Project Manager Empathy … Workshop?

So, presenting at the PM Telesummit was a fabulous experience, and I’ve made a lot of really great connections as a result. One thing that has happened, is that I’ve been asked to develop a workshop on “what I do”.

“Well holy crap,” I thought. “What the hell do I do that millions aren’t already doing?” I’m a project manager. That plays video games and reads comic books in the bathroom. This isn’t exactly fodder for ground breaking, profession-changing, life-altering classroom time. I went to bed vaguely discouraged and thought, meh, maybe I just won’t do it.

Well, I slept on it.

One of the things I’m known for in a project environment is my ability to connect with people. An old boss gave me a decidedly left-handed compliment once. “Geoff,” he said, “you might not have particularly amazing domain prowess, and your technical skills might be on par with a stoned gopher, and your dress sense looks like you blew up a Crayola factory but god damn you can get people to work together.”

Er…gee thanks?

Duchamp Socks

Duchamp socks really are good for distracting people in status meetings. Trust me. 😉

So I got up this morning and started thinking about that, and more specifically started thinking about the specific value I bring to a project, and how it could be bottled and sold. Short of becoming a Duchamp sock reseller (I have a large collection–they’re great at deflecting angry stakeholders), I thought, the thing I offer is empathy. Particularly, empathy in a project management setting.

During my years of coaching the other project managers on my teams, empathy is one of the things I’ve had to revisit time and time and time again. I’m not talking about touchy-feely, let’s be BFFs, OMG “eye heart yew” saccharine nonsense better left to celebrity rehab. I’m talking about tangible, results-focused skills that leverage the natural connections between us as human beings, to create and drive solutions. Simply put: if a project manager can’t (or won’t) put him or herself in their stakeholders’ shoes, they’re going to create the wrong product.

I’m not saying there’s not a million other tools a project manager needs to do their jobs well…but I am saying if a project manager doesn’t build empathy within their arsenal, all the analysis in the world isn’t going to fix a problem that’s fundamentally misunderstood. As project managers, we tend to prefer the language of analytics, don’t we? It’s the language we use to communicate…and damned if we don’t spend a tremendous amount of time with our clients training them in that language! Of course, our clients will follow along with our analysis as long as it serves their interests, and when they’re over it, they’ll stop. The client might be in the wrong if they stop listening to the importance of earned value, but right or wrong is kind of irrelevant if the client doesn’t feel they’re being heard.

Anyway, I poked around a bit, and found one of many supporting articles that suggested an empathy workshop aimed at project managers might actually not be a bad idea. One that jumped out at me was a study of psychologists. The gist is, “a lack of perceived empathy is one of the best predictors of a negative outcome in psychotherapy and increases the likelihood of malpractice litigation.” Okay, okay, I know therapists and project managers do many different things, but root cause analysis of a client’s problem is something they both share. If there’s negative consequences to one profession for a lack of empathy, there’s definitely negative consequences to another…they just might not be as well defined.

I’m going to explore this over the next little while. I’ve not put on an organized workshop before–most of my coaching is one-on-one, and on-the-job, so I’m mostly going to be immersed in research. But I’ll keep you updated with my findings. I’d be interested in getting feedback on this little project, to find out if you think it’s worth pursuing. I’m already talking with some folks about the venue and staging arrangements (which seems very cart-before-the-horse to me LOL), and I’ll keep you updated with that as well.

Here’s to new ideas!!

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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  • Hey Geoff,

    One of your classic blogs, combining humor with a powerful, underlying message that encourages a reader to think. Now I’m not sure that is such a good thing for a friday afternoon, but hey, I just had my 2nd dose of caffeine so can apreciate it.

    This is clearly your sweet spot, so you have my vote to run with this idea and see it through.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Hey thanks heaps, Bob! Your support’s awesome as always! 😀 I’ll keep you updated with what happens!

  • Absolutely. If you can get people to work together towards a common goal, you can move mountains. I’ve worked on projects where most of my time was spent keeping people together who didn’t like each other.

    If you can cut through the emotional drack and not take sides, you can do anything.

    Great post.

  • Hey, Perry thanks so much for the support! 🙂

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