The Empathetic Project Manager

Are you a project manager who understands your customer, sponsor or stakeholder? Who takes an empathetic approach to their requirements? Understand the effect of the planned change on the organisation and its people. Project Management deals with change that is the outcome of working on the project in the first place. Is it the role of the Project Manager to feel for the people the change is affecting? Understanding the human element of a project is an essential aspect of a quality project manager.

The power of empathy enables a person to be of greater service to sponsors, clients, peers, superiors and subordinates.  As project management is about serving the needs of stakeholders and satisfying their expectations, empathy is a critical success factor. This is a lesson learnt over many years as a project manager, because

People can often forget what has been said and done to them, depending on the enormity of the issue, but they will never forget how they have been made to feel.

A projects deal with a change in working environments, be it infrastructure or Application based and change has occurred for a project to be completed. At some stage of the projects lifecycles, people, sponsors, stakeholders have been affected. To ensure leaders, including project managers, are empathetic to those affected, understanding their feelings and reactions is important. During a change leaders might want to spent more time and effort in communicating to dispel unnecessary uncertainty, be seen as trusted change leaders and to exhibit a degree of caring and kindness.  

There are three known types of empathy, cognitive, emotional and compassionate. Each will be treated separately.

Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy is the ability to intellectually understand what others may think or feel.  It is taking the perspective of another.  This is very useful in negotiating, conflict resolution and in motivating people.  But, this kind of empathy can be cold and calculating.  When there is no emotional connection, there is a tendency to be detached, uncaring and manipulative. 

Emotional Empathy

Emotional empathy is feeling what others are feeling, as if their emotions were contagious.  “This emotional contagion depends in large part on cells in the brain called mirror neurons, which fire when we sense another’s emotional state, creating an echo of that state inside our own minds. Emotional empathy attunes us to another person’s inner emotional world, a plus for a wide range of professions …”   

Emotional empathy has a negative side.  Person’s emotions can be triggered by another’s, which has the potential to become overwhelming and lead to reactions and decisions that may not have the best interest of the people or project at hand.  The project manager must be able to manage their emotions, and while feeling them fully, not become reactive.  For example, termination, or removal of a resource from a project team, where the pain of the removal can be felt by others but still go through with the action to let them go.  Compassionate empathy informs the choice of an approach that would minimize the other’s pain. 

Compassionate Empathy

The third kind of empathy is compassionate empathy, which deals with blending emotions with rational thinking and the urge to help.  As another’s feelings are felt as if they were their own and applies emotional intelligence so as not to be driven by the feelings.  At the same time as assistance is provided where possible and necessary.   Compassion is “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it” according to Merriam Webster.  Other perspectives point to the need to apply self-compassion as well as compassion for others.

Compassionate Empathy is the highest form of empathy.  It moves empathy from receptivity to proactive action motivated by a felt sense of kindness, caring and the urge to serve.  

Empathetic factors are important to the project manager who understands, compassion, kindness, and caring, it all seems fluffy and not real.   Are project managers supposed to be kind and empathetic?  It is a trait a project manager should have to be successful. Studies and common sense tell us that workers are more productive and have lower turnover rates when they are less stressed with a sense that the people they work for and with care about them as people. 

Today, it is widely accepted that acknowledging and managing feelings is quite practical.  If people are part of the equation, there will be feelings and their feelings will affect performance. Positive feelings such as happiness, kindness, compassion, confidence, trust, etc. lead to people performing their tasks more effectively.    If the feelings are negative, such as anger, depression, anxiety, jealousy, distrust, etc. performance will suffer. 

Empathy begins with motivation and the cultivation of mindful awareness as a foundation for emotional and social intelligence. At the same time, we use cognitive and communication skills to show people that they are seen and being cared about. Ask yourself questions such as how do I feel at work?  How do my stakeholders feel?  Do positive feelings and empathy make a difference?  The studies and theories are helpful in answering these questions, but you need to answer them for yourself, based on your own experience and the experience of those around you. Think about it, talk about it.  See if empathy matters.  And if it does, do something to make yourself and your organisation more compassionately empathetic.

One Commentto The Empathetic Project Manager

  1. […] approach should instil the project teams understanding of the client’s requirement and displays empathy and professionalism. Setting process from the beginning and providing visibility settles anxious or […]

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