Applied EQ #23: The End is Near and other Self-Defeating Forecasts PM’s should avoid

Chickenlittle_1 These last few posts have been about emotional triggers that leave us vulnerable to an emotional breakdown. Foreshadowing is one such emotional trigger. Foreshadowing is when we predict negative outcomes or events in the future. For example, when we experience a high impact technical glitch, we may predict that our client is going to be upset or worse, that the project will be cancelled.

Some of us, myself included, have a tendency to anticipate the worst. We may even pride ourselves on being able to see the worst in every future situation.  But in the project environment, this can be both a deadly poison to the morale of the team as well as a trigger for emotional breakdown.

Chicken Little was one of those who anticipated negative future events. Chicken Little interpreted a small piece of evidence (a falling acorn I think) to mean that the entire sky was falling.  Of course the sky was not falling and eventually Chicken Little learned a valuable lesson – learn more about emotional intelligence. 

Before you email me about proper risk management for a project, let me distinguish between unhealthy foreshadowing and proper risk planning.  Project managers need to address risks as well as have a healthy skepticism about potential outcomes of tasks and projects.  Project managers need to be able to challenge overly optimistic estimates and outcomes and help the team plan for risks and the unexpected.  That is all a part of being a good project manager.  (That said, the sky might actually be falling on your project based on the 2004 Standish Group Chaos statistics).

How can you tell if you succumb to foreshadowing?  For me, it became apparent as I worked with a coach that I was predicting negativity in the future.  I often felt like I was about to be fired or cut from the project team.  I often tied this to some negative vibes I was picking up or news that I heard.  My coach helped me to see that it was irrational, unhealthy, and could even become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The very thing I feared I nearly made a reality!

Here are some steps you can take if you find yourself foreshadowing:

1.     The first step is to identify the pattern of negative thinking.  Here are some ways to identify the pattern:

  • Keep a journal of your negative predictions and track the outcomes.
  • Check it out with your boss.  This will only be possible to the extent you have an open relationship with them and trust it will not backfire.
  • Develop a trust relationship with a friend or coworker and use them as a sounding board.  Check out your thoughts and negative predictions and ask what they think.  The more objective they can be, the better.
  • Enlist the services of a coach or mentor to help you identify and break the pattern.  The simple difference I see between a coach and mentor is that coaches are generally paid specialists, while mentors are generally unpaid individuals who have been there themselves.  Of course this can vary widely.  You can find coaches through referrals or through a business directory.  Mentors are usually co-workers or former co-workers and usually involve a one-way investment in time and energy.  A mentor could be someone in your company, including your boss. 

2.     Once you see the pattern, try to interrupt it with logic.  Be patient, this can involve some level of internal strife.  When my coach began to point out my negative thinking to me, I resisted.  I was vested in seeing the negative and I wanted to continue as I always had.  I was mired in it and it was comfortable.  It took time to recognize that after 2.5 years on a stressful project engagement, I wasn’t on the verge of being fired.

3.     It also helps sometimes to say, “there I go again” when you catch yourself predicting negativity.  Laugh aloud and say, “whew, glad that isn’t really going to happen”.

Breaking a pattern like foreshadowing can be difficult; in particular if you have done it as long as you can remember.  Remember that even though it is difficult, change is possible and will return a tremendous payoff.

In the next post, we are going to look at ways to deal with another emotional trigger, Dwelling and Obsessing.

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