Empathy Isn’t Just For Rude Doctors

Empathy Isn’t Just For Rude Doctors

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.

Deanna Troi

Empathy is apparently a freakish super power exclusive to Betazoids and has no practical value for professional humans.

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.

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.

I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
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  • I think you have proved that in the end search engines are not a good way of conducting serious research, rankings are just too random. Goggle seems to have a fetish for low grade blogs and forum posts.Maybe it’s time to go back to the good old fashioned library and it’s peer reviews periodicals and published books. Is more content more or just less.

  • Euw! You mean like…leave my chair? 😉

  • Why do PMs sometimes lack empathy? Well, we can get so focused on delivering results to the deadline, any challenges, or lack of progress ‘gets in the way’. One of the things I did early in my career as a manager is remind myself that most people want to help achieve success. Just because they have a different idea, or missed a deadline, or didn’t do the work at the expected level of quality, doesn’t mean they are being obstructive.
    Listen, think about what I hear, then ask questions.

  • My I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    Let’s Find 1 Million People Who Want to Build a Culture of Empathy and Compassion

  • It’s very true. It’s hard, sometimes, when you get so focused on a particular course of action, to stop, breathe, and listen to the people around you. Someone told me recently, their manager told them, “I know you’re not on board with this but I need you to be on board with this.” That kind of behavior sabotages the project but many managers just don’t recognize it.Thanks for commenting, Perry!!

  • Hey, Edwin, thanks heaps for the links!

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  • I know this post is from 3 YEARS AGO (I just found you), but scholar.google.com is a way to access the journal world from your chair. Also, not sure of their algorithm…

  • Heya, Dimity! Thanks for commenting! 🙂 A lot happens in three years hehe – I went back to university to complete a degree, and learned about Google Scholar there! 🙂

    I’m also just this very week kicking around ideas with my thesis supervisor on Emotional Intelligence and it’s application with project management. So stay tuned! 🙂

  • Dimity podger

    Sounds fab. I found you because I’m running a workshop here in Australia about trust and respect and links to project success. Any additional resources you may have would be greatly appreciated 🙂

  • Heya Dimity! 🙂 I think I have some links here and there on my blog regarding trust, so you can poke around there. I’ll certainly publish anything I work up from my thesis! But that’ll take awhile hehehehe.