10 Emotional Intelligence Tips to Survive and Thrive This Month

In my December Monthly EQ Newsletter for Project Managers, I identified 10 tips for surviving the month and the holidays.  I’ve received so much feedback about these tips that I am going to share them with you as well.  If you would like to get the monthly newsletter, please sign up at the Project Advisors Group home page.

Christtmas_carol December can be a really tough emotional intelligence month.  It may be a happy time but it may also be a sad and lonely time due to some of the unique challenges this month brings:

  • Work – There may be major challenges to working during this month including blackout dates, weather and travel problems, and numerous people out of the office for vacations and illnesses.  For those of us trying to accomplish project work, December can be a trying month.
  • Holidays – The demands of the holidays include last minute gift buying, home decorating, attending events and parties, and hosting parties all of which can be extremely stressful.
  • Family – There’s nothing like family to bring out the best and worst in us.  Your relatives know your vulnerabilities and are adept at pushing your buttons.  And blended families have their added stresses during the holidays.

How can we take responsibility for our emotional well being during this challenging time?  I’ve written these ten tips and immediate action steps to help you take charge of your emotional well-being so that you not only survive but thrive during this month and the holiday season.

Ten Tips for Emotional Responsibility This Month

Tip #1 – Be emotionally aware. 

Strive to be as aware as possible of your feelings.  This may be obvious if we are exploding with anger or jumping with joy.  But we also need to pay attention to a dull ache in our stomach, a looming sense of dread, or a negative cloud around people or events.  Don’t ignore or numb out from your feelings.

Do Now:  Take action to protect yourself during this season.  A helpful reminder of common emotional hot buttons is the HALT acronym.  HALT stands for hungry, angry, lonely, and tired.  When we are feeling any of those things, we are extremely vulnerable emotionally.  We can easily go off on someone or have an emotional breakdown.  Try to recognize when you are vulnerable and take steps to remedy the situation.

Tip #2 – Drink with care.

Alcohol can serve to numb or detach you from your emotions and hence is the reason many people use (and abuse) it.  Detaching from emotions is not a success strategy!  Better to use your awareness of emotions to figure out what they are trying to tell you.  And be especially careful about drinking at the company holiday party!  Don’t finish the year on a down note by overindulging with those you work with.

Tip #3 – Plan Ahead.

Make plans to do the things you want to do or get together with people you want.  Don’t wait for things to happen to you or react to the invitations of others, make plans to do the things that you find nurturing.

Do Now:  Get out the calendar now and block out the time for the activities and events that you want to do and that you find nourishing.  Be prepared to say no to invitations that don’t nourish you; you aren’t obligated to attend any events you don’t want to attend.

Tip #4 – Work Ahead.

There is often a lot to be done around the holidays.  We have to prepare for parties, buy gifts, run errands, and attend events.  If you tend to procrastinate, choose to do it differently this year.  Get in front of the curve with your gift buying.  Make a list of who you need to buy for and tackle it early on.  Shop online to make it even easier.  A closet full of wrapped and labeled gifts will leave you feeling more peaceful and happy and help you to give to others with a cheerful heart, instead of a resentful one.  It truly is better to give than receive especially when you are out in front of it.

Do Now:  Buy an extra gift or two and keep them aside in case there is someone you forgot.  (I recommend you make it something you will like in case you don’t have to give it away!).

Tip #5 – Prepare Yourself. 

It helps to prepare yourself for the likely emotional moments you may experience during the holidays.  For example, you may already have a pretty good idea if you are likely to bump into your ex-spouse, your lecherous Uncle Jim, or your arch-enemy.  I don’t suggest you put on a happy face or a mask when you see them, but prepare yourself mentally so you are not surprised or caught off guard.

Do Now:  If you anticipate conflict with a specific person, role play it ahead of time with your spouse or a friend.  Choose and practice an ideal or graceful response to that person well before you run into them.  By role-playing in advance, you’ll increase the likelihood of responding to that person in a way that will make you feel good.

Tip #6 – Be in Community. 

Make it a point to choose to be in community rather than be alone during this month.  Reach out, take a risk and invite others to be with you or invite yourself to join them.  Create the outcomes you want instead of being a victim to circumstances.

Do Now:  Take the time now to create a list of people that you want to connect with over the holidays and make plans or reach out to them now.

Tip #7 – Get Support. 

For some people, the holidays can be a lonely time.  This may be your first Christmas alone due to death, separation, or divorce.  Be prepared for loneliness.  Reach out for SUPPORT as you need it throughout the holidays.

Do Now:  Make a list of the people you will reach out to for support.  Call now and let them know that you might be calling them over the holidays.

Tip #8 – Nurture Yourself.

Don’t forget to take care of yourself and do the things that help you to stay balanced.  For some, taking care of yourself could be exercising, sleeping in, attending a play or going to the movies.

Do Now:  I encourage you to take some time off work for the holidays.  Though this may be a slow time or a time to get something done at work while others are away, this may not be as nurturing for you as staying home and enjoying time with friends and family.

