The New Must-Have Skill? Making an Emotional Connection with Teams
Anca Penghis, PMP, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Stockholm, Sweden
BY JENNIFER THOMAS
PORTRAITS BY MIKAEL SJÖBERG
Showing empathy is fast emerging as a leadership superpower. At a time of overstretched teams, fast-paced change and high organizational ambitions, companies need project professionals with the ability to truly understand what a team member is feeling and experiencing—and manage how that affects their project work.
Fostering an empathetic culture can lead to stronger collaboration, less stress, fewer conflicts and faster recovery from burnout.
Honing empathy has only grown in importance given the increasing stress and demands that project teams face, says Dev Ramcharan, PMP, management consultant, City of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
For project managers, getting ahead of the empathy curve means sharpening the ability to recognize shifts in mood, morale, performance and engagement and find the causes of any changes, whether negative or positive, says Mr. Ramcharan.
“There are a set of competencies we have to develop, outside of the technical skills and tools that we've traditionally focused on as project managers,” he says. “One of the things that is really becoming apparent worldwide is the importance of people skills—interpersonal proficiency.”
TRAIN OF THOUGHT
Good news, for those project professionals who don't find empathy comes naturally: It's a skill that can be both learned and strengthened. Given enough time and support (such as coaching, training and other development opportunities), nearly all managers can learn to be empathetic, the Center for Creative Leadership found in a global survey.
For Shannon Banks, the end goal of empathy is to create connections at a real level, which makes people more likely to work together toward a common goal. Developing these skills takes practice (and should be done daily), but the individual steps are small, says Ms. Banks, managing director, Be Leadership, Surrey, England.
“Getting to know team members on a human level can be as simple as making time for lunch with them, going with them to coffee or stopping to say hello in the morning instead of going straight to your desk,” she says.
Project or personal milestones (such as a teammate's birthday) are opportunities to celebrate and connect, says Anca Penghis, PMP, project manager, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Stockholm, Sweden. But even small, everyday moments can make a real difference in learning to better gauge team members’ stress levels, engagement and interest in the project's tasks. “The important thing is to find a comfortable way to communicate with colleagues,” she says. “Take time to ask simple questions: How are you? How was your weekend? How was the party? How was the book? How was lunch?”
During face-to-face interactions, consider posture and approach. If a project manager leads the meeting sitting behind a large desk, it puts a barrier between that person and the team. Likewise, standing while the rest of the team sits can create the sense that now isn't the time for peer-to-peer dialogue.
“Think of yourself as a team member before thinking of yourself as a leader,” says Daniela Tessler, partner, Odgers Berndtson Brazil, São Paulo, Brazil.
—Daniela Tessler, Odgers Berndtson Brazil, São Paulo, Brazil
Whether a conversation is one-on-one or with a group, Ms. Tessler encourages project managers who are trying to strengthen their empathy skills to pay attention to body language and tone of voice. “Those help you assess the hidden emotions behind what's being said.” Most of all, don't interrupt, she says, and, if possible, reserve judgment until after the conversation is over and there's been time to process.
SELLING THE SKILL
Ninety-one percent of CEOs believe empathy is directly related to a company's financial performance, according to the 2019 Businessolver State of Workplace Empathy study. That means project managers and program managers who can highlight empathy as one of their competencies may find themselves a top candidate for open positions.
Demonstrating empathy during the hiring process isn't as tough as it might first sound, says Mr. Ramcharan. Use your LinkedIn page and cover letter to call out how you've used empathy for professional wins the same way you would instances when you finished a project ahead of schedule and under budget, he says. Seek out reviews from former bosses and team members that specifically address situations where you used empathy to improve the work environment.
In the interview process, there are usually ample opportunities to interject examples of using empathy to better lead or manage a project team. “Storytelling is always effective during the hiring process,” Ms. Banks says. “Project managers should reflect on their careers, think about examples from their past where empathy was helpful and tell a story explaining why. Or share a story about a situation in which empathy was under-utilized by management and the impact of that.”
For example, one of Ms. Banks’ early lessons in the value of workplace empathy was a trying experience in which a long-term project she was working on as program manager was canceled. “Some of the team, including me, were really upset about this cancellation after spending a number of years working on this project,” she says. “I recognized how I was feeling about this and was able to listen with empathy to my peers and team members, giving them an outlet for their feelings.”
After listening to their concerns, Ms. Banks realized that focusing the team on a new initiative would give the team a sense of purpose. So, she tasked them with researching proposals for the team's future direction. “That really helped all of us to move forward,” she says. “But I don't think I would have been as effective if I hadn't been empathetic to the feelings of everyone in the situation.”
Showing empathy helps build trust, but doing so without reservation could put project managers in danger of emotional burnout, says Dev Ramcharan, PMP, management consultant, City of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
“A project manager must understand that he or she is not a trained psychotherapist or counselor,” Mr. Ramcharan says. “In some cases, no matter how much depth of empathy we may have for someone, we do not have the qualifications to offer counsel.”
The key to exercising a healthy amount of empathy—without going overboard—is learning when to steer team members toward employee assistance programs or human resources, depending on the scenario, he says.
To avoid burnout, project managers must show empathy to themselves, says Anca Penghis, PMP, project manager, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Stockholm, Sweden. “For me, I feel empathy overload the most when I get tired. Then I feel that I cannot keep up, and it all gets overwhelming.” Self-empathy might mean taking a proper lunch break to help manage work stress or setting a boundary around evening emails to improve sleep.
For those who need an empathetic ear, look beyond the team boundaries. “The truth is it's hard for a project manager to complain to the team,” she says. “If you say ‘I am so tired of all these problems,’ you hear ‘You are the project manager, that's your job.’” Another project manager or an empathetic boss can be a good sounding board for project managers to tend to their own emotional needs.