Anyone who’s worked in project management knows that “soft skills” such as empathy and communication are just as important as technical skills. Successful project managers know how to convey results and issues to all relevant stakeholders throughout an organization; they also know how to spot (and handle) potential problems within their own teams.
The COVID-19 pandemic, by forcing teams to work remotely, increased the difficulties associated with guiding teams to successful project outcomes. It’s also forced team leaders everywhere to recognize the vital role of empathy in team dynamics.
Sunil Prashara, President and CEO of the Project Management Institute (PMI), thinks that COVID-19 has forced leaders to pay extra attention to the well-being of team members, as well as prioritize the human dimension of every decision they make. Empathy, he added, is “an important attribute that needs to be prioritized even after we return to normal.”
Prashara believes that one of the best ways to cultivate empathetic leadership is by demonstrating vulnerability. “This should begin with senior leaders and cascade throughout the organization,” he said. “COVID-19, ironically, has helped as it’s lessened the formality between organizations’ senior leaders and teams. When you hop onto a virtual meeting you can see into people’s homes and meet their children and pets. It makes everyone more human.”
Surveying is another tool that allows team leaders to build empathetic cultures, as it gives them insights into employee welfare. With that data, leaders can make critical and empathetic decisions—and create a workplace with stronger collaboration and fewer conflicts.
“Embracing collaborative tools has allowed for better communication and transparency, enabling us to get work done even if you need to go offline to walk the dog or help the kids set up for their virtual class,” Prashara said. “I think it’s safe to say that the past year has been exhausting for everyone, so it’s important to recognize that and take action to prevent burnout. At PMI, for example, we consciously decided to take a break for two weeks at the end of the year to ensure all of our employees had time to recharge.”
A Two-Way Street
Managers and team leaders must take conscious action to display empathy and vulnerability, as well. “It is the responsibility of executives to foster a culture of communication and openness in the organization, and it is important for staff members to voice the challenges and difficulties they may be facing,” Prashara said. “Communication is always a two-way street, and individuals should feel comfortable in addressing concerns with their managers.”
An open and transparent culture is generally one with high morale, where employees feel encouraged to bring up any issues and identify problems before they become critical. Transparent cultures also respond more easily to external and internal change, which is important at the current moment—the COVID-19 pandemic unleashed some systemic shifts (such as a widespread embrace of remote work) that will be felt for years, if not decades, to come.
No matter what your role in an organization, though, soft skills are important, if only so you can communicate what you need to other teams and stakeholders. And remember: empathy and communication are key skills that employers look for; if you’re interviewing for a new job, expect a few questions about how you related to others in your organization. Being able to explain how you helped build a culture of empathy and transparency can help you stand out amongst job candidates and land the position.