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5 Ways to Become an Empathetic Project Manager

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By Andy Thatcher, VP, J2 Solutions

As we learned from Vijay last month, emotional intelligence is a must-have for a successful project manager. Today, I’m putting that topic under the microscope as I hone in on what I believe to be the cornerstone of emotional intelligence: empathy.

Empathy is the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes in order to communicate and lead from that place of understanding. Empathy presents a significant advantage for a project manager, and here’s why: 80% of a project manager’s job is communication. Without good communication, misunderstandings ensue, egos get bruised and silos form, ultimately resulting in inefficiencies and delays. But a project manager who adopts an empathetic approach to communication sets a positive tone—one that’s noticed and appreciated by all involved. With that, walls come down, resulting in greater collaboration and a project that follows a trajectory of success.

Empathy = Results
How can something as intangible as empathy translate to bottom line results? Think about it: how many technology projects veer off course because of competing agendas? When individual and/or departmental interests take precedence over larger project goals, the project cannot be managed in a streamlined and efficient manner. The project becomes compromised and money is lost. This lack of collective empathy, a common challenge faced by many project teams, is a recipe for failure.

It’s Easier to Achieve Than You Think
While expressing empathy may come naturally to some, others may need to work at it. Here are five strategies you can use to ease yourself into a more empathetic mindset:

  1. Start with the end in mind for each participant and stakeholder. Make sure everyone understands each other’s roles and can articulate the common goal. If you sense things going off track, you can pull everyone back to that place of mutual agreement.
  2. Ask open-ended questions. Asking questions that require a descriptive answer sets the stage for collaboration and conveys a leadership attitude of “we all add value here.” Conversely, asking close-ended questions that require nothing more than a yes or no response introduces a power-play, leaving the respondent unsure of how he or she is “supposed” to answer. Some project managers may feel it’s a sign of weakness to ask clarifying questions, but the empathetic project manager knows it’s the key to understanding all the elements involved in order to achieve the desired outcome.
  3. Think before responding. When a new idea or suggestion is offered up, don’t shut it down without first thinking it through. Maybe it’s a departure from the original scope of the project, but ask yourself this: will this new idea lead to business success? Is it worth taking a step back and exploring further? Stop and take a moment to consider what that other person is saying and where he or she is coming from before you jump to a reactive response.
  4. Paraphrase. To ensure you’re understanding the essence of what the other person is saying, paraphrase it back in your own words. If any of it is incorrect, this presents an opportunity to clarify and potentially course-correct sooner rather than later.
  5. Avoid “you” sentences. When dealing with an issue or concern, be careful not to begin the sentence with the word, “you.” For example, instead of “you’re late in signing off on the requirements,” try, “I’m concerned that the requirements haven’t been signed off on because it may delay our timeline.”

When an empathetic project manager takes the lead, he or she sets a more productive tone, leads by example and embodies what it means to serve the greater good. An empathetic approach creates synergies between the project manager and the stakeholders, process owners and customers. When used to motivate others, negotiate solutions and bridge perceived gaps, empathy ultimately leads to efficiencies that ensure a project is delivered in alignment with its intended output and results.

Empathy is, in my view, a mandatory competency for all those in leadership positions, including project management. It’s an incredibly powerful tool that, when combined with other technical and soft skills, can mean the difference between a mere-successful project manager and one who’s truly exceptional and highly sought-after.