Project Empathy: the Hows and Whys

When I became a project manager some ten years ago, my career mentor told me that to be successful, a project manager needs to be “empathetic.”

I did not pay much attention to his advice at the time, but now I realize that being empathetic towards a project allows a manager to overcome many challenges she might face in the course of launching a particular project or product. Here’s my take on how to achieve “Project Empathy” and why it is important.

What is Project Empathy?

Having empathy for a project sounds odd, but it’s a useful idea. It means treating a project as if it were a living thing, with feelings and emotions.

Think about it: a project is made up of its team. If the bond among team members is high, the overall emotional quotient of team will be high too — and as a PM, your task will be half done.

Here’s an example from my career, quoting from my journal:

Was working on a Facebook application for a client. My team was fairly new. Project & team were nervous around its implementation. This is when I knew that I needed to jump in, understand the tone of project, and its demands. For me, it was like taking care of a friend who is undergoing rough patch. And we actually came out with flying colors as it was amongst our most sought-after case studies later.

This approach might sound unconventional, but this way of thinking can be a real help for a project manager and her entire team. The manager can go forward with a more conventional approach and still be successful, but in my experience “Project Empathy” raises the chances of bringing a project to successful conclusion. It not only instills team enthusiasm but also creates an overall atmosphere of collaboration.

In one of my latest projects’ initial days, I could sense the conflicts amongst technical folks. The team was feeling choked and could not speak up. This was not only affecting the productivity but also the quality of project too. I took the team members out individually over coffee, tried to understand their blockers in detail, cleared a few of them and acknowledged the hard work they were putting in. This not only instilled enthusiasm, but also the results were right there in front of me, as we were able to pull it off before the deadline. This project was the first where I first experimented with having a few stand-ups over coffee. Such unconventional approaches definitely keep the project pulse normal.

Before the project begins, have faith

The project manager is the main pillar of any project. She must have faith in herself, her team, and an understanding of why the project is being started. Whether the project is small or big, if the project manager doesn’t believe in its importance, she won’t be able to make her team believe in it either.

Value the project and make others value it too

At any project’s launch, the project manager needs to understand its objectives—and also its “needs and desires.”

What does a project desire? It usually wants good communication, transparency, collaboration, trust, and — above all — enthusiasm that we will cross this as one, whatever comes.

The functional, objective part is a given, but Project Empathy deals with the emotional part. We are considering the project as a living thing, almost human. Just like a person, a project must “feel” important, and the team must treat it that way.

To deal with the project’s requirements, the team needs to understand how valuable the project is, and what hopes and dreams it has. Each team member on the project needs to be aligned on the holistic outcome from the project. This not only motivates them, but also let them know that they are part of something meaningful instead of just few lines of code. Once the team understands this, they will make the right decisions and meaningful choices. There have been instances when my junior-most team members shared their observations before actual implementation. And when I raised these with the client, they liked the whole approach. This would not have been possible, if during kick-off calls, I would not have invited full team and aligned them with the intent of doing that project.

Stay enthusiastic. Don’t lose hope!

Throughout the project, the project manager must maintain enthusiasm, for herself and for her team. The group must continue to talk about the project’s importance and keep Project Empathy at the top of their minds. This lays the foundation for when the team begins to lose faith or gets tired. When enthusiasm starts to dry up, the project manager must repeat the same words to herself, and to the team, and not allow small obstacles to stop them from creating something that will be a source of great pride. She may even take the team out and acknowledge the good work they are doing on project so far.

Expect dark times but stay empathetic

There will often be times when a project seems to be slipping: there’s a budget cut, or a change in stakeholders, or a timeline shift. This is the time for Project Empathy to come into action! These instances might discourage the team, and the project manager might herself start to feel less enthusiastic about the project. That is when she needs to remind her team why they started the project in the first place, to recall its value that was evident during the earlier better days. She has to remind herself and her to have “empathy” for the project.

It might be hard to empathize with the project instead of the aligning with the dissatisfaction that the team is feeling. The project manager might find herself in the trap of complaining alongside her teammates about how awful things are, about the cuts in the timeline, and other annoying changes. It becomes easier to harbor those wearisome thoughts, especially when she has to ask the team for unpleasant favors, say, working on a weekend. She might find herself wishing that the project ends soon so she won’t have to worry about it anymore. But that sort of thinking only sabotages the project and makes the teammates feel even worse about finishing their work.

Once the manager thinks of the project as a living thing, she won’t want to stay on negative thoughts or complain to her team. This is where the essence of Project Empathy lies.

An empathetic manager gains more attention from her teammates. Many productivity issues get resolved when the team finds they have a manager who works on their concerns and understands them. An empathetic PM always instills a sense of accountability and ownership among her team members. With each project event, all stakeholders will find themselves more invested in the project. Overall relationships improve, and teammates feel attached to working on the project.

Developing Project Empathy is a skill that evolves with experience, over time, but it can result in people with very different personalities working together in the best possible way.