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Does Anxiety Rule Your Project Management Roost? Just How Bad Is It?

written by: Jean Scheid • edited by: Linda Richter • updated: 11/27/2011

Part of being a project leader means understanding how to manage a project. If you are the type where every phase, element and task is deemed urgent, how well are you really managing the endeavor? Your teams will fight you and soon—may not even listen to you. Jean Scheid explains.

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    The Sky Is Falling

    Are you the boy who cried wolf Remember Chicken Little? He (or she) was that little bird that was absolutely 100 percent sure doom and gloom were near and ran around assuring everyone, “The sky is falling!” Then there’s that little shepherd boy who warned his village repeatedly about a wolf about to attack the flock. Once the villagers came running, there was no wolf nor any danger; and each time the boy cried wolf thereafter, the villagers stopped listening to him—even when real danger appeared.

    These situations are children’s stories but in the project management world, leaders can fall into this same trap. Everything is urgent and must be done right, right now. The manager demands status reports before they are due. He screams when a phase is near completion because the team hasn’t begun the next phase. He is sure if things don’t flow better, the project will fail.

    Then there are the leaders who threaten to fire teams or individuals. These folks may be doing a fine job, but in the stressful mind of the leader, they are failing, falling behind and need to improve or else.

    Unfortunately, in today’s fast-paced world, there are too many project leaders who resemble these statements. If this is you, it’s time to step back, take a deep breath and determine why you’re really acting this way.

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    What's Up?

    What's Up I worked for a boss once where no matter what we did, it was never good enough. We should have done this or that, and even if we followed his instructions to the letter, he still wasn’t pleased. “Do I have to do everything myself?” he was fond of saying. “Are you all idiots?” he would yell. “Don’t you care about the client?” he’d ask. “Is it our goal to fail?” he’d scream, to no one, really—after a while, most of us stopped listening. None of his questions were really questions but of the rhetorical kind—he didn’t want answers, he just wanted it all, the impossible, the earth, the moon and the stars. The worst part—none of us even cared anymore.

    If you’re still reading and you see your management style somewhere here, do you know why it is you act the way you do? Is everything really as urgent as you think it is? It’s not so much being demanding; but it is crying wolf all the time, even if the project is flowing fine.

    Managers like this don’t need an attitude adjustment but a reality check. They’ve forgotten how to manage and more than not, their sense of urgency and impossible timelines come from somewhere else. A manager can act this way from upper management pressure, personal or home problems, or yelling clients whom they can’t ever seem to please. They also may be sincerely suffering from burnout!

    This does not mean it’s time to take out your frustrations on your teams or other stakeholders. You’ll soon lose their trust and respect. If you do this too often to your vendors and suppliers, they’ll skip the harassment and not bid on your next project—it’s not worth the trouble, so to speak.

    So sit back and relearn who you used to be, how you started out and how you can regain that project manager style you started your career with.

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    Write It, Speak It, Do It

    Show Some Commitment Before you’ve lost everything and in fact do become the project manager who cried wolf, you need to go back to the beginning of your career. The following is just a sampling of some ideas you can employ. However, remember that actions speak louder than words. In order to be successful in any change path you walk, you must make a commitment. Write down what you need to change, convey to your teams what you want to change and then, above all, put your money where your mouth is and do it.

    Methodologies – Review the types of project management methodologies that are your favorites. Are you still following processes, phases and stages as the methodology was designed or are you hopping from one methodology to another? If you must, go back to the basics, open up MS Project and start each and every project from the beginning with clear and acceptable dates, timelines and team delivery schedules, and don’t raise Hell if things are done too early or a day late.

    Risk Management – If you do indeed feel all is lost on every project, you aren’t practicing good risk management skills. If you were, you’d see all the fuss is for naught. Ease your mind by appointing a risk management team that can deliver, prioritize risks and monitor them, and report to you on a timely basis. Remember, keep your cool—identifying a risk and controlling it is what risk management is all about. And, let the team you assign do their job.

    Respect – If you’ve fallen off the wagon so hard, you’ve lost the respect of teams and upper management. You need to regain that respect by speaking to your teams. Be honest about your management style, even if that means admitting to some mistakes. Believe me, your teams will thank you and when you find a project’s really in danger, they’ll realize it really is. This may take some encouragement on your part because you’ve been claiming all is doom and gloom for too long. Tell teams and stakeholders often how pleased you are with progress within the project—stop talking about what hasn’t been done.

    Personal Life – If your personal life is getting in the way of how you lead your teams and run your projects, you need to really analyze why that’s happening. If you need to involve yourself, your partner, your spouse or kids in some sort of therapy, do so. Life’s hardships can ruin your career if you bring them to the office. If this is what’s making you crazy and untrustworthy at work, seek out help in your HR department and ask if there is an employee assistance program (EAP) where you and your family can get help.

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    More Ways to Get Back on Track

    Getting Back on Track Another great idea to get you back on track is to appoint someone you trust to let you know when you're veering back to your old ways. Whether this is a friend or peer is up to you, but choose someone, involve them in your need to change and listen to their advice. Now, what to do about upper management, horrible clients and all those suppliers and vendors you've insulted?

    Upper Management or Client Woes - Sometimes, those in upper management can be quite demanding—clients too. You may not be able to change their attitudes, but you can let some of it roll off your back. You know how they are right? In fact, they’ve probably got a little to do with why you’ve lost your calm leadership style—they’re just blowing their hole like the proverbial whale just because they can. Don’t allow them to stress you out. They say meditation and exercise can help with this. You can also involve your team. Take the mind map brainstorming session outside or away from the office. Think of something wonderful as the client snarls, screams and demands the impossible. Be firm in what you can deliver and don’t exaggerate. If the client or upper management starts raining on your parade, remind them everyone agreed to the project plan and scope and signed off on it and assure them the sky is not falling and, in fact, everything’s fine. Dealing with these folks will be harder than dealing with your teams but if you don’t stand up for yourself and if you allow them to walk all over you—they’ll keep doing it. Surely that's not what you wanted when you began your project management career.

    Vendors and Suppliers - You may have ruined some relationships with your urgency and demanding style, and the first to go will be your vendors and suppliers. They simply don’t need or want to deal with having to work with you. You shout when nothing is wrong, you treat them like crap and even your teams are talking to them behind your back. You can repair these relationships, however. It may take some time, but again, honesty is the best policy. Own up to your mistakes. In actuality, you can use any excuse you like, but assure them you’ve changed and you’re now on the path to success. Instead of telling them what’s going to be done, involve them from the beginning much like you used to. Don’t demand bids ASAP from vendors or suppliers if you never offer the chance for them to be part of the scope, timeline, milestone and goal planning.

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    Time Marches On

    Time Marches On Now a caveat, and I’m sure you’re thinking, “What? I thought I was on the road to change!” You are, but those around you may not be. For the impossible to deal with, learn to pick your battles wisely. Learn when to walk away and learn even faster when a stakeholder is also guilty of crying wolf.

    Relax, breathe and return to the basics. Take advantage of everyone’s skills. You really don’t have to do it all nor do you have to worry about every tiny detail if your teams and stakeholders respect you enough. They will let you know if something is awry. Trusting and rewarding your teams is part of gaining back lost respect.

    Believe me, your teams do want the manager you started out to be, so get it back, no matter what you have to do. If that means calling upon a mentor or peer, do so before it’s too late, and do realize the sky is not falling—your imagination is just a little out of whack.

    Have you lost your management style? Are you guilty of asking the impossible? If so, drop me a comment on how you were able to get back on track and face the demanding monster within—your experiences will help your peers, and the best part—here you truly can remain anonymous.