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How to manage a project with empathy

What does it mean to manage a project with empathy?  And how do you actually do it?

“Project empathy” is a bit hard to pin down, but overall, it is treating your project as if it has its own feelings and emotions that would have to be considered if it were a person.  I am sure this sounds a little…weird.  But there is real merit in thinking of projects this way, and you’ll be a better project manager for it.

Do you have to manage a project with empathy?  No – you can just go through your punch list of items, crossing off milestones, managing budget, and launching your project.  And you have a decent chance of it being successful.  But your chances of a successful project are going to be much higher if you instill project empathy in yourself, and in your team.  Also, your chances of being remembered as a successful project manager and having teams ask to work with you again are amazingly increased if you manage a project with empathy.

Here is how you manage a project with empathy:

Before the project begins, believe in your project

First, it all begins with you.  You, as the project manager, need to understand why this project is being done.  You have to believe in it.  You need to know its worth to stakeholders, but also to your company and your team.  And you need to be able to do this even for small projects.  That’s where managing a project with empathy begins; if you don’t believe in the project, and care about it doing well, you’re not going to inspire this in your team.  

Cultivate an understanding of why the project is important

At the beginning of a project, you must understand its needs, hopes, and dreams. It needs to be functional, yes, that’s a given.  But its needs in terms of project empathy are more emotional – just like a person, it needs to feel valued.  Your team needs to buy into it being a worthwhile project.  

Your project’s hopes and dreams, too, are important – your team needs to buy into why certain project requirements are meaningful.  When you (and your team) understand why things are important in an emotional way, you make more meaningful choices in how to execute.

During the project stay enthusiastic

During the project, you as the project manager, need to keep project empathy top of mind, and continue to talk about the importance of the work your team is doing.  You’re going to need that foundation later on, when the team gets weary of the project and their enthusiasm dries up.  This means keeping your own enthusiasm, and not allowing project hiccups to deter you from wanting the project to be something everyone is going to be proud to produce.

When the project is slipping, lead with hope

The most important time for project empathy is in those dark days, when the budget is cut, or there are big changes from a stakeholder, or the timeline has been drawn out or cut short.  These are the easiest times for your team to start feeling unmotivated.  These are the easiest times for YOU to feel less enthusiastic – even resentful – of the project.  This is when you need to draw on that empathy you’ve been building up during the better days, and help your team remember why you’re doing this project.

It is so incredibly easy to fall into the trap of empathizing with your team’s dissatisfaction rather than empathizing with your project.  How often have you found yourself in the thick of a difficult project, complaining along with your team about how awful things are, or how annoying a set of changes is, or how ridiculous the timeline has become?  It is so tempting, when you have to ask your team to do something unpleasant or downright terrible (like having to work on a weekend because a timeline has been cut short, or a new set of requirements has been added) to follow up with, “Oh my God, this project is a nightmare!  I cannot wait until it’s launched and we never have to think about it again.”  That kind of project sabotage from you, the project’s leader, is only serving to ensure the team is going to dread completing the work.  If your project were a person, you’d definitely think twice (and hopefully resist the urge) to complain about it so openly.  This is the essence of project empathy.

The amazing benefits of managing with empathy

So what happens when you manage a project with empathy?  A few things – one, you’ll find your team is more productive, and more “present” during meetings.  Two, there will be a huge sense of accomplishment, over and above typical reactions, even before the project launches, and definitely after it launches.  Three, your relationship with both your team and your clients/stakeholders will deepen, and your position as project leader (and not just project manager) will become apparent.  But the biggest benefit of managing a project with empathy is that you will feel GREAT.  Your career will feel more meaningful.  You will feel more successful.  Your confidence level will increase.  And your teams and managers will notice – and the benefits will compound.

Here’s what can happen when you start caring again

Let me tell you about a project I managed recently.  I was working at an agency, and the project was to completely revamp and relaunch a client’s existing website.  When the new designs and content were finalized, I was brought in to manage the delivery of the site.  To set the stage, the client was demanding, not incredibly tech savvy, and not afraid to call out any malarky.  The project was already over budget from the design phase.  The designs were not created with a responsive website in mind.  And the project already had a bit of a reputation for being difficult.

At first, I was a project cheerleader, which is not enough.  “We’re going to do this!” I vaguely said at the kickoff.  The team lukewarmly agreed.  As we got further into development, and myriad issues presented themselves, I started to take the easy way out.  When we had internal status updates, I’d sigh and say things sarcastically like, “Well, it’s time to talk about everyone’s favorite project.”  During client calls, I’d be waiting to be defensive about any issues the client would bring up.  During management updates, I’d focus on all the negatives I couldn’t do anything about.  And I saw that the team was deteriorating.

I realized I was not being a project leader, and what my project needed was some empathetic management.  I stopped talking about the project as something we had to just “get done.”  I started to take note and point out some of the cool things that the site had going for it, like you would encourage a coworker that was feeling down about their work.  I would say things to myself and my team like, “That’s not really fair to the project.” and, “The project deserves better.”  I started caring again.  The team started caring again.  Nothing changed about the circumstances of the project – it was still difficult, it was still over budget, it was still under-resourced.  But all of our attitudes changed.  And when the site finally launched, the team wasn’t just happy it was over, they were happy for the project.  We all celebrated the project, and by extension, ourselves and our role in the project being a success.  

The shift to project empathy didn’t change the monetary outcome, or the timing.  What it did, though, was make everyone – from the team, to management, to the client – feel like the project was a success in spite of those things.  And that’s pretty powerful.

Managing with empathy is always the right choice

It’s never too late to practice project empathy, and it’s also never too early.  It all starts with you – keeping your project’s needs, hopes, and dreams intact.  Your leadership and empathy will catch on with your team.  You’ll find even the smallest projects are more meaningful.  And you’ll be a better project manager because of it.

Dave Prior caught up with Patrice on Drunken PM Radio to dig deeper on the idea of showing empathy for your project, why and how you’d go about doing that. They also get into the how important it is for the PM to show empathy for him/herself and when it is okay to totally hate the project.

Patrice Embry

About Patrice Embry

I’m Patrice Embry, a freelance digital project manager and Certified ScrumMaster. After 18 years in the field, I’ve been fortunate to work for agencies, corporations, and everything in between. My clients have spanned far and wide across verticals – pharmaceutical, finance, construction, ecommerce, race cars, you name it. My client roster includes Exxon Mobile, Merck, Granite Construction, Edwards Lifesciences, GS1 Global, and many more. I’ve worked on large scale websites, mobile apps, CRM and CMS systems, even print! I’m passionate about project management philosophy – it shapes what I do every day. My website is http://patrice-embry.com, and you can find me on Twitter @patrice108.

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