Empathy and Project Management

What is Empathy

You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. – Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Empathy, in the broadest sense, is the ability understand and share another person’s feelings. For those of you who like to put things in boxes, Daniel Goleman breaks this general definition into three types of empathy:

  • Emotional Empathy: We have these fascinating things called mirror neurons in our brain. Partly because of that, we can “catch” other someone else’s emotions. When a coworker’s stress causes us to feel more stressed and a friend’s sadness (or joy or anger) evoke similar emotions in us, that’s emotional empathy. It’s not just acknowledging their emotion, but feeling what they feel.
  • Cognitive Empathy: This is sometimes called Perspective Taking. It’s the ability to see something from someone else’s perspective, to “step into their shoes.” It’s particularly useful during negotiations and in understanding how to motivate someone.
  • Empathic Concern: Closely related to emotional empathy, empathic concern is not only feeling another’s emotions, but sensing what they need from you (ideally, this drives you to compassionately react to that person).

Each of these are very helpful in software development and in project management.

Empathy & Software Development

Empathy, in relation to software development, isn’t groundbreaking. Especially in fields like design and UX where experts anticipate user workflows and responses to craft an experience. In these fields, empathy is the heart of empathetic design.

In development, the concept of empathic coding is a bit newer, but gaining traction.

Software may be built on machines, but it’s built by, with, and for human beings. – April Wensel, Founder of Compassionate Coding

We see this in articles on how we can better consider other developers, coding schools that include empathy tracks for their students, and companies looking to build AI into machine process (see also Artificial Empathy).

One of our own Rangers, Kyle, spoke about empathy and development at a WordCamp not too long ago as well (slides are here).

Empathy & Digital Project Management

If empathy is an essential skill for designers and developers, it’s especially important for roles that actively assist and manage software development teams. Namely, project managers.

Because project managers are usually in some sort of leadership role, it’s worth mentioning that empathy is a key component of successful leadership, even up to the executive role, as well. Writers speculate this is because empathy helps leaders effectively communicate, bridge diversity, motivate others and negotiate solutions (sound like project management?).

In my own experience, I’ve realized that a project manager has immense opportunity to exercise empathy not just during, but before and after a project as well.

Part 1: Before Kickoff

At Range, the opportunity for me to be empathetic as a Project Manager (PM) appears well before day 1 of a project. The opportunity actually shows up during proposal creation when I help brainstorm timelines and deliverables.

In this very early stage, a PM can use cognitive empathy (that’s the perspective-taking one), in conjunction with planning skills, to start managing expectations and creating an effective project tract.

To do so in our own projects, I set aside time to think through projects from at least the following perspectives:

  • The Client: Why (as far as we know) does the client want to make this site? What are their really important deadlines? What kind of schedule would work well for their company structure and availability? What deliverables do they need to see as early as possible?
  • The Agency: What are the agency’s goals for this project? How can we set the project up for profitability? Do the partners have any particular stake or interest in this project? If so, what?
  • Designers: What kind of delivery schedule is most efficient for the design team? How do they prefer to receive feedback? What client deliverables would set this team up for success?
  • Developers: Where, historically, have development bottlenecks been? What parts of the scope or project are least defined or most likely to be more complicated than we expect? What kind of delivery schedule works best for team skillsets and personalities? Will they need to learn any new languages or programs for this (and so need more ramp up time)?
  • End Users: What (as far as we know) do they need to accomplish? What do similar industry products tell us about their needs, preferences, and interests? Will any aspect of the scope be to their (and therefore the client’s) detriment? Will anything about the envisioned product delight them?

Depending on your project, other perspectives could include: stakeholders, peripheral teams in the client’s company (will Marketing or Communications really depend on what you deliver?), team leads, partner agencies and contractors.

I’ve found that I frequently revisit these perspectives throughout the project, so it’s helpful for me to get acquainted with them as soon as possible, before things get more hectic.

Part 2: During the Project

Once a project is up and running, you’ll have many more opportunities to be empathetic. Below are some practical situations and corresponding ways you can exercise empathy for smoother projects and happier teams:  

> Introducing New People

Jumping into the middle of something that’s already in motion can be overwhelming. Intentionally work to understand what information new team members need from you (or others) in order to fulfill their role. Check out Brett Harned’s New Stakeholder Onboarding Process Template for some good ideas.

