy! This is what I saw happen during the project because of her:

  • People trusted her and knew that she had their best interest in mind.
  • People willingly came to her with their process pain points and requirements.
  • People were willing to prioritize the project asks/tasks and attend meetings.
  • People wanted to be part of the solution.
  • People worked out of respect rather than fear.
  • When she pushed back (mostly to avoid scope creep), they too were empathetic and understanding.
  • Everyone had a high level of empathy for each other.

As a project manager, you work with people to provide value. Sure, you might be measured on project scope, cost, schedule, and quality, but I would be willing to bet that your best work is done (particularly in-the-long run) when empathy is leveraged to create synergy between you, the stakeholders, process owners, and customers.

Range (ran.ge) stated in their article, Empathy and Project Management, that empathy “helps leaders effectively communicate, bridge diversity, motivate others and negotiate solutions (sound like project management?).” Empathy, balanced with other technical and soft skills, will separate mere-successful project managers from the truly phenomenal and sought-after project managers.

An empathetic project manager is more of a leader rather than a manager. They hold people accountable but are quick to forgive. They know how to actively listen to others. They have high expectations for others and themselves. They are proud when others succeed. They celebrate success as a team. They show appreciation to others. They understand that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I once worked with a very intelligent project manager who, as an individual contributor, showed great tenacity at driving project deliverables. As we worked with him, the team and I found that his lack of empathy created friction that made it less desirable to work with him. As time went on, I found that our team maintained only the minimum required level of communication. We scheduled less and less face-to-face meetings. We allowed other tasks to take precedence over his project. When we came across difficult project barriers, we were less included to leverage his help, and would rather fix it ourselves. By the end of the project, we were siloed from each other’s efforts; he did his tasks, and we did our tasks, with no more than a simple email handshake between them.

In summary, I like how The Digital Project Manager put it; “Do you have to manage a project with empathy?  No – you can just go through your punch list of items, crossing off milestones, managing budget, and launching your project. And you have a decent chance of it being successful. But your chances of a successful project are going to be much higher if you instill project empathy in yourself, and in your team.”

Do you have an example of an empathetic (or lack thereof) project manager? I’d love to hear about it!

 

Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.

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Chad Higgins

Chad Higgins

Contributing Author

With 12 years of diverse project management experience, Chad brings a unique perspective to PMforToday.com. Whether it was at the start of his career as an ice cream store manager or more recently as a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and ITIL leader in the telecommunications arena, Chad has always zeroed in on the kinds of changes that make a business function more effectively. Chad's formal background in process improvement complements his seasoned project repertoire. He's never found a team or process that couldn't improve in some area, and Chad is a firm believer that a healthy company culture is fundamental to any process improvement initiative.

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