YES, I AM: Managing the emotional side of projects

YES, I AM: Managing the emotional side of projects
Can you recall the last time you were fighting like hell for your project and - in the heat of the argument - you heard the words “don’t be so emotional about it”? If you are anything like me, you’d prefer a slap in the face!
But wait a minute! Why am I being so emotional about it?


What Does Science Say

Let’s take a scientific approach to it and ask a few guiding questions.
1. Why do we talk about emotions in project management?
Companies used to dominate the market through technological advances over the competition. Those were the times of manufacturing power. Global supply chains, outsourcing of competencies and cross-company initiatives were among the pariahs of these ages. Playing the role of ruthless equalizers, they make it difficult for a company today to dominate a market solely based on technology. Given enough resources and a free market, copying or beating technological progress becomes a straightforward investment decision.
Do not despair though. There are company aspects that are more difficult to mirror and among them appears to be culture. Promoting an environment of effective and open communication, shared aspirations and recognition, makes companies better suited to meet the demands of the short innovation lifecycle. It creates the longed-for empowered and driven workforce that rides on the wings of strong motivation. As Project Managers, we are responsible for the overall success of our projects which leads us to the (somewhat uncomfortable) conclusion that we are also responsible to manage the emotional aspect in our teams to ensure success. This is the reason why a lot of companies today look for soft skills in their Project Managers skillset.
If the above looks like a fuzzy cloud of corporate talk to you, let’s work a bit on grounding it. It is a fact that prolonged periods of working in poor conditions can lead to emotional exhaust. As strange as this may sound, that brings along pretty tangible consequences for performance such as:
  • Low engagement rate
  • Excessive absences
  • Poor work performance
  • Low productivity
  • Failure to meet deadlines
  • Low commitment to their job
  • Poor attitude
With the above, you may already start picturing particular people in your team. No wonder if it’s an a-ha! moment.
2. Don’t judge the book by its cover
Daniel Goleman made a big hit through his book Emotional Intelligence – Why it can matter more than IQ, published in (1995). Before him Salovey (1990) wrote that emotional intelligence (EI) is the “ability to monitor one’s own and other’s feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and use this information to guide one’s thinking and action”. This definition of EI leads us to the conclusion that it is an important project management tool. Let’s get a level deeper to cement this last statement.
Emotional intelligence (according to Goleman) has five key elements:
  • Self awareness - you have a clear understanding how you feel an how this affects others in every situation;
  • Self regulation - you can remain calm and in control in difficult situations;
  • Motivation - if you are self-driven it is easier to be hopeful and come out of difficult situations;
  • Empathy - you are able to put yourself in someone else's situation, connect and support them in their struggle;
  • Social skills - you are effective in conflict resolution and giving feedback.
This breakdown allows us to think of Emotional Intelligence as a new dimension of our Project Management skills and work. The hidden world of emotion that makes our day-to-day interactions more comprehensible and productive.
3. Triggers
One could argue that there is no such thing as a “typical project”. We will let him rumble on and still try to identify common sources of stress in the project management setting.

a. Stress
Stress can be defined as the experience of discomfort, fear, apprehension, or anxiety that we have when we perceive that we face a threat. It is one of those poison pills which, taken in small doses, could improve team performance and promote prompt response. However, the abuse of “criticality” or “urgency” of tasks on your project reduces significantly the performance of your team. As the old saying goes “when everything is urgent, nothing really is”.

Fig. 1: Yerkes-Dodson curve
Fig. 1: Yerkes-Dodson curve

b. Change
Change carries more burden in non-agile projects. It is often associated with a crisis. Such events could make team members experience an influx of natural negative feelings (deeply rooted in our reptile brain that longs for security). Fear may be provoked by the perceived risk of poor performance assessments and potential blame. Not being able to make the project successful (according to their understanding) may make project contributors feel helpless and this way hinder their morale. As a consequence, grief could be experienced by those who perceive their efforts as wasted.

c. Ambiguity
Absence of information, inaccuracy, imprecision, being open to more than one interpretation, are all symptoms of ambiguity. If any of those applies to project components such as timelines, responsibilities, scope of work, prioritization etc. that is a direct cause for conflict and anxiety. A truly explosive combination exists between ambiguity and urgency.