Tip #9 – Exercise.

Exercising has benefits on many levels.  The endorphins that come from exercise stay with us throughout the day.  We have more energy and stamina when we exercise.  Exercising will also help you to feel less guilty if you overeat during the holidays.

Do Now:  If you have an exercise routine, stick with it during this busy season.  If you have stopped exercising, re-restart now instead of waiting until for January and an additional five or ten pounds.  If possible, exercise outdoors.  While December can be a cold winter month for many people, exercising outdoors during daylight hours will help you to fight depression.  Even a short walk with a friend will go a long way toward lifting your mood.  Dress for the weather (and in layers) so that you are comfortable as you walk.

Tip #10 – Reflect. 

The end of the year can be a great time to boost your spirits by reflecting on your successes for the year.  Make some notes on those things that you are most proud of.  Don’t indulge yourself in thinking about negative things that happened during the year.

Do Now:  Consider sending a handwritten note to those people who contributed to your success.

I encourage you to take action now on as many of these tips as possible to set yourself up for a great month.  By thinking ahead and working ahead, we can make this month the best in the year.  Try it and let me know what you think!

Anthony Mersino

Build Effective Relationships…with Everyone

This post is part of my series called “Soft Skills for Hard Times; How to be Your Best When the Economy is a Mess”.  My goal is to get you to appreciate that your security comes from within and you can increase your security and value to the marketplace by investing in your soft skills.

In the movie the Godfather II, Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, says that his father taught him to “keep his friends close and his enemies closer”.


I think the point he was trying to make is that we need to build effective relationships with others.  In particular, we need to be attentive to building relationships with those we don’t consider our friends, who don’t like us or we don’t like, those who are different from us, or those who intimidate us.

Think about the spectrum of people that you interact with on a regular basis.  At the highest level, you have the ones that you like and the ones you don’t like.  Of that second group, you have people that you don’t know very well, people that you are sure don’t like you, people that are too busy too spend time with you, people that are self-focused and disinterested in you and your success, and the people who for any reason seem to send out a signal that says “please go away and stay away”.  (BTW, I used to send those signals myself.)

It is natural for us to spend the majority of our time with people we DO LIKE and that LIKE US and to avoid or spend no time with people that we DON’T LIKE or DON’T LIKE US.  While it might be natural, this may be the exact opposite of how we should approach relationships.

In the past year, I worked for 3 different companies and led 2 different projects and 3 programs.  With the exception of two people, every resource on those 5 teams was a brand new relationship for me.  I am probably unique in terms of project managers.  But I think I know something about building stakeholder relationships and doing it quickly and effectively.  I make relationship-building a priority because it is critical to my success.

I still struggle though when it comes to building relationships with certain people.  I put them last on my list when returning calls. I dread my next interaction with them.  I grind my teeth when they speak up at meetings.  My stomach turns when I see their caller id on my phone.

The Godfather knew what he was talking about when he said to ‘keep your enemies closer’.  I admit that I struggle with this but I do know the way out – we need to invest in those relationships that are difficult.  This means to invest in getting to know the people that are tough instead of avoiding them.

There are a couple of tools that I use to help with this – a strengths and weakness assessment and a stakeholder matrix.  I will talk about strengths and weaknesses in an upcoming post.  Read on for more information about using a stakeholder matrix.

The stakeholder matrix is a helpful way to collect and organize information about our team, sponsor, key contributors and any other stakeholders involved in our projects and programs.  Some of the key pieces of information I recommend collecting includes:

  • Stakeholder Priority
  • Position toward you (positive, neutral, negative)
  • Role on the Project
  • Stakeholder Objectives
  • Facts, Passion, and Areas of Interest
  • Communications Style

The key benefit that I see in the use of the matrix is to keep us honest.  By putting it together in one place, we can get a clear view of the state of our relationships.  When we begin to look across our projects and programs and compare our relationships, we can see the patterns where we have inconsistencies in relationships.  Sometimes we think we do a good job with all our relationships, however, without some sort of tracking mechanism, we don’t really know.

I often have workshop participants complete the stakeholder matrix as an exercise.  Inevitably, they are surprised at how little they know about specific team members or other stakeholders.

Stakeholder Management Tool Completed v2

Get in touch with me if you would like a blank stakeholder analysis template through my website here.  Use it to catalog your current relationships and identify those that are in the most trouble or are the most challenging to build.  Then, one relationship at a time, take steps to address those relationships that are hardest for you or in the worst shape.

Action Steps:

  1. Download the stakeholder analysis tool and complete it for your current project or team.
  2. Identify those relationships that are difficult for you and what it is that makes them difficult.  It is because people don’t like you, they avoid you, you are intimidated, or they are too busy?  Try to be as specific as possible.  Rank order the relationships from best to worst.
  3. Pick just one of those relationships to start with and make an investment.  There are plenty of posts on relationship building here on this blog to give you ideas.  But the simplest way to build the relationship is to spend some time with the other person.
  4. Treat your relationship building efforts as a game.  Give yourself points every day when you do well and deduct points when you don’t.  Have fun with it.

