Empathic Project Management

Project Practitioners > Empathic Project Management
By Brian Irwin

Empathy is the ability to put one's self in the shoes of another and to identify with what the other person is feeling. Meaningful human relationships are based on empathy, which is built through demonstrating vulnerability. By empathizing with another individual you are demonstrating your willingness to connect with someone on a basic human level. Perhaps more than any other, the act of showing empathy for another person in the workplace has the power to transform interpersonal relationships and increase understanding.

The reality of today's workplace does not necessarily make it easy for managers to practice empathy. A significant amount of the operational responsibilities required for running a business have been placed squarely on the shoulders of management leaving little time for practicing empathy. The irony is that a substantial portion of this added operational responsibility is due to reduced levels of employee engagement. For project managers and leaders with direct reports, empathy is not an option. It is mandatory and critical.

One particular manager I worked with was so inadequate at empathizing with others that his entire team, consisting of nine direct reports had turned over within a year. Six individuals found positions within the same organization and three had left the company. Several other managers in the organization also had very high turnover rates. Repeated requests for vacation time were denied and sick time would have to be supported with a note from the employee’s doctor. This is not the behavior that should be modeled by someone in a position of authority who is supposed to be leading a team of professional adults to success. Each of these individuals was capable of making adult decisions. Repeated apathetic displays proved to be intolerable to those reporting to him. The most incomprehensible atrocity is that this manager was later promoted into another position because of his support of company policy and procedure. Talent was literally “walking out the door” but he was doing things by the book.

Creativity is paramount to success given the new and unique challenges faced by organizations in this global economy. Research is proving that empathy is conducive to creativity. Writing in the Academy of Management Journal, Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and James Berry of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill report that “intrinsic motivation is most likely to be associated with higher levels of creativity when employees are also motivated to take the perspective of others.”[i] At least in a workplace situation, taking others’ needs into account, and seeing things from another’s point of view, seems to be a catalyst to creativity.

Grant and Berry describe several studies that support their conclusion. In one study, 90 security force officers at an American military base filled out surveys regarding their attitudes toward their work. They rated the accuracy of a series of statements measuring their intrinsic motivations (“I enjoy the work itself”) and pro-social motivations (“I want to help others through my work”). Nine months later, their supervisors were asked to evaluate their job performance in terms of creativity. Researchers reported that “Officers with high levels of intrinsic motivation were more likely to earn higher supervisor creativity ratings when they also had high levels of pro-social motivation.”[ii]

Management purists may argue that management in all business and organizational activities is the act of getting people together to accomplish desired goals and objectives using available resources efficiently and effectively[iii]. I would agree with that assertion. The point is that it is how it is done that truly matters. Simple focus on goals, objectives, and bottom lines with disregard for human relationships and well-being is damaging to both the organization and the individual.


[i] Jacobs, Tom. "Empathy Conducive to Creativity." Empathy May Drive Workplace Creativity. Miller-McCune, 17 Feb 2010. Web. 8 Mar 2011. <http://www.miller-mccune.com/culture-society/empathy-conducive-to-creativity-9322/>.

[ii] Ibid.

 [iii] "Management." Wikipedia. N.p., 8 Mar 2010. Web. 20 Feb 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Management>.

 



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