So as I’m diving into research for this workshop on developing empathy in project managers, I’m overwhelmed by Google search results that show me exactly how much stigma and misinformation there is out there on the concept. Informed solely by the various websites out there, empathy is something best taught to children, hippies, lousy doctors and people with Asperger’s Syndrome. This is despite the fact that when they get busy, most non-pot-smoking, cross-profession, fixation-free adults I know demonstrate all the empathy of a fruit fly laying eggs in a rancid mango.
Honestly, if I open one more badly designed webpage that shows me a grown up Laura Ingalls dressed in flowing robes with a vapid look on her face and flowers in her hair I’m going to cut myself.With search results like this it’s no wonder there’s such a misconception about what empathy is and what it isn’t. If a sandbox as diverse as the entire freaking Internet propagates a stereotype, is it any wonder the professional community largely regards the concept as something better left to reruns of “tonight-on-a-very-special-Blossom”?
Still, I was able to extract some good information. Although much of it revolved around doctors because apparently doctors need empathy more than other people, something I won’t disagree with after I turned 40 and my doctor suddenly started wearing rubber gloves. But seriously, belonging to a profession with the dubious distinction of legitimately being allowed to stick your finger up grown people’s bums doesn’t magically make you more connected to the human species than other people. Well, maybe physically it does. In a creepy way. But empathy isn’t a physical connection. And given the professional community covers a vastly larger portion of our civilization than the medical profession subset it seems to me there’s a gross imbalance.
But enough of my rant. Here’s what I’ve been able to uncover so far.
- the capacity for empathy is innate, and not unique to humans
- the practice of empathy is drummed out of us through study and conditioning
- empathy can be trained, like a muscle, and similarly withers with disuse
- effective empathy requires emotional maturity and strong self-awareness
- empathy is active – you have to choose to use it
- empathy is not sympathy or pity – those require no effort
- empathy is not telepathy or some kind of freakish, New Age, Deanna Troi power
What’s interesting me most right now is a study released last week in the March issue of Academic Medicine. The gist is, a bunch of doctors took a test (the Jefferson Empathy Scale) that measured their empathy in the context of diabetic patient care. “Doctors with high empathy scores had better clinical outcomes than other physicians with lower scores.” Now I thought this would totally validate my position that empathy is a required skill for effective root cause analysis, but the study went on to say that it was the patients who altered their behaviour if they had empathetic doctors. Basically, if the patient felt he or she was being heard, then they looked after themselves better, ostensibly because a genuine two-way relationship developed between doctor and patient.
Well, it’s not a total loss. The nearest comparison I can draw from this study to the project management profession is that stakeholders, sponsors and team members would behave more cooperatively on a project if they perceived the project manager as empathetic, as opposed to if they didn’t. That probably doesn’t really come as much of a surprise. But is that enough to suggest there could be reasonable ROI from empathy training?
Personally I think so. While I haven’t found any studies that validate my position that a failure to empathize results in an increase in the likelihood of problem misdiagnosis, I do believe that cultivating a cooperative working environment can only benefit an organization. If the results of the March study translate effectively into the project management world (*cough* assumption *cough*) then an increase in PM empathy should realize the following benefits:
1) Faster elimination of barriers to work.
2) More accurate requirements are captured earlier.
3) Greater alignment with the Agile Manifesto of “people before processes”.
I’m sure I’ll be able to think of more. Also, I’m continuing my research. This can’t be the only serious study out there. If you’re aware of any, by all means, shout ’em out in the comments section below and I shall dig deeper.