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Empathic Tension - Mike's Project Management Keys for Leaders

  • 10 Minutes
  • March 19, 2021
    • Advice From The Experts

Without a doubt, the most important skill for a Project Manager, or anyone leading a team, is to have is empathy. Project leaders without empathy breed teams without empathy, which leads to team erosion and “us vs them” attitudes. If you are leading a team yourself, or hiring a project leader, be sure to think about a strong sense of empathy as a requirement of success. While the rest of this article is about the limits and downfalls of empathy run amuck, empathy is still the most important soft skill for a project leader to have.

With all of that said, unbalanced empathy, in both project leaders and project teams, can be detrimental to driving towards the finish line of your project. This is an issue that I admit I have fallen prey to more times than I should have before learning my lesson.

During a previous client-facing project for which I was the project manager, both my team and the client’s team had a high level of empathy for one another and for the project. Everyone treated all other members of the project, regardless of whether they were client-side or agency-side, with respect and understanding, which admittedly is exactly what you hope for in the project. 

This was great, until we started to run into blockers. Both parties in this project had responsibilities for portions of the build, and often these portions interlocked with one another. Before we could move forward with Function Y, the client needed to complete Function X and vise versa. Here is where unchecked empathy became the enemy of the project.

Blockers lead to missed deadlines. Missed deadlines lead to project slippage. But because of unchecked empathy on both sides, the response to the issue was always the same, “We understand; we know you’re doing your best; we’ll update the timeline.” 

A few blockers or slipped tasks are bound to happen on large, complex projects such as the one we were engaged in, and that is to be expected. But for this project, it became chronic. As the project manager, it was my job to ensure that this project was finished on time and to the client’s satisfaction, but that goal was slipping away with every “I understand,” “No problem,” and “We’ll get there” I uttered in response to a setback. Sure, I could hold my team accountable, but I was having a hard time holding the other side accountable, and the success of the project was fading.

The issue: Misplaced empathy. I was focusing so hard on keeping both teams emotionally happy and stress-free on a day-to-day level, that I was jeopardizing the success of the project, which in term was creating the stress that I was working to avoid.

It was at this point, midway through a floundering project, that I started to re-evaluate my work through a lens of what I now call “Empathic Tension” or “Empathic Accountability”.

Empathic Tension leans into the concept that, while we can and should be understanding of one another, we must remember that each team member has responsibilities, and it's ok to hold people accountable for those responsibilities. Not only is it ok to demand accountability on projects, but it’s the Project Manager’s job to do exactly that without attacking the person they are holding accountable. Empathic Tension is all about holding people accountable without demoralizing them. 

This is certainly easier said than done, but here are some tips for project managers, or really anyone, looking to bring empathic tension to their projects. 


1. Eliminate non-committal phrases when discussing deadlines

Noncommittal phrases are things like “I should have this done by...,” “I hope to have this done by…” These phrases leave the door open for these deadlines to pass without ramification, and subconsciously reinforce the idea that these deadlines aren’t serious. 

Instead, focus on having all of your team members use definitive language. “I will have this done by…” “I am committed to finishing this by…” This language reinforces the notion that missing these deadlines must be a rarity, and if a deadline is missed, the person responsible must have a valid reason. If members of your team are using words like “should” and ‘hope,” request that they restate what they just said using definite language. If your team is starting to do this for the first time, you may notice that in using definitive language, your team members give different dates than they do with the word “should.” This is because “should” allows for optimism (which is a whole other blog post in itself), while “will” emphasizes realism.  


2. Address the task, not the person

When a task is projected to be delivered late, or the deadline has already passed, it is easy to become frustrated with the individual who owns this task. However, using language like “you need to get this done” or “you’re falling behind,” can be interpreted as a criticism of the person themselves. And while this criticism may be valid, it belongs in a personnel review, not in the middle of a project. Project managers need to keep teams functioning as a cohesive unit, and personal criticism, whether intended or not, can erode that cohesiveness. 

Rather than addressing schedule issues with “you need,” instead, make the task the subject of the sentence. “This task needs to be done by Friday,” “This functionality was due yesterday.” By focusing on the task, you are tailoring your language to focus on the project, and not the individual. It also allows you to follow up with a supportive message: “What support do you need to complete this task.” When you focus on the task, you have less of a risk of putting the task owner on the defensive. When a member of your team is on the defensive, they are less likely to offer thoughtful solutions to problems, so work to avoid defensiveness as much as you can. 


3. The bigger the storm, the calmer you must be

Sometimes, circumstances change in the middle of a project. The main point of contact for your client leaves for a new job; a team member has a prolonged illness; your client’s leadership changes and wants to move in a different direction.

These are things that you as a project manager can not control, no matter how much you would like to. These things will also absolutely have an effect on the project duration, and maybe even the scope. In this situation, you may feel the captain of a ship heading into a storm. When you feel this way, embrace your inner pirate captain. 

First and foremost: show no panic. When the unexpected appears on the horizon, or the dark clouds suddenly appear directly overhead, it is your leadership that will get your team, both internal and external, through the storm. If you panic, or even if you show uncertainty, your team will pick up that energy, and it will infect them as well. Ensure that every member of your team understands what they need to do and how their actions will affect the rest of the team and the project. It takes everyone coordinating their individual tasks to keep the boat upright.

Even if you don’t feel like you know what you are doing, you must act as though you do. Especially if your team is frustrated or wary of ambiguity and change,  you must convince them, through your tone and your action, that you will all get through it.

When you find yourself in the midst of the storm: be calm, be direct, and be unwavering.

Whether you are working with an internal team, a vendor, or a client, remember the principle of Empathic Tension. Projects will only be completed successfully if all team members are owning their tasks and are held accountable for their deliverables, but as project managers, we can be forceful, direct, and empathetic to ensure both team cohesion and accountability.  


Mike Headshot

Mike Hoagland - PM Practice Manager

Mike has a decade of project management experience, from running an English Language after-school program in rural Japan, to leading multi-million dollars software development projects at the U.S. State Department. He has an awesome knowledge of running projects with successes. He also has chickens in his basement over the winter. Ask him about it.

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