How empathy can make your projects work better

Written by Vineeta G - March 28, 2019

Empathy is one of the most important characteristics to develop as a project manager. The more in tune you are with the needs of your team and your client, and the more effort you put into understanding those needs, the greater chance the project has of being successful. But what does it mean to be empathic?

Dr Brené Brown, researcher and best-selling author, put it well when she said: “Rarely does an empathic response begin with: At least…”

Rather than responding to problems with a silver lining in a bid to move the project forward on time, real empathy can require taking time to make changes, or simply a face-to-face chat to connect with someone who is struggling, letting them know that you understand.

Being empathic is not the least you can do – it is in fact, the most you can do. It requires a lot of effort, but can make all the difference when it comes to the outcome of your project.

Let’s explore how we can exercise empathy as project managers.


For your clients

Being empathetic to your client’s needs is one of the first rules when it comes to great project management. This isn’t always as straightforward as it seems.

It is important to check in every once in a while and evaluate your relationship with your clients. Project management is a high pressure job. It can be easy to get caught up with deadlines and details and lose the connections you have with the people you are working with.


Feel their frustrations – don’t just acknowledge them

Every client is different, which means that understanding and addressing their unique frustrations is important. If a certain process doesn’t suit your client, don’t launch into an explanation of why your pre-meditated agenda works best. Sometimes, you might have to tweak your workflow or agenda to fit them.

Likewise, you should also communicate with your clients in a way that is comfortable for them. Start off by asking how the client prefers to be contacted. Do they prefer phone, email, Slack? Sending messages via a medium that they struggle to respond in can make them feel uncomfortable from the get-go.


Search for the reasons behind requests

Unexpected requests from a client can be frustrating at times, but you should never take the request at face value. Although it could seem as though that the idea was pulled from thin air, there is often a motivation behind it.

Bear in mind that there are pressures in the client’s workplace that you will never see or fully comprehend. Instead of making a quick judgement, try to get to the root of why they are making a certain request. Sometimes, it won’t mean changing anything about the project, but simply addressing a concern from the client’s team.


For your team

One of the most important aspects of project management is taking care of your internal team. You should be looking out for their best interests and should always remain approachable, should anyone want to discuss an issue with you.


Use empathy to create a fair working environment

Make sure that you understand and adapt projects around different ways of working. For example, maybe there is one person on your team who likes to work on just one or two projects at a time. Someone else on your team might find it difficult to speak with clients directly.

Be aware of these differences and step in as necessary. If you are flexible and empathic, you can create an optimum working environment for everyone on the team.


Don’t let the project become the problem

The way that you conduct projects will have an impact on the working environment your team experiences day to day.

When projects don’t go according to plan, try to refrain from using negative language – and I’m not referring to swearing here. Negative language can actually be a lot more subtle. Be cautious of sarcastic terms such as “our favourite project” creeping into everyday conversation. This can affect your team’s morale more than you may recognise.

You should be able to joke around as a team, especially when it comes to tough times, but as a project manager you need to keep track of the language your team uses on a daily basis. This will help to stop a negative mindset from developing.

After all, when the project becomes synonymous with “the problem”, your team won’t want to work on it anymore.


For your projects

I believe it is also important for project managers to have a sense of empathy for the project itself.


Can a project ever really go “to plan”?

No two projects are exactly alike. Although it is certainly possible (and advisable!) to take learnings from one project and apply them to others, you will never truly know what to expect until you get stuck in.

It can be hard when we are faced with challenges that we didn’t see coming. You can find yourself thinking that the project hasn’t gone to plan. But here’s the catch – you can never truly create a watertight plan for how a project will unfold.

It is the nature of our roles as project managers to develop a full understanding of the project – and this includes the bumps in the road that appear along the way.


Why are you working on the project in the first place?

Ask yourself why the project is important from the outset. This requires more work than simply understanding the client’s business and their customers. Take time to connect to why the project is important, what it achieves for the end users and how it will make a difference.

When challenging times come, remind yourself of the first project meeting and what you really set out to achieve. This should help to bring some clarity beyond the problem and provide context for your current struggles.

Rather than focusing on just getting the project done, remind yourself that you are working on something that will make a real difference to someone!


In summary, being empathic can be a key factor when it comes to developing closer relationships with your clients and your team. And when these relationships flourish, so will your projects.

As an exercise, try to create a list of action points that will help you to develop a more empathetic approach. This could include:

  • A weekly or fortnightly call with a client – scrap the agenda and instead focus on catching up and building rapport
  • An internal survey for your team, or a suggestion box for how to improve processes
  • Write a report for your team on how you dealt with something unexpected during a project, focussing on the positives and the learning experiences that came with it.