Insights

Empathy – the magic ingredient for project managers

May 9, 2019

Written by Skye MacLeod, illustrations by Yael Hendel

A project manager (PM) is typically defined as the person who is in charge of the planning and execution of a particular project. The reality is, as much as we are managing logistics, we are foremost collaborating with people.

Knowing how to create a project plan and proactively manage are essential. However, you can make more impact and when you lead with people in mind. I’m not alone here – Anthony Mersino, PMP states in his book Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers:

To be truly effective you need to be able to implement projects and work well with your team. Emotional intelligence will help you do that.

As a senior project manager, I’m passionate about planning and people. Throughout my career, I’ve found that there is a higher likelihood of project success when I bring people skills into the mix. The World Economic Forum also agrees, listing people management and emotional intelligence as two of the Top 10 Skills for 2020.

Three key empathetic mindsets

Empathy is the magic ingredient that makes a project go from good to great. I will share three empathetic mindsets that can uplevel your project, and how you can apply them to projects.

By now, you’ve probably heard of “empathy” and have a sense of what it means. I define it as “understanding someone’s feelings without judgment or bias.”

The benefits of applying empathy in the workplace:

  • Creates team understanding
  • Builds team trust
  • Creates a safe space where the team can get out of their comfort zones and take risks
  • Leads to more innovation and creativity
  • Encourages kindness and compassion, which fosters teamwork and leadership
  • Reduces stress through minimized conflict

By applying these benefits to a project, it gives teams a higher chance to flourish, find more profound satisfaction in the work and a more impressive output with less stress. Built on these empathy traits, I’ve embraced three mindsets to build empathy when working with teams successfully:

  1. Heart-centered Listening
  2. Embrace Vulnerability
  3. Model Behavior

Let me walk you through the benefit of each mindset and how to apply them to your project.

#1 Heart-centered listening

One of my favorite mindsets is heart-centered listening. It is listening to verbal and non-verbal communication and signals from the team, stakeholders, and just as importantly, from yourself. The key here is being non-judgmental.

An Idean designer shared a heart-centered experience that stood out. During a project, his project manager set a tone of empathy by smiling during conversations and using a positive tone of voice. When things became challenging the project manager validated the team’s experience with her words, “I know this is hard… I know that was a bad meeting, which wasn’t cool, but let’s make this work.”

This PM was paying attention to her team’s signals and embracing heart-centered listening. By responding to her team with non-verbal cues and verbal cues, she communicated she heard them and was with them through the process.

Melissa Daimler explains the power of listening: “This is where the magic happens. You’re not only listening to what the person is saying, but how they’re saying it — and, even better, what they’re not saying, like when they get energized about certain topics or when they pause and talk around others.”

Heart-centered listening will give you insight and connection. When we feel heard, we feel valued. When we feel valued, we are less stressed and more likely to feel satisfaction and excel in our jobs.

Tip: Next time you’re with a team member, put down the devices and try listening without judgment — see if you notice a shift in the project energy!

#2 Embrace vulnerability

When we embrace vulnerability, we seek to understand the other and their ‘why.’ Talking with each other not just as colleagues, but as humans, creates an empathetic environment. The vulnerability might feel uncomfortable, but fear not – it just means you’re on the right path.

Angela Kambouris talks about the power of vulnerability in her article, Being Vulnerable Is the Boldest Act of Business Leadership:

“Let me dispel the myth or visual image of a leader walking around with a box of tissues and sharing their deepest, most personal secrets with everyone. A vulnerable leader is comfortable with not having all the answers, engages perspectives and thoughts of their people and does not have to be the first with an idea or the first one to answer.”

In a conversation with one of our lead designers around this topic, he shared how clients shouldn’t think the project manager has all the answers, but instead, they know the people with all the answers. “When the client hears, I don’t know, let me figure that out, it’s vulnerable and honest, but the client feels secure, and it’s a way for designers who are afraid to fail, to have permission.”

I want to share a personal example. Recently I was booking travel for one of the designers, and ended up messing up both the flight and accommodations. My colleague was understanding, but it was a stressful way to start a project in a new city and with a different project manager. So in short, not ideal.

The truth was I was newly pregnant, and it was not yet public. I decided to embrace vulnerability and share my news in confidentiality, to give some context. The designer reflected, “It helped me understand your position and hopefully support and celebrate with you.” It established a foundation of trust and collaboration, which has proved to be invaluable for the project.

Tip: Next time you’re with your team talking about project health, be honest about what you fear, what you’re excited about, what you need, and what you might not know. Vulnerability is the courage to show and be seen, which in turn, gives your team permission to show up as their full selves and try new things.

#3 Model behavior

Modeling behavior is an effective way to bring empathy into a project. Be intentional with your energy and words when with your team. Good behavior is contagious. A project manager has the opportunity to build an empathetic team culture.

For example, one of our PMs stayed late with his team surprising them with a takeout dinner. The team told me, “It inspired us to jump in on each other’s work with a spirit of mutual service.” By doing a little extra, this project manager set the mood of the evening to – let’s be collaborative and helpful. Staying late with your team and ordering a meal may seem like a minor way to support project success. However it’s these small moments that lead to a harmonious and trusting team environment.

In an article on Harvard Business Review, author Annie McKee reflected on the power of modeling:

“This is not to say that all positive emotions are good all the time or that you should never express negative emotions. The point is that the leader’s emotions are highly infectious.”

Tip: Remember, how you show up matters. Your team takes cues from you. You can shift energy, and potentially the project outcome, by being positive and modeling the behavior you’d like to see.

It comes with practice

Like learning any new skill, it’s important to note that empathy takes practice. Some work situations may feel more charged, but rest assured, it gets more comfortable with the right mindset.

I had a situation where I didn’t embrace these mindsets with not-so-great results. I thought I was listening to my team member, but he did not feel that way. I was more focused on deliverables, numbers, and Project Manager logistics. As a result, his attitude shifted negatively, which not only stressed out the team, and it affected our work quality. It took our productivity down by 50% for almost two weeks.

Eventually, we talked it through and were able to move forward, but we could have avoided the tension and wasted time if I was actively practicing the empathetic mindsets.

Conclusion

We all want to see successful projects: work that we can be proud of, a happy client, and a team that feels valued.

We know that project management planning skills are important, but when paired with empathy, we have a recipe for more impact, more meaning, and less stress. My colleague summed it up well: “even with the same people involved, you could get an unhealthy team with an unempathetic project manager.”

I invite you to experiment with these mindsets to see if this magic ingredient can bring greater results to your projects. If you try any of this, send me a note – I’d love to hear your story!