> Compiling & Delivering Feedback

As you organize feedback, recognize who the feedback will affect. Determine how you can relay important information in ways that keep the project moving forward. 

> Scope Changes | New Feature Requests

As you encounter (inevitable) new feature requests, think through what impact changes will have on each perspective you identified earlier. Determine what expectations you need to adjust and what each perspective needs from you.

Change Orders are a great way to actively think through impact.

> Follow Ups

There are several ways to follow up on a task or deadline. Some of those ways will discourage your teammates or prevent them from doing what needs to be done. Other ways will motivate and encourage. Knowing how to follow up usually demands you understand how a person is doing and feeling about the project, so start there first. 

Need a refresher on ways you can adjust your tone? Check out Buffer’s tone guide, inspired by Mailchimp’s well-known voice and tone guidelines for some general ideas you can adapt to your specific situation. 

> Calling for Backup

Learn to spot warning signs that a teammate is approaching their breaking point. Most people (myself included) struggle to acknowledge this until it’s much too late. Recognizing when a teammate is in over their head, and calling for backup before they drown, can save days or even weeks of a project’s timeline (not to mention your teammate’s sanity).

> Group Meetings | Status Updates

Pinpoint the current mood of your team or client, as well as a target mood (aka know where you are and where you want to go). Think through ways to encourage all parties to move from their current standpoint to the target one. Understand how your own mood can greatly affect these meetings. 

> Client Correspondences

Identify what kind of information is most important to the client. Understand what level of familiarity they have with technology and software jargon. Recognize what kinds of pressures this project creates for them. Utilize all this understanding to tailor communications with your particular client.

And remember, keep your eyes open for other opportunities! Because projects vary widely in scope and complexity, you’ll likely have many more opportunities than these. 

Part 3: At a Project’s Close

Even after a project concludes, you’ll still have opportunities to develop empathy with and for your teammates.

One specific way to do this is via project reviews. In retrospectives, you’ll have an opportunity dig into the ups and downs of a project. Once you identify what’s been stressful, unmanageable, irritating, or fantastic, you can also identify:

  • What teammates needed from you and each other in those situations (this helps everyone identify how to react in the future)
  • How you can replicate successes
  • What steps you can take to prevent ugly situations in the future

Identifying these can help you and your team understand how to be more empathetic and more compassionate toward one another in future projects. 

Words of Caution

Empathy Isn’t a Standalone Skill

How much you rely on empathy will be up to your management style and principles. But regardless of how you incorporate this skill, realize that empathy should rarely (if ever) have the only say in your decisions.

It’s possible to overemphasize empathy, just like it’s possible to overemphasize processes and methodologies in your decisions. There’s a balance. When you find yourself at the intersection of many conflicting perspectives, balance empathy with foresight, risk management, and pragmatism to keep the project moving forward.

Empathy is important, but it’s not a standalone recipe for success.

Have Boundaries

Some people are naturally gifted at empathy and have a hard time stepping out of someone’s shoes once they’ve stepped into them. This is dangerous ground. Becoming completely absorbed in another person’s emotions is not only exhausting, it dramatically undercuts your ability to lead with a balanced voice and perspective. 

Establish healthy emotional boundaries and know when to empathize vs. when to reign empathy in.

Don’t Forget About Your Own Mood

Remember that your team is capable of experiencing your emotions, just as you’re capable of experiencing theirs. This is especially important in meetings where you set the tone for a project or situation. Leaders impact a team’s mood, so choose yours wisely.

Summary

  • Empathy has a prominent place in all aspects of software development, including project management
  • An empathic PM will:
    • Become acquainted with key perspectives before a project begins
    • Actively look for ways to exercise empathy during: delivery, feedback, iteration, scope changes, group gatherings and correspondences with clients
    • Cultivate empathic concern among all team members during project reviews
  • An empathic PM will also understand that:
    • Empathy is most beneficial to a project when accompanied by other essential management skills
    • Adopting another person’s emotions in place of your own is unhelpful
    • A manager’s mood can impact a team in big ways

Further Reading

Intrigued by this topic? Here are some additional reads on emotional intelligence and empathy in relation to:

Authored By

Project Manager

Laura leads team efficiency by tracking hoards of details and communicating across teams. She enjoys challenging recipes, keeping up with the team pets and a good cup of Ethiopian coffee.

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