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The Empathetic Project Manager

The term ‘project management’ covers a range of industries including construction, education, technology and corporate business. It also has different variations, off-shoots and descriptions such as delivery, change and implementation management. Fundamentally though, the role of the Project Manager is to deliver changes effectively (i.e. within constraints such as time, cost and quality).

Where does empathy fit into all of that?

The traditional template for a project manager gives a very specific outline. They are go-getters, people who make things happen. They have a commitment to the short term (focused on the minutia of detailed activities and schedules) with an eye on the long term (keeping the vision and strategic goals always in sight). They have one job; the day-to-day running of whatever resources that they need to get the job done.

Many of the skills that fit a good Project Manager are process-driven; they are problem-solvers, analytical with good attention to detail and a single-minded focus on delivery. They constantly battle to avoid deviation from their plans and to control as many aspects of the project as possible (from risks to stakeholder behaviours). Success for the PM means achieving objectives and hitting targets at whatever the cost.

But there are times when process-driven is not enough…

I have worked on many projects where people are impacted in significantly negative ways. Redundancies from cost-cutting exercises, public inconvenience from office closures, dissatisfaction of moving from the ‘old’ to the ‘new’. I have never worked on a project that does not impact some people in some way. In many cases, the needs of stakeholders, customers, users and the general public are not given as much importance as it should be.

Hang on, let’s qualify that…I am not talking about the operational needs because today, project management is driven by the requirements of so many people. In some cases, I spent longer capturing and analysing the requirements for a project than delivering the solution. The typical PM would be on top of the operational needs of people impacted by any project.

I am talking about – as Abraham Mazlow first established in 1943 – the basic human needs of the people impacted by projects. Project management focuses on “what people do” (e.g. how will they access and use a new service) but less on “how people feel” (e.g. how does the new service affect their Self Worth / Self Esteem). Very personal concerns such as job security and feelings of belonging can all be impacted by change.

An example would be the transition of a traditionally paper-based business process to a new, sleek online process. Sounds like a winner, right? Digital technology advances are pushing more and more services through the web so the business case should be straight forward. It will save money over time and be easier for customers to access services.

But what about the staff who were administering the paper process? What about suppliers who produced the paper forms? What about customers who are not digital-savvy?

The good news is that any negative impacts perceived by these people can be dealt with by the Project Manager. The answer is to take time in understanding how these people feel and finding a way to turn the negatives into positives. But the trick most Project Managers miss is to treat these individuals with empathy. After all, that takes more time, doesn’t it?

The best PMs I have ever worked with had a real grasp of the change curve, the process (first designed by Kubler-Ross) that people go through when faced with a significant change. The emotional steps – including denial, anger, exploration and acceptance – are natural reactions. For the staff administering our paper process, they will naturally feel insecure about the new online service, fearing that it will replace them in some way. Project Managers can help by supporting them through the change journey and to do that, they need empathy.

Empathy can be described as understanding and sharing the feelings and emotions of other people. Project Managers who put themselves in the proverbial shoes of those impacted by their projects can be more effective at supporting them. The fears and doubts of our administrators in the example above are not difficult to comprehend yet without that understanding, the PM might discover a response that they were not expecting. Dealing with that response takes time and effort better spent on other aspects of the project.

The Project Manager is a leader and the relationship they build with people throughout the lifecycle of their project can be pivotal in their success. Empathy is no more a mystic art than release management or benefits realisation. Can we not deliver changes effectively and consider the feelings of people impacted by the changes? It’s up to you…

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