Think back to the last time you watched a scary movie. There may have been tense pauses, dramatic music, mobiles running out of battery and groups splitting up. As the plot evolved, you likely became invested in the action on screen and felt anxious, scared and worried (even though there was no danger to yourself). Did you notice how the emotion expressed by the fictional characters influenced your own feelings?
Feelings and emotions are contagious. We are all primed to recognise and relate to the feelings of others, and this applies to fictional characters too. When we see other people express an emotion, certain neurons in our brain are activated — these are called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are only activated when we observe emotions in others and when activated, these neurons induce those same feelings in ourselves. Stimulating these neural pathways allows us to empathise with the emotions we see in others which leads to “cognitive resonance”. Mirror neurons act as a powerful evolutionary adaptation that provide us with the ability to understand, and relate, to the situations of others. This depth of understanding and consequent cognitive resonance is the basis of our capability to empathise with others.
The human ability to empathise has been strengthened through thousands of years of evolution. Empathy fosters cooperation and collaboration by facilitating cognitive resonance. This encourages groups to work together and tackle common challenges which in turn, increases our collective chances of survival. Today, our ability to empathise has a significant impact on how we work. There is a significant body of research that demonstrates the value of empathy within the workplace and cites empathy as the number one driver of colleague performance.
Empathy is also valuable when it comes to projects and organisational change; primarily because successful projects are rooted in understanding, supporting and empowering people to change. Change is inherently disruptive — it involves uncertainty, risk, complexity, potentially unpredictable outcomes and additional time and effort to deliver. As a result, people are usually resistant to change, especially when it involves loss of a desirable current state. Developing your empathy skills can help you effectively engage with your stakeholders, listen to their concerns and acknowledge their perspectives to build strong relationships.
Incorporating empathy into your project management approach is an effective technique to ensure a focus on the people at the heart of the change. In June 2023, the Enabling Change Specific Interest Group presented a webinar on the value of empathy for project managers. Since then, we have also created an empathy map template and explainer document to support you when it comes to stakeholder engagement.
An empathy map is a stakeholder analysis tool to help project professionals understand a stakeholder in more detail and this could include identifying the thoughts, feeling, behaviours, needs, actions, expectations and desires of the stakeholder. These insights can be used to inform engagement/communication approaches, project design and change support strategies.
You may also be interested in:
- The secret ingredient to successful change engagement webinar
- Successful project communication
- What is working professionally?
- Enabling Change Specific Interest Group