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Empathy: A Powerful Tool for Project Managers

Dec 19, 2023  •  8 Minute Read
Ring of puzzle pieces

By Lucas Lugari Carneiro, International Project Manager

Project managers working in a global marketplace are often the binding agents that help people from diverse backgrounds connect and find common ground. Customers, manufacturers, suppliers and other parties involved are all trying to achieve the same goal, but when each is coming from a completely different place and dealing with unique circumstances and realties, it’s natural for there to be confusion and even conflict.

To be productive amid those challenges requires open-mindedness, patience and humility; and that can be summed up in one powerful word: Empathy.

Empathy isn’t always easy, especially given the pressures of society today. In a world increasingly filled with information and technology, the demands of work, household bills, family, pets, studies, and health are always swirling around us. However, the pressure to be “perfect” is causing damage to our population and impacting our emotional intelligence — it’s hard to NOT focus on ourselves and we forget to think from another person's perspective. That is where empathy comes in.

So, what is empathy? It is an intrinsic ability to perceive the world from another person's point of view. It is to deeply understand the reasons and feelings that motivate their actions, avoiding anticipated judgments. Not to be confused with sympathy, empathy is a behavior and can be learned and developed during our lives. Sympathy is a feeling that requires tuning in or identification with the emotions and thoughts of others.

Empathy is necessary for creating bridges of understanding between very different people with different cultures. When you are working with worldwide projects, it’s very important to understand the nuances of the cultures you’re working with. Cultures of each country—and even states or regions within each country—can be so vastly different. How it works in the North of your country could be very different from how it works in the South. What may be right for you may not be right for someone else.

The need for empathy was never stronger than during the pandemic … and the world did a decent job of putting it into practice. During that time, we faced challenges every step of the way, from concept to closing of projects. Our customers had issues in receiving equipment, our vendor in delivering equipment, the manufacturer company in receiving raw materials, and the logistic company in shipping equipment. However, by understanding the world's situation, having compassion, and being empathetic with others, we were able to come together for common solutions.

When you adopt empathetic behavior, you can overcome the barriers of selfishness and prejudice. Analyzing the perspective from another point of view allows us to expand our vision and enrich our experience of the world. We need to be open-minded and not stay in a ‘bubble.’  Even if we don’t agree with the other point of view, we need to understand how the person feels and their preoccupations.  

Lack of empathy leads to hasty conclusions, overly rigid judgments, and intolerance. This ends up being reflected in conflicts, bad feelings, and low-quality relationships.

Empathy is particularly valuable in project management because it enables project managers and staff to build stronger bonds with clients, consumers, and vendors. Leaders who make the effort to comprehend and understand people are better able to collaborate and communicate, which produces more effective outcomes.

Being Better at Empathy

Empathy may be partly genetic, but we’re not 100% born with it ... we learn how to be empathetic and can develop those skills – here’s how:

  1. Practice humbleness. One of the best ways to show leadership is to practice humility. What our ego wants us to think may not match reality, and we must treat everyone with the same amount of respect regardless of their position in the organization. You might be surprised when someone from the shop team has the best solution, but they do have a unique vantage point different from others in the organization. We are not always the expert, and you never know who might have the most compelling and valuable ideas.
  2. Avoid jumping to conclusions. Accept that you don’t have all the answers and you don’t always understand situations. If someone doesn't show up to a meeting or misses work, don’t immediately conclude they are slacking or failing. Investigate before making a judgement and start by giving the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the person had a personal or health issue. Always ask questions before making assumptions.
  3. Listen without interrupting. Pay attention to who is speaking with you. Observe their words, body language, and facial expressions. Be sure you comprehend the other person before expressing your opinion. Practice active listening, yet another important leadership skill.
  4. Show that you care. Expressing you care can be effective, but don’t just pretend. Be genuine. Being transparent and honest in every interaction shows you do actually care and fosters a more positive and productive exchange.
  5. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. If someone tells you they are struggling with a problem, try to understand it from their perspective, even if you don’t agree. How might their own realities be influencing the situation and their opinions about it? There isn’t always a “right” or “wrong” answer. Be open-minded and analyze the other person’s situation so you can effectively navigate to a resolution.
Stack of blocks

How to Use Empathy in Project Management

understand their challenges and concerns. When we show we are willing to help them, we can create a positive and productive work environment that gives the customer more confidence in us.

One time a customer hired us to calculate a size of a new tower mill and new feed system, and to design a 3D conceptual layout for his new expansion facility. The first thing my team and I did was listen to the customer and put ourselves in their shoes. We needed to understand their challenges and the issues they were facing, knowing each customer is different and has their own culture. We used empathy to adapt our meetings according to their needs.

We accepted that we didn’t have all the answers for the customer’s questions, but we worked as a team to find those answers. In some cases, we were dealing with areas outside our expertise, so we had to consult with different vendors and experts around the world to find the answer. We had to be empathetic with them also, understanding their busy travel schedules and customers commitments. We cannot be impatient or intolerant with vendors, or they will resist working with us, and we will not find a resolution for the customer.

In another situation during project negotiations with a new customer, the client approved our proposal but asked to sign a contract according to their standards. However, some of those standards applied only to their country. So, we worked with the customer to get a consensus from both parties. Because we understood the customer’s point of view and they understood our situation, we were able to work together to reach an agreement on the contract. In this case, if we hadn’t put ourselves in the customer's shoes (and vice versa), the project never would have come to fruition.

In a nutshell, always keep the golden rule in mind -- treat people how you would like to be treated. Make sure everyone feels heard and show that you care. Be transparent. When someone brings up a problem, take time to consider it compassionately and empathize with their situation. Try to relate instead of comparing. Doing that is not only beneficial for the project, but it also is just the right thing to do.

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