Emotions and Project Management

Friday afternoon at the office

Friday afternoon at the office

In some cases, we spend more time with our colleagues than we do with our families. Since we are in such close contact, it’s only natural that our colleagues will end up exhilarating, irritating, or disappointing us, depending on the day. As project managers, our job is to make sure things are moving forward—which would be so much easier if people behaved as expected. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on your perspective—our jobs wouldn’t be half as interesting if we didn’t have to deal with the “x factor” that is humanity. For example, in the last week alone, I’ve:

  • celebrated a team member’s accomplishments with pride

  • watched in frustration as a colleague continued to make the same mistakes we’ve talked about them avoiding

  • hoped another colleague who has improved stays on the right track

  • wished away the unconscious bias of someone whom I am struggling to forgive.

No wonder when the weekend comes, we find ourselves exhausted! Working through this myriad of emotions is no easy task—but we wouldn’t have it another way. Feeling the way we do is a sign that we have fulfilling careers and sound stakeholder relationships. Yet, while we know caring is a positive sign, it can be hard to remember this in the moment when a teammate’s behavior makes us want to pull out our hair. Here are some strategies to help you manage your emotions as a project manager:

  • Share feedback. If the tone of your colleague’s emails makes you wince or their habit of screaming on the phone in an open office layout is driving you nuts, let them know. Wait until you feel calm enough to have the conversation, pull them aside so you aren’t dealing with an audience, and politely explain to them how you feel. The focus should be on you and your feelings and not an attack on your colleague. If you frame the feedback in this way, most times people are glad to hear it. They may not even be aware of how their actions were impacting you. I’ve found honesty is always the best policy, rather than letting something fester. Likewise, if someone is saving your life this week, let them know. There’s never a better email in my inbox than the one that recognizes a teammate for their contributions. Don’t be afraid to push send on those types of messages.

  • Pick your battles. Giving constructive feedback is one thing. Nitpicking because you are in a bad mood is another. Like in life, in the project world, some stakeholders will simply rub you the wrong way. It may not be anything specific—but the two of you don’t mesh well together. In this scenario, accept that you are not going to be besties, and focus instead on being civil and interacting with them to the extent needed to get your job done. Not everyone is going to like you, so try not to obsess if there are a few people who don’t.

  • Accept failure is inevitable. One of the hardest parts of managing is learning to accept failure. Not everything on your project is going to go perfectly. Not every member of your team is going to complete every task on time. You have to decide as a PM what failures you are willing to accept (and, by the way, “none” is not a possible answer choice.) Learning to tolerate failure helps you recover from project setbacks, pushes you to take risks that make the project better, and benefits your team. If you shield your team from potential challenges, they will never learn how to work independently. I heard another PM describe their managerial approach as investing as much time in their people as they are willing to invest in themselves. I get the concept, but I’d argue some people don’t realize their latent potential, and the PM in this case needs to empower them to fulfill it. Sometimes, that means putting out more than you’re getting in return. Related to picking your battles, however, be cognizant of your energy levels when doing so, and maximize investments in those people that offer the greatest return. If you fail to take care of yourself, you fail everyone around you.