d. Trauma-centered projects
Have you had the feeling lately that people have become too edgy, cynical or they sound kind of numb and discouraged? I certainly have and I was quite surprised to find those symptoms listed all as indicators of vicarious trauma. As it seems, living in the junction of pandemic and potential World War III is exhausting. So it is for everyone but certain groups within our society - those doing the most for us, are taking the biggest toll. Treating severe illness and working with people fleeing war as refugees exposes frontline workers to trauma. That brings the risk of the condition called secondary trauma or compassion fatigue. While those projects that remedy our biggest challenges are truly the most critical, people working on them are at the highest level of risk from developing debilitating symptoms depriving them of sleep, motivation or joy in their lives. Awareness regarding the causes and effects of this condition are instructive for PMs on the specific projects as well as anyone leading a team where trauma is a consideration. Those include situations where a team member is experiencing a period of grief or suffers Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is worthy of consideration in any situation where you have to deal with alienated or aggressive behavior in your team.

e. Emotional labor
The term emotional labor was coined by Arlie Hochschild in the 1980s. It refers to the work you have to put in suppressing emotion as demanded by your job. The most common reference is to customer service professionals that follow through with the company policy of “the customer is always right”. We could argue that the customer isn’t always right and he is often rude and overly demanding. This could create the need for those individuals to constantly twist their actual emotions down to the level of personal values (your deepest beliefs of right and wrong). Alternatively emotional labor is defined as “expressing organizationally desired emotion” (Hochschild, 1983). Within this definition it is easy to spot the broader potential of this effect. Any employee whose values and norms are in stark contradiction with his job demands will get drained through constant emotional labor. It is a PMs job to be attentive to such contradictions, to understand and act on them.

4. Improving psychological wellbeing of teams
How to improve the tight situation in your team depends on the specific root causes that lead to it in the first place. Knowing this (and the fact that those conditions may be well out of your reach) it's easy to conclude that you need a million cures for a million pains. Largely because we refuse to give up we’ll look at several strategies you can use in many situations to improve the emotional landscape for your team.

a. Avoid catastrophizing
Learning to recognize and manage catastrophic thinking could be a major improvement for anyone beyond project work. It is an invaluable life-hack. Catastrophizing is a type of distorted thinking that leads one to imagine (and live through) the worst possible outcomes or impacts of a situation. It may be a team member that is struggling with a difficult task or customer feedback for example. To help them overcome the exaggeration, do not dismiss their worries. They can be energizing for work and show involvement. A good technique proposed by Mark Tyrrell is to match (as opposed to dismiss) the emotional state of your team member, walk through the reality they imagine and help them continue beyond it and overcome the hurdle.

b. Summarize achievements
According to McClelland’s theory of motivation, we are driven by our inherent need to succeed. It can be very hard to continue believing in your efficiency and capability when work continues to pour over you. We have to acknowledge again the extreme for people working with trauma and suffering where the drive to do more can be perpetual and drain one's energy. This is why a thoughtful PM will always remind his team of the impact they already have - what they achieved and the positive impact of their work. At the same time a good reminder is to pace yourself. In this particular case what is good for you is good for your team and stakeholders.

c. Reframing
It is a cliche because it is true. Being able to look at a situation from a different perspective will help you deal with the stall. Once you change your angle a missed deadline can be an opportunity to negotiate scope, negative feedback can be a growth opportunity and disagreement can build solid rapport. As a PM try to offer other perspectives without imposing them. It would be best to use coaching techniques and support the thinking of the person in need of support.

d. Training
Emotional competences are a part of the social competences that could be nurtured in a team. One of the prevailing approaches is the field of Emotional Intelligence we looked at earlier. Training and situational simulations could help everyone in the team develop better understanding of their personal characteristics and could teach them how to deal with their differences with respect and eyes on the common goals. An emotionally intelligent PM plans and implements activities to manage emotions.

e. Disconnect
Sometimes we just need to change the setting. Whether it is a short breathing exercise, sport, music or a walk, take the time to switch off. Make sure you recognize your team’s needs. Sometimes you have to power through together. Other times you need to let them and yourself power off.


Stay Zen And Talk About It

Stay Zen And Talk About It
Now I know what happens. It’s like seeing a circuit work through a small window. I am anxious and tired, I am a sensitive striver. When I am in the heat of the race, and I hear you tell me “don’t be so emotional about it!” I feel you dismiss my point of view on personality grounds. I feel like you are trying to shut my mouth because of what I am, not considering the validity of my actions and proposals. I can do two things:
  1. Breathe deep and try to apply problem solving techniques so we can get back (together) to productive resolutions and goal achievement
  2. Tell you how I feel about your comment, propose to reconvene later and go for a walk.
What you could do, is to get familiar with the tenets of Emotional Intelligence and understand that it is not productive to blame someone for how they feel.