Please stop back and post a comment about your relationship building struggles and successes.





Living the Dream

I have a bunch of friends who founded a consulting company called Junction Solutions about 6 years ago.  They worked hard and the company has grown exponentially.  As a result, they are all very successful and likely quite wealthy.

One of the founders is named Jeff.  I talked with Jeff several times about the possibility of joining the company (a decision I sometimes question) and I’ll never forget his signature line – “I’m living the dream”.  These guys were all working like crazy and sacrificing a lot to make their company successful but they viewed it as fun and as living out their dream.

I get a little jealous when I hear that they are living the dream.  As I think about my own life and career, more often than not I look like I am in the battle for my life.  I usually look more like I am struggling and fighting for survival than looking like I am thriving and at ease.

This is a lot like my running.  When I run I am generally pushing myself, tired, out of breath, and looking like I need a long nap.  Take a look at this picture below taken moments after finishing the Las Vegas Marathon in December of 2006.  Do I look to you like I am living the dream?


In short, no.  I look spent, completely used up, and nearly dead.  Which is exactly how I felt that day in that moment.  I was trying to get a 3:30 marathon time to qualify for the Boston Marathon and on this day, I came up short.  I was utterly exhausted and dehydrated as well.  I had my wife Norma, my brother Scott, and my friend Tim all there to support me and I felt like I let them down because I did not do what I came there to do.  I went all out and I did not achieve my goal.

The thing is, I often work like this as well.  I go all out and wind up looking like I am spent, used up, and just hanging on by a thread.  I don’t imagine it is attractive to others and I don’t believe it conveys an image of success.  It does not look like I am living the dream.

Or does it?  Is it possible to be spending yourself entirely, to be going all out, to go after your goals with abandon AND to be living the dream at the same time?  Is it possible that this look of exhaustion is also a look of living the dream?

What would living the dream look like for you?  Would it be a smile of contentment as you sit back and relax in a lawn chair sipping a cold drink

Use a Game to Motivate

Last year I wrote the short blurb below in my monthly newsletter. It is about using games to motivate ourselves or our teams.

One trick we can use to get us fired up about our goals is to make a game of them. Even better is to find competitors who will spur us on. Most of us like to compete though many of us are undercover about our competitiveness. Competition can help us to quickly ramp up our game! Find someone who is doing something similar and make it your goal to beat them. Or, create a friendly wager that will spur you both on.

Tshirt qualifier v1 copy

One little-known secret behind my success in qualifying for the 2007 Boston Marathon was that my wife Norma qualified in October 2006. I felt like she was walking around the house, gloating, with a t-shirt on that said she qualified! It really got to me when she began making travel arrangements to go to Boston for the race without me. The thought of her going to Boston without me spurred me on. I was sad and angry and I didn’t want to get left behind and that was the push I needed to qualify. I ran in Las Vegas in December of 2006 and missed my qualifying time by 12 minutes. I was ready to give up when I thought about her and that shirt. I signed up for the New Orleans Marathon and ran that at the end of February 2007, and made my time with only 90 seconds to spare!


I took my own advice recently when I found myself stuck and I was reminded how powerful this concept is, at least for me. I had committed to running the 2009 Chicago Marathon to raise money for charity. The running part was hard – I had an 18-week training plan that built from 15 miles to 40 miles in a week!


As hard as that sounds, I found that the other part of the commitment was even harder – asking people to contribute money to the cause. Now my particular cause was an easy one to get behind. I am raising money for RISE International to build a primary school in rural Angola Africa where none exists today. However, I still found myself very stuck or scared to reach out to people and ask for help. With less than 6 weeks to go before the race, I had only raised $250 and that was from my own brother.


So I made a game out of it. I challenged a good friend and fellow runner Tim to a fundraising competition.   For the last 6 weeks leading up to the race, we would track the donations each of us received. Each week, the person who raised the least would contribute $20 to the campaign of the other. We also set up an overall competition where the person who raised the least overall would take the other and his wife out to dinner.


Did it motivate me? You’d better believe it. The idea of competing with someone got me moving and willing to push through my fear. The contest was on my mind and I began to think creatively about who to contact for help and what to say. I found myself checking where I was versus my competitor multiple times throughout the day.

RISE Leader Board

The results have been great. Over the last 4 weeks, I went from raising $250 to raising over $6,600.  My friend and competitor Tim raised $8,600.  Together, we raised over $15,000 and I know that is more than either of us expected at the start.  Though it now seems likely I will have to concede the overall contest, I put up a good fight and won two of the weekly competitions.


I challenge you to give it some thought as to how to use competition to motivate yourself or others.  When people are stuck or scared, how can you make it a game?  Where would a friendly competition bring out the best in you?




Forrester Research Puts Emotional Intelligence At Top Of List of PM Capabilities

A recent article in CIO magazine emphasizes the importance of emotional intelligence to IT project managers.  The article refers to a recent report from Forrester Analyst Mary Gerush titled, “Define, Hire and Develop Your Next Generation Project Managers“.  As a result of her research, Analyst Gerush published a list of the top 10 Capabilities of Next Generation Project Managers.

