Need to Know: Empathy

Headshot of Karen Smits

Empathy is a leadership superpower—that many still need to build. According to a 2022 Gartner survey, employees who feel their manager displays empathy are much more likely to be productive and highly engaged at work—yet only 29 percent of employees believe their manager excels at that skill.  

The need to elevate empathy is particularly valuable for project leaders. It helps them hone a people-centric ethos that ultimately empowers teams to deliver projects with true impact. They also ensure that teams will come together to solve problems, says Karen Smits, founder of Cross Culture Work, Singapore.  

But it takes commitment from project professionals—whether it’s learning the true obstacles that each team member faces and then adapting resources and work flows accordingly or understanding a key stakeholder’s perspective to resolve any conflicts.  

“A project leader plays a role in bringing people together, allowing people to have the time and space to get to know each other,” Smits says. “If you invest that time in the beginning, you will find the benefits at the end of the project.”  

Smits shares three ways project leaders can build—and amplify—empathy on project teams:  

1. Make time to bond. 
Individuals often are expected to feel like a team before they even have a chance to know each other. Build in time at the start of the project to help team members connect through shared interests and experiences, such as hobbies or previous projects. To sustain those connections throughout the project, incorporate breaks that feature fun activities like games based on the team’s feedback or plan special events to celebrate key milestones.  

2. Manage up with perspective.
Project sponsors are people, too. Understanding the reason behind their objectives will help you align their decision making with the C-suite’s ultimate goals. Are you framing discussions from their perspective? Are you actively listening to fully comprehend their motivations for change requests or why their priorities have shifted? Empathy is all about understanding the thought process and feelings of the other party—and having a clear understanding of the project sponsor’s point of view will go a long way toward helping you achieve your goals, too.  

3. Keep users front of mind.
Staying focused on what problem a project will solve—and whom it will benefit most—is all about having empathy for the user. Make sure their feedback is constant throughout the project. For instance, having candid and upfront conversations with users on a public mobility infrastructure project can ensure that teams address all accessibility issues. Or expanding user testing on a fintech project will facilitate iterative designs that prioritize the customer experience. Designing with the user in mind demonstrates true empathy—and boosts the odds of project success.


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