Colin D Ellis
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Project Management Is An Emotional Rollercoaster

I remember the first time that I cried as a project manager. I was 29, had just finished a project team meeting and I felt completely overwhelmed by the pace of change that we were introducing and my ability to deal with it.

The project was actually progressing OK. We had our fair share of system issues (as always), but as a team we were doing what we needed to do and for the most part I felt in control of the details.

Risks and issues were being managed well, dependencies were under control, milestones were being met and the stakeholders were as happy as they could be. That said, I felt that I’d been battling people for the best part of three years and it had completely drained me emotionally.

So I cried. For about 15 mins in a store cupboard. I can’t remember what I was thinking about at that exact time, but I know that I needed to let my emotion out.

A year earlier my Mum had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Six months later I had my own cancer scare. On top of all that, I was spending weeks away from home and weekends trying to get ready for the week ahead.

All of this I took in my stride. I never let any of this interfere with the day-to-day work that we had to do or the relationships I had to build and maintain with the stakeholders. I also had to manage the emotions of the team, who – as humans – had their own issues. After all, they were away from home and family too. They were dealing with difficult scope and change issues and were also feeling the brunt of the change we were implementing.

As the project manager and team leader I was the emotional sponge and I internalised all of my own stress and anxiety.

In his book Emotional Capitalists, Martyn Newman says that ‘95% of your emotions are defined by the way that you speak to yourself’ and at that time I was having heavy internal conversations.

Telling myself to stay focussed, strong and positive. To eat well, exercise and find time to relax. To remember to be empathetic towards others, to not overthink mistakes or decisions and to continue to stay on top of the plan we had to deliver.

I’d love to be able to tell you that I did a good job of managing it. That I managed to process this emotional information consistently well and to work the stress out of my system.

In truth, it took me about 14 months and remains a constant struggle. But I understand myself a lot more now and can easily recognise signs of stress so that I can deal with them.

So when well-meaning CEOs and senior managers – who haven’t done the hard project management yards – tell me that in order to improve project management results we need more ‘certified professionals’, you’ll forgive me if I disagree.

I’ve been there, done that and know for a fact that we need more people who can understand and manage their own emotions and those of other people.

The ability to process our own emotional information as well as that of others is the most critical part of project management and it isn’t covered in any of the textbooks that are studied. There are no multiple choice questions that you can answer that prepare people for this.

This is why so many people find project management hard. They expect a process and instead they get emotion. Daniel Goleman said in his book Emotional Intelligence ‘intelligence comes to nothing when the emotions hold sway’. In projects, emotions definitely hold sway.

For all project managers out there, it’s ok to acknowledge this and look for help and support. Internalising how you feel can be self destructive, so find someone you trust and share your emotions with them. In the last month one of my mentees shared the fact that they lacked confidence in their own ability and worrying about it was keeping them up at night. A few days later another mentee texted me to let me know that their hard work had been recognised and they’d been promoted! This is a normal week on the project management rollercoaster.

This is why my programs cover the emotional side of project management first. Project managers need to understand this before anything else. Without having insights into how you react in certain situations and without understanding what it means to be empathetic, project managers will always be on the back foot. They’ll struggle to create a coherent team, manage their own energy and consequently stay focused on the important details of the project.

As American conservationist and biologist once said ‘If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions… are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow’ and you can’t grow anything in toxic soil. Least of all successful projects.

Once you get on a roller coaster you can’t get off until it ends. So before you start your project ask yourself ‘is my project manager emotionally prepared for this?’.

For information on depression and anxiety, visit Beyond Blue

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