I am not sure exactly what Ms. Gerush meant by “Next Generation Project Managers” or how helpful I find that distinction.  In my experience, these key capabilities apply to all project managers, current and Next Generation.

Strikingly, emotional intelligence dominates the list of 10 capabilities needed by these Next Generation Project Managers.  Not only was Emotional Intelligence listed as the #1 capability, the next three were all part of the Framework for Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.  For more background on emotional intelligence for project managers, read this previous post.

#1 – Emotional Intelligence: The ability to pick up on events and interactions (both verbal and non-verbal) and to process those inputs in the context of the project plan.  (Note:  These are addressed in the framework in the domains of Self-awareness and Social Awareness.)

#2 – Adaptive Communication: The ability to articulate one’s ideas–whether orally or in writing–to a range of individuals, groups, and cultures using the most effective communication techniques for each group. (Note:  This is addressed in the framework under the domain of Team Leadership.)

#3 – People Skills: The ability to quickly build and maintain positive relationships with team members and stakeholders. (Note:  This is addressed in the framework under the domain of Relationship Management.)

#4 – Management Skills: The ability to serve, motivate and focus a team and to foster collaboration among team members.  (Note:  This is addressed in the framework under the domain of Team Leadership.)

If you want to immediately make an impact on your own capabilities in these 4 areas, you can read through the previous posts on this site and boost your understanding of emotional intelligence and how to apply it to project management.

Here are the rest of the 10 capabilities of Next Generation Project Managers as defined in the article at CIO Magazine:

#5 – Flexibility: The willingness and ability to change one’s approach to project management and/or course of action in response to business needs.

#6 – Business Savvy: Knowledge of the organization’s business, strategy and industry. Ability to understand a strategy and align tactical work around that strategy.

#7 – Analytical Skills: The ability to think through problems and decisions.

#8 – Customer Focus: The ability to understand the end-user or end customer’s needs and the drive to ensure that projects meet those needs.

#9 – Results-Orientation: The ability to get things done efficiently and effectively.

#10 – Character: The project manager should have an appealing personality and a strong moral and ethical character.

You can order a copy of the report from Forrester here:  Define, Hire and Develop Your Next Generation Project Managers.  Just be prepared to shell out $499.  As an alternative, you could buy my book (Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers) at Amazon.com for $16.04 and save yourself $485.  That seems pretty intelligent to me.  But then again, I think I might be a Last Generation Project Manager.



Why We Are Afraid to Tell the Truth about Project Failures

I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on project failure and I have noticed some interesting patterns regarding denial and the fear of admitting failure or mistakes.

Since 1994, the Standish Group has been conducting bi-annual studies of IT projects and the success and failure rates for those projects.  Dubbed the Chaos Studies, the research is widely quoted as the industry standard (though recently there is some criticism of the data). Since the inception of these Chaos Studies, the reported statistics for projects that fail, are challenged or succeed have been roughly the same (see summary below).  The cost of these failed projects and the amount of waste represented is staggering but that is not the point of this post.


The point of this post is not project failures (we’ll tackle that later), it is fear and denial. I have been out talking to people about troubled projects and referencing these Chaos Studies.  I have found that very few IT Leaders, CIOs, and IT project managers are even aware of these studies and failure statistics.  When asked they do acknowledge that there are a high rate of failures but don’t pay attention to industry studies on it nor do they think of it as a call to action as I do.  To me, this seems the rough equivalent of a pitching coach not knowing the ERA for any of his pitchers or a life insurance salesperson not being aware of actuarial tables.

But it also seems to me that there is another factor at work and that is a professional disdain for telling the truth (aka denial).  As a program manager, I have seen many resumes for project managers.  The vast majority of those resumes state that all the projects were delivered “on time on budget” as if it were a mantra.  If only roughly 1 in 3 projects are considered successful, there must be someone responsible for the other 2 in 3 projects that were not successful.  Somebody is not quite owning up to those problem projects.

A recent LinkedIn discussion post touched on a closely related topic – “Do we really think someone will declare their project is in trouble”.  The spirited discussion revealed some interesting attitudes about fessing up to a problem project situation.  Some of the opinions stated were that it’s a professional/ethical responsibility to declare you are in trouble; it is a sign of a good project manager to own up and ask for help; we learn the most from our failures; anyone who doesn’t own up should be tarred and feathered, etc.  One common thread in many of the responses was a need for an external QA function to provide an external view on the health of the project.  That is, we need someone other than the PM to tell us what is really going on.

Here are my personal opinions on why people don’t admit their failures or reach out when in they are in trouble.  I believe that they are afraid; afraid that people will think less of them or that they are incompetent.  I also think that some people, project managers, in particular, are afraid to ask for help because it makes them look weak.

