You are currently viewing Applied EQ #34:  Empathy for Project Managers vs. Just Do It

Applied EQ #34: Empathy for Project Managers vs. Just Do It

The last few posts have been about Social Awareness and how that relates to project management.  Social Awareness includes several competencies; the first we will explore is Empathy.  Empathy is one of the most important parts of Social Awareness and perhaps one of the most critical people skills for project managers.  Empathy is the ability to understand and relate to others.  Empathy helps us to walk in the shoes of another or to see things from another’s point of view.  Over the next few posts we are going to explore the following facets of empathy and how they play out in the project environment:

  • Ability to read the spoken and unspoken thoughts and feelings of others
  • Ability to appreciate the thoughts and feelings of others and why they have them
  • Capacity to respect & value people from diverse backgrounds and cultures

Empathy is not a new concept by any stretch of the imagination.  Most people have probably heard the following quote:

“Don’t criticize someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes.”

Or the twisted adaptation of that idea as reflected in this quote:

“Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes.” – Unknown

That second quote is only funny because it highlights one of the biggest challenges to empathy; our self-centeredness.  We are selfish, self-absorbed, self-obsessed and self-interested. More on that in a moment.

The importance of empathy was explained very well in Stephen Covey’s 1989 book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  Covey’s fifth habit was all about empathy:  Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Embedded in that phrase is the simple wisdom of orienting first to the other person.  A great deal of conflict that we experience on projects could be reduced or eliminated if we simply tried first to understand the other person’s point of view before we tried to convince them with our own message.  We need to listen to them with the purpose of understanding what it was they were trying to say.

Seeking first to understand is a simple premise, but often difficult to execute.  Granted, many project managers excel at empathy.  But for the rest of us, empathy can be difficult.  Why do we find empathy difficult as project managers?  Here are some possible reasons:

  1. Self-Orientation – As noted above, as humans we are selfish and self-oriented.  It is unnatural to think of others first.  Further, we are anxious to impose our worldview on others.  We expect others to think like us and act like us.  After all, ours is the correct way.  Covey called this our own “rightness” and putting our “autobiography” on others. 

    A good example is when as parents we are talking with our children and we say things that start with, “When I was a kid…”.  Don’t think this only applies to our child-rearing though, we do the same thing to our teams.  Our feedback and coaching is often based on what worked for us.


  • Results First – As Project Managers, we are focused on getting the results and achieving the end goals of the project.  The Nike slogan “Just Do It” was likely created by a project manager.  (Perhaps the PM would have enhanced it to say “Just Do It Now!”).  Investing time in others can be seen as in direct conflict with the need and urgency to complete the work on the project. 

    One way to overcome this thinking is to view the development of others (the project team, our peers, and our leaders) as one of the goals of the project.  In his book, The One Thing You Need to Know, Marcus Buckingham talks about switching from a view of getting work done through people to getting people done through work.  This turn of phrase is both cute and powerful.  He suggests that the work (the project in our case) can be viewed as the vehicle for people to learn and grow.  I think he is right on target.  People learn best by doing and the project is a great environment for that learning.


Paradoxically, the approach of viewing the development of the the team as a goal will often speed the achievement of the other project goals.  Rather than taking away from the work on the project, it provides energy, inspires people, and builds the capacity to do more.


  • Tough Stuff – Empathy requires communicating in ways that are hard.  For example, many of us never developed effective listening skills.  We often approach conversation as simply taking turns talking.  Listening for most of us is being poised, waiting for the other person to take a breath.  Then we quickly jump in, like a Chicago driver trying to change lanes on a busy highway.  We are often less invested in listening to others than we are about getting our own point across. 
  • We are Smarter – As the PM, we are the smarter than everyone else or at least the rest of the project team, right?  Otherwise, why would the project sponsor put us in charge?  Because we are smarter, everyone else should hear what we have to say and do things the way we want things done.Obviously I am kidding to make a point.  To the extent we buy into that or act like that, we are not being empathetic.


These are probably only a few of the reasons that empathy is so hard for project managers.  We are going to explore empathy further over the next few posts and then turn our attention to ways we can overcome these difficulties and get better at empathy.