The Profound Impact of Empathy
Navigating Complexity with Human Connection in Program Management
Program management is often seen through the lens of deadlines, tasks, and deliverables, but at its core, it's a human endeavor. Amidst intricate schedules and stakeholder demands, the importance of empathy in project management becomes increasingly evident.
Let’s start with a few basics.
Humans are, by nature, emotional creatures. The art of understanding how to manipulate this spectrum of emotion is invaluable. If “manipulating” carries a negative connotation for you, feel free to call it “managing” the spectrum. Regardless of how you want to phrase this tactic, empathy can be defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It involves not only recognizing but appreciating the perspectives, emotions, and needs of your team and your stakeholders. Take a moment to pause and truly take in the weight of each word in the previous sentence.
Your Team as People
Empathy plays a crucial role in acknowledging team members as individuals with unique aspirations, challenges, and personalities. This may sound obvious, but it’s an acknowledgment that often gets overlooked when you settle into a standard way of work. It is not something that can happen passively. While this level of empathy takes more effort, the impact - whether immediately visible or not, is usually well worth it.
Client and Stakeholder Relations
Empathy extends beyond the project team to encompass clients and stakeholders. Understanding their goals, concerns, and expectations is crucial in delivering a project that aligns with their vision. To a program manager, stakeholder relations are centered around the concept of trust.
Trust is arguably the most important factor when it comes to navigating human connection. “I trust this person to get the job done” is something felt more often than it is said. At the core of that sentence lies empathy: the unshaken belief that “this person” is the one who understands. Understands the urgency, understands the need, understands the way it must be done. Herein lies the profound impact of empathy. The seemingly simple accomplishment of trust boosts productivity, prevents conflict, and elevates the success of a project.
Managing the Emotional Spectrum
Often, program managers find themselves having to choose between two key factors. Either Stakeholder A or Stakeholder B. Either more time or more budget. You get the picture. Is this a choice that must be made? After all, neutrality is a dangerous ballgame in itself;
If you stand for nothing, what will you fall for? — Hamilton, 2015
There are two factors to consider in order to make the most effective choice based on empathy:
- Understanding your own emotions
- Establishing your own principles
Both these factors complement each other and are worth discussing simultaneously.
Different stakeholders go through different emotions at different stages of a project. Traversing this terrain presents numerous challenges and opportunities. The trick, as cliche as it sounds, lies within oneself. Before you can go about manipulating the emotions of others, it is vital to manage your own. Doing so not only serves as practice for playing the bigger game but also helps you understand the thoughts and emotions of others. Essentially, managing one’s emotions means you are empathizing with yourself.
For example, figuring out you’re cranky because you’re hungry. Even before you move towards resolution by ordering your favorite meal, you are taking the time and effort to realize the cause of being cranky. This is the empathy that can create a tremendous impact on projects.
Secondly, the act of establishing your own principles will serve your success more than anyone else. Understanding how to direct emotions is one part, but knowing where to direct them is another. This direction comes from your personal values and is what often sets empathic program managers apart from one another.
As a second example, let’s say you have established that you will take on life with honesty and a strong desire to deliver quality work in your projects. As such a person, your approach to empathy will combine honesty with quality. Your conversations will aim to effectively let stakeholders know the truth about various aspects of the project as they are, and convince them of the need to maintain a high standard of output.
Delivering Through Empathy
Sticking by these principles, as you’re managing stakeholder expectations and emotions, you’re also developing a brand for yourself as a specialized type of program manager. And you will have gotten this far because of empathy. Understanding what type of conversation to have with which stakeholder. Knowing who needs what sort of metric or information at what time. It is unlikely for such bespoke value offered to be found in a JD, yet this is the value with the greatest impact.
Putting all of this together, an empathic PM understands that the choice between this or that is hardly as simple as it may seem on the surface. The trick to make that choice combines the two factors described.
At the same time, it’s important to know that the primary use of empathy is to understand. To validate that there is a reason for any feeling in a stakeholder. This does not mean that you are now obligated to conform to that feeling. Your actions can continue to be guided by your own principles. This is why maintaining a growth mindset is all the more crucial in this role. Adapting and evolving those principles to the need of the hour is what delivers the greatest of projects.
Amidst the volatile nature of program management, where tasks intersect with human dynamics, empathy emerges as an indispensable tool. By fostering empathy within project teams, organizations and individuals can navigate the complexities of projects with a heightened understanding of the human element. In doing so, projects cease to be mere tasks on a timeline and transform into collaborative endeavors where success is measured not just in deliverables, but also in strengthened relationships and the overall outcome beyond the strict project deliverables.