While the Chaos Studies may be skewed in their reporting of failure, I think most of us would readily admit that there is a relatively high rate of failure on IT projects.  We need to have less denial about the start of our industry, more honesty about the state of our own projects, and turn this around so that we see failure as part of the learning process.  We need to not only acknowledge our own failed initiatives but harvest them for the lessons they can provide.

Tina Seelig wrote about failure as a learning opportunity in her 2009 post, You can’t spell failure or success without U.  She talks about how she requires students in her class to write a failure resume showcasing all the mistakes they have made.  She sees this as a valuable reminder to extract all the lessons from failure and to see failure as a key part of the learning process.  As she has noted, if you want more successes, you have to tolerate more failures.

Here are what I see as the lessons for project managers:

  1. The truth always comes out and so it is best for you to share it. You will be more favorably regarded by telling the truth rather than denying problems or reaching out for help. It may take a while, but the truth eventually comes out.
  2. Reach out for help when you need it.  Asking for help is not only responsible, it is also good and appropriate communications and expectations management.  Besides, you stand a much better chance of heading off major problems before they grow if you are willing to admit you need help and seek it.
  3. When hiring project managers, watch out for those with a spotless record.  Be suspicious of those who say ‘on time on budget’ as if it were a mantra or a secret passphrase. Ask people about their failures and see what they are willing to share.
  4. Harvest every project for the lessons to be learned.  A project post-mortem should be conducted for every project, especially those projects that are canceled mid-stream. Also, PMs should maintain a journal of every success, failure, and lesson learned through the execution of the project. Ideally, this is something that is done using a few minutes each day or once a week.
  5. Expect failure as a requirement for success.  If you and the people around you are not failing with regularity, you are not trying hard enough or taking enough risks.

IT Project success rates aren’t going to improve until we start telling the truth about where we are and what is causing the failures.  We need to extract the lessons from our failed projects and use them to continually improve our project success rates.



Emotional Intelligence and Projects – A Research Study

My writing has taken a back seat for the last year or two while I have focused on delivering a couple of large-scale client programs and exploring troubled project recovery.  Those are both topics of interest to me and I plan to write more on those shortly.  For now, I am excited to continue to explore emotional intelligence and how that plays out in teams.  I’ve taught a course titled Leading Teams with Emotional Intelligence and I am in the process of finalizing a distance learning coursebook for Prodevia Learning.  I will be sharing some of the material from that book here including this post.

Emotional Intelligence and Projects Cover We are going to start with a look at some recent research on emotional intelligence and project management as documented in the book, “Emotional Intelligence and Projects“.  This 2010 book was written by Nicholas Clarke and Ranse Howell and documents a research project they carried out on 67 project managers.  The research project was seeking:

  1. To identify the relationships between emotional intelligence abilities and specific project manager competencies identified as critical within project contexts.
  2. To identify relationships between emotional intelligence and transformational leadership behaviors.

I have posted in the past on another study of project management and emotional intelligence by Ralph Mueller and J. Rodney Turner.  The research by Clarke and Howell followed on that research but took a decidedly different approach.  The following table is a summary of some of the key differences in the two studies:

Aspects of the Research Clarke and Howell Turner and Mueller
Instruments Used MCSEIT,

Empathy (Mehrabian and Epstein)

Leadership Dimensions Questionaire
Underlying EQ Model Mayer and Salovey Proprietary Model, loosely linked to Daniel Goleman’s
Study Size 67 Project Managers 400 Project Managers
Dependent Variable PM Competencies, Transformational Leadership Project Success

As noted, Clarke and Howell based their work on the MCSEIT which was derived from the Salovey and Mayer four-branch model of Emotional Intelligence:
a) accurately perceive emotions in oneself and others
b) use emotions to facilitate thinking
c) understand emotional meanings, and
d) manage emotions

The MCSEIT is an ability based test of emotional intelligence as compared to the self-reported competency model used by Turner and Mueller.  Clarke and Howell also measured empathy using an instrument from Mehrabian and Epstein.

They studied the relationship of those emotional intelligence measures to competencies that previous research has shown to be important to success as a project manager:  communications, teamwork, attentiveness, and managing conflict.

Another important aspect of this study was that the researchers attempted to control for personality, general intelligence level, and PM certification.  I was a little puzzled at first by the control for personality – I mean, is it like the difference between a Rodney Dangerfield and a George Clooney?  If my personality turns out to be ineffective, does this mean I cannot be a project manager?  Not to worry – the control for personality is to try to isolate any characteristics that may be inherent and unchangeable from those characteristics, like EQ, that can be trained.

The Bottom Line

Are you interested in what Clark and Howell found in their study?  Well then stay tuned to my next post where we will look at the results and the implications of the study.




When in Doubt, be Nice!

Last week, a good friend and mentor of mine overheard a conversation I was having with one of the team leads on my program.  I was not satisfied with the leader’s performance and I was not nice in my remarks about what I expected.  My friend observed the exchange between me and the team lead and she spoke up and said: “When in doubt, be nice”.

Her comment stung.  I pride myself on my political correctness and being nice to others.  Being called out for not being nice hurt.  And she was right.

