Empathy – the magical leadership ingredient?

Empathy can make a difference in every situation that we find ourselves in as leaders or managers

I recently read Geoff Crane‘s chapter 55 ‘Empathy in Project Management’ in the ‘Gower Handbook of People in Project Management‘. It’s a very large book, with a wealth of fascinating information, so I’m dipping into it a chapter at a time, and giving myself time to reflect on each one.

I really enjoyed Geoff’s chapter, and believe our ability to be empathetic can make a difference not only in Project Management, but in every leadership or people management role that we may have.

As Geoff explains in his chapter, empathy is different from sympathy in that the ‘listener’ not only acknowledges another person’s (the ‘speaker’s’) emotions but actually connects with them by ‘vicariously experiencing’ their feelings, seeing things through their eyes, or ‘getting into their shoes’.  Empathy requires active listening, picking up things that the other person may not even be saying.

Active listening?

Geoff shares a ‘behavioural change stairway model’ adapted from Vecchi et al.(1)  In it he shows that whilst active listening is a precursor of empathy, empathy in turn leads to rapport and so influence and the ability to effect behavioural change.

So, whilst empathy required us to emotionally connect with the other person, we still need to retain our own sense of self, and this is what enables us, as leaders, to then take some appropriate action to influence the ‘speaker’ to achieve a desired outcome.

This is what I have been reflecting about since I read Geoff’s chapter.

The role of empathy in project and line management

When we are responsible for a project, or for a team, should we be task or people focused?  The answer is both.  But whilst we can delegate aspects of the task management to members of our team, ultimately, the responsibility for the people within the team rests with the manager.  If we don’t recognise and respond to the needs of the individuals within the team, and to the dynamics between them, then we will never achieve a high performing team, or see each individual performing to their full potential.

Some people may think this is ‘too touchy feely’, and that we are all independent grown-ups without the need for ‘molly coddling’, but what is the reality of what happens in teams?  Aren’t the emotions visibly there (or thinly disguised) on a day-to-day basis? So as team leaders, wouldn’t we do better to acknowledge that and work with the emotions rather than ignore them?

(By the way the next chapter I read will probably be number 53, Deanne Earle’s on ‘Emotional Intelligence in Project Management’.  Geoff Crane has put up pictures of all us contributing authors and the themes of our chapters on his website – The Papercut Project Manager.  I also wrote a short blog referencing my chapter on Team Development.)

Empathy in change Management

Our APM Enabling Change SIG committee are currently working on a glossary of terms associated with Change Management.  We’re having a bit of a debate around the definition of ‘resistance’ in Change Management.  Is it a barrier to be overcome, as is commonly described by Change Management practitioners?  Or is it something that, in our role as leaders, we should be helping to surface and understand, so that we can respond to what we learn about the ‘speaker’ and use this not only to influence the ‘speaker’ but also to improve on our Change Management plans?  Isn’t that empathy truly at play?  I take the latter approach in my book ‘The Effective Team’s Change Management Workbook’.

A further thought: change agents recognise the importance of communicating the benefits of change, and of doing it in the context of WIIFM (What’s In It For Me).  There is surely an emotional context to that which requires change agents to empathise with – hence the value of asking such questions as: “If this change was successful for you, what would that look, feel or sound like?”

Empathy makes for better facilitation too!

A recent client very kindly said that he uses me as a facilitator because I understand his organisation and the people within it.  We know that the most effective facilitators disconnect from the content of workshops and discussions that we facilitate, and focus instead on providing the right tools and guiding the dynamics of what’s happening.  We need to tune into the emotions involved, and judge when and how to intervene to help the participants achieve their overall goals.

Empathy also helps us to be effective trainers, mentors and coaches

A friend of ours recently died from cancer.  For a short while he’d taught my daughter to improve her guitar playing.  At his funeral service another student talked about how special our friend had been in effectively being able to empathise with his students and help them to achieve whatever it was that they needed – and it wasn’t just about learning to play the instrument – it was about wider aspects of their lives.  I recognised what he was saying from how I’d seen and heard him work with my daughter.

Isn’t empathy what distinguishes a skillful trainer, mentor or coach from a mediocre one?  Which of your teachers do you remember best?  Was it empathy that distinguished them from the others?

(I wrote more broadly about the qualities of trainers, mentors and coaches, in my RiverRhee Newsletters on the ‘coaching continuum‘.)

With empathy we as leaders can give the people that we work with some of the most valuable gifts in life: the time, the space, and ultimately the skills, to achieve what will help them to be successful as ’empowered’ individuals and as members of our teams.  Doesn’t that make empathy a magical leadership ingredient?


  1. Vecchi, G.M., Van Hasselt, V.B. and Romano, S.J. (2005).  ‘Crisis (hostage) negotiation: Current strategies and issues in high-risk conflict resolution’, Aggression and Violent Behavior, 10, 533-51.

Elisabeth Goodman is the owner and Principal Consultant of RiverRhee Consulting and a trainer,  facilitator, one-to-one coach, speaker and writer, with a passion for and a proven track record in improving team performance and leading business change projects on a local or global basis. 

Elisabeth is an expert in knowledge management, and is accredited in change management, Lean Six Sigma and MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator).  She has a BSc in Biochemistry, an MSc in Information Science, is a full member of the Chartered Institute of Information and Library Professionals (CILIP) and of the Association for Project Management (APM) and is also a Growth Coach with the GrowthAccelerator.

Elisabeth has 25+ years’ Pharma R&D experience as a line manager and internal trainer / consultant, most recently at GSK and its legacy companies, and is now enjoying working with a number of SMEs and larger organisations around the Cambridge cluster as well as further afield in the UK and in Europe.