Spinner2 The truth is that I have a hard time balancing being kind and getting the results that I want.  I am not suggesting that these two things are necessarily mutually exclusive, but I think that I have placed a higher premium on one than on the other.  I choose to be nice rather than to be satisfied, and this is a real problem for me.

I was recently in a weekend workshop on growing as a leader.  While the workshop helped me to spot several strengths of mine, it also revealed to me a couple of key weaknesses:

  1. I don’t go for my own personal satisfaction; I am OK with coming up short.
  2. I am not honest with myself about my lack of satisfaction.  I am ok with feeling like a victim, rather than getting what I really want.  I don’t tell the truth about what I really feel or mean.  (For more about telling the truth, see my previous post Tell the Truth).

Going for Your Own Personal Satisfaction

Let’s start with the idea of going for your own personal satisfaction.  The principle of responsibility says that I am responsible for my actions and my outcomes.  If I don’t get the results that I want, or if I am not satisfied, that is my responsibility and mine alone. That is all great but the problem for me is this – I am OK with being dissatisfied as it gives me something to complain about, a reason to blame someone else, a way to be a victim, or just a general ‘out’ about not giving it my all.

The better approach is to go for 100% satisfaction of what I want.  This requires being clear about what it is that I want and working with others to make sure it happens.  No excuses, no complaints, and no blaming others.  Just going for what I want and not being satisfied with less.

I like what I wrote about personal satisfaction in this post from January 2009:

“Instead of seeking comfort, we should seek our own satisfaction.  In every situation, we should be monitoring our own level of satisfaction and using that as an internal gauge for whether we are doing the right thing.  My mentor Rich Blue calls this going for our 100% satisfaction.  If you seek to get 100% satisfaction out of every meeting, presentation, project assignment, and workshop, you won’t have to worry about feeling comfortable.  Being satisfied is a higher value than being comfortable.”

Let me give you a real-life example.  If you are at a restaurant and you order a salad with the dressing on the side, what are the odds that the waiter will remember and bring your salad with the dressing on the side?  I do this often and I think the odds are about 90% – that is, the waiter will correctly put the dressing on the side about 9 out of 10 times.  What happens when they don’t, and they bring the salad with the dressing already on it?  What do you do when that happens?

I know what I do – I eat the salad.  I will sometimes mutter under my breath, or make idle threats about reducing the tip, but I rarely draw attention to the fact that I did not get what I ordered and I am not 100% satisfied.  You see, I have been conditioned from an early age to be OK with that, to even expect that I will be disappointed and to minimize the importance of it.  This is not a healthy response for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it builds resentment that can surface later in undesired ways.

I don’t tell the Truth about my Satisfaction

The second big idea here is that I don’t tell the truth about my level of satisfaction. Just like with the salad, I suck it up.  Quietly.  I tell myself it is not really important, or not worth fighting about.

I am increasingly aware that I do better or worse with certain people or in certain situations.  With some people and in some situations, I have this large blindspot that I have come to think of as a form of ‘corporate denial’.  It is as though with certain people or situations, I completely toss out my expectations the idea that I could be personally satisfied.  I am unable – no, unwilling – to clearly see the truth in what is happening and orient to my own satisfaction.  A good example of this is with authority figures.

I am learning that this corporate denial has become so ingrained in me that I think of it as normal.  It is like the water in the fish tank that the fish cannot see or appreciate.

Being Nice

How does all this relate to being nice?  Well, generally I am very nice.  I am often ‘nice’ at the expense of being effective, as I can be in the restaurant example.  The problem is that while I may be nice on the surface, underneath the surface I am hurt and angry.

Let’s be clear though – being hurt and angry is what I have co-created.  It is also what I expect to happen.  The shift that I need to make is to be crystal clear about what I want and determined to have things the way that I want them.  I need to go for 100% satisfaction for myself.  This needs to be a top priority.

Spinner4 Initially, my need to go for 100% satisfaction may come at the expense of being nice.  Because I have been off balance for so long, the pendulum needs to swing the other way.  I need to have an extreme focus on my 100% satisfaction.

So for me to speak up that day and in an unkind way to challenge my team lead to do their job better, was actually a grow for me and a step in the right direction.  It wasn’t pretty, and I know that I can improve on that.  But I need to continue to get in there and be willing to be messy but insist that things be done the way that I want them done.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts and reactions, in particular, if you pride yourself on being a nice guy ora nice girl.






How Happiness affects High Performing Teams

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune discussed the topic of happiness.  Based on research by Jack Bauer, associate professor at the University of Dayton, the article provided some interesting tips for those interested in happiness.  In this post, we look at those tips for pursuing happiness and we apply those to leading high-performing teams.

Happiness is an elusive emotion. How do we go about being happy?  Is that a choice, that is, can we simply choose to be happy instead of feeling sad or angry?  If so, the question for many of us is this “why can’t we just be happy?”.

Which is a great question.  Why can’t we just be happy?  The research by Jack Bauer and others indicates that happiness is not something that we seek directly, but that we achieve indirectly through other things.  Here are some of the key findings from the research:

  • Happiness flows from engaging in activities in which we are totally immersed; when we lose ourselves.
  • Happiness is rising to a challenge that we have the capacity to meet.  When we tackle something difficult and our skills are up to the challenge, happiness tends to flow.  It is when we are working toward personal mastery, rather than performance.
  • Happiness is more likely to to be experienced in community with others, rather then when we are alone and isolated.  This was an overarching theme of the research.
  • Happiness was more likely when people were doing things that were personally meaningful or for the greater human good, rather than for our own personal goals or for material goods.
  • The research also showed something that many have heard before, having more money doesn’t necessarily increase happiness.  Interestingly enough, the opposite is generally true.  Happy people tend to make more money for a variety of reasons including because of others like them and their work, they are more creative and optimistic. (There is actually a book that has been around for a while called, Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow, which is based on this premise.)

I looked at these lessons from a personal perspective at first, then began to think through the lens of a project manager or leader.  What can we apply from this research to help our teams perform at the highest possible level?  Here are my conclusions:

#1 Know the strengths and weaknesses of your individual team members and align them with it.

If we want to align people with the right work, we need to know them inside and out.  That will help us to get people into those positions where they are doing work they like and are good at and where they are stretching themselves to meet a challenge.  Likewise, we need to avoid placing people in roles where they feel overwhelmed or not up to the challenge.  We want to be pushing people to stretch themselves in roles where they feel challenged, but not necessarily overwhelmed.

This can be a bit tricky and may require taking some risks.  On a recent program, we put a junior PM into a role leading a large outsourcing effort.  She had little PM experience and no prior experience with outsourcing and she quickly began to feel like she was in over her head.  What she overlooked was that she was very familiar with the teams that were affected, and the tasks and specific products that were being outsourced.  It was because of her unique prior experience in these areas, and her good relationships with the impacted teams that made her capable of rising to the challenge.

#2 Challenge Team Members at their Growth Edge

When we know the strengths and weaknesses of our team members, we can also push them to perform at high levels.  We can challenge them in those areas where they are up to it but need to be supported to increase their performance.

This is something I have personally experienced and written about here and in my book.  I do some of my best work when I have a mentor or coach who is supporting me, challenging me, and yes sometimes pushing me beyond what I think I can do.  It has been one of the most important things that has fueled me, encouraged me, and has resulted in the most personal growth.  My mentor Rich will often say something like, “my vision for you Anthony is that you are…”.  He holds the bar high for me when I am not able to do it for myself.

#3 Prevent Individuals from working in Isolation. 

I recognize that it is a natural tendency for many people to want to isolate and work alone.  There is an attraction for many of us to think that if we were just left to work alone, we would be happy.  (Hey, that’s exactly why I became a writer!)  In fact, people are more happy and engaged when they are working as part of a team.  So while there is a tendency to isolate, and certainly there are some tasks that naturally need to be performed by a single person, we want to avoid this if possible.  We want people working together.  As leaders, we need to build a sense of community and help team members to stay connected to the greater team.

Building community can help with happiness and actually speed the progress toward the team’s goals.  I recently had a virtual team of developers working to create programs to convert material from one format to another.  This team had a consistent track record of missing every deadline and milestone. Working together with the leader of the team, we implemented twice weekly standup calls.  What we discovered during our standup calls was a little shocking – each developer was working in near perfect isolation; they didn’t talk to each other!  While there was some level of email between them, they were largely isolated in trying to solve the collective challenges.  Our standup calls quickly became their forum for communication and they started performing as a group and actually hit a few deadlines.

#4 Help people to connect their work to the goals of the larger organization or the company. 

This is something that is important but not done very often.  People don’t get inspired by working each week for a paycheck.  They might get inspired by being part of a team that is making an impact inside their organization or out.  It is important that team members understand the bigger picture of your team goals and how their task or activity contributes toward that.  When people see the connection, they see it as for the greater good and not something that they have to do for you.

Back in 2003, I was lucky enough to get involved with a large program that was implementing systems to support education reform in the country of Qatar.  It was fascinating to me how many people wanted to join the team to be part of that work.  We capitalized on it by providing lots of information about the country of Qatar, the state of education, and the people that would be impacted by the program.  People got it, and it helped to fuel their performance.  We had a very high-performing team because everyone understood, and bought into the larger goals of the organization. We worked some incredibly long hours and met some goals that at the time seemed unachievable.  We even adopted the team slogan ‘Inconceivable!’

I am sure there are other takeaways from a leadership perspective.  As always, I am interested in your thoughts.  Cheers!



Committing to a Year of Risk-Taking and Failure

I am committed to changing my relationship with failure.  Failure was something I was deathly afraid for most of my early life.  I think I was 30 years old before I took any serious risks at all and that included leaving a secure job at IBM, moving to Chicago, and getting divorced.  That year of risk-taking was one of the most important and formative years of my entire life.  But before we go further into failure and risk-taking, I have a small confession.

I think that I love Seth Godin.  Yes, it is true.  I don’t mean that I am in love with Seth Godin, just that I love what he writes and find myself inspired by it.  Every day I find myself excited to find something from his blog in my inbox.

Lately, I’ve been struck how often Seth writes about failing.  Maybe I even love him more when he talks about failing.  It may be that I have been thinking about failure more or that my mentor Rich Blue has been talking more about failure, and all of a sudden I am seeing it everywhere.  In any case, I noticed what seemed like a trend so I went back through Seth’s blog posts to see what he had actually written about failure.  Here is a somewhat random dozen of my favorites snippets from his blogs on failure:

1/17/2008: Is it worthy?
Our birthright is to fail and to fail often but to fail in search of something bigger than we can imagine. To do anything else is to waste it all.

1/18/2010: Unrealized projects
[writing about director Tim Burton] One key element of a successful artist: ship. Get it out the door. Make things happen…The other: fail. Fail often. Dream big and don’t make it. Not every time, anyway. 2/27/2010: Genius is misunderstood as a bolt of lightning
Genius is actually the eventual public recognition of dozens (or hundreds) of failed attempts at solving a problem. Sometimes we fail in public, often we fail in private, but people who are doing creative work are constantly failing.

7/16/2010: A hierarchy of failure worth following
Not all failures are the same. Here are five kinds, from frequency = good all the way to please-don’t!

FAIL OFTEN: Ideas that challenge the status quo. Proposals. Brainstorms. Concepts that open doors.
FAIL FREQUENTLY: Prototypes. Spreadsheets. Sample ads and copy.
FAIL OCCASIONALLY: Working mockups. Playtesting sessions. Board meetings.
FAIL RARELY: Interactions with small groups of actual users and customers.
FAIL NEVER: Keeping promises to your constituents.
1/17/2011: Cashing the check
The opportunity to step up and to fail (and then to fail again, and to fail again) and to continue failing until we succeed is greater now than it has ever been.

4/14/2011: How to fail
All of us fail. Successful people fail often, and, worth noting, learn more from that failure than everyone else.

5/3/2011: Hard work vs. Long work
Hard work is frightening. We shy away from hard work because inherent in hard work is a risk. Hard work is hard because you might fail. You can’t fail at long work, you merely show up. You fail at hard work when you don’t make an emotional connection, or when you don’t solve the problem or when you hesitate.

10/5/2011: Failures and the dip
In the Dip, I’m arguing that big successes happen when people with good taste see the failures, evolve and keep pushing anyway. The good taste comes when you know the difference between failures that are better off forgotten and failures that are merely successes that haven’t grow up yet.

12/18/2011: The difference between a failure and a mistake
A failure is a project that doesn’t work, an initiative that teaches you something at the same time the outcome doesn’t move you directly closer to your goal. A mistake is either a failure repeated, doing something for the second time when you should have known better, or a misguided attempt (because of carelessness, selfishness or hubris) that hindsight reminds you is worth avoiding. We need a lot more failures, I think. Failures that don’t kill us make us bolder, and teach us one more way that won’t work, while opening the door to things that might. School confuses us, so do bosses and families. Go ahead, fail. Try to avoid mistakes, though.

1/9/2012: Out on a limb
That’s where artists do their work. Not in the safe places, but out there, in a place where they might fail, where it might end badly, where connections might be lost, sensibilities might be offended, jokes might not be gotten.

1/29/2012: Prepared to fail
“We’re hoping to succeed; we’re okay with failure. We just don’t want to land in between.”
–David Chang
He’s serious. Lots of people say this, but few are willing to put themselves at risk, which destroys the likelihood of success and dramatically increases the chance of in between.

Which brings me back to my mentor Rich Blue and his recent failure kick.  He keeps encouraging me to live a big life by saying, “if you aren’t failing then you are not taking enough risks”.  (I would also mention that I love Rich Blue but I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me!)  It was Rich that introduced me to the Mindset book by Carol Dweck.

In this book, Dr. Dweck thoroughly explores our beliefs about our abilities, our growth, and about learning new things.   These beliefs form the ‘mindset’ that we carry about ourselves and others.  There is a fixed mindset that says that people are born with certain traits and abilities and that defines the full extent of their capabilities.  Then there is a growth mindset which believes that people will continue to grow and develop through their own efforts.

Individuals with a fixed mindset tend to avoid failure at all costs.  To fail means to define yourself as a failure.  So as you can imagine, taking risks or trying something new isn’t practiced by those with a fixed mindset.  I think this pretty well describes the first 30 years of my life.

Individuals with a growth mindset tend to value taking risks and being willing to fail.  They see failure as an opportunity to learn about what is not working or to adjust their approach.

The concept of failure is also pretty big in agile development, an area that I have been exploring a lot lately.  In fact, a key saying from agile is “fail fast”.  This is often used to justify pulling the plug on risky projects sooner rather than before a major investment has been sunk.  (Note:  I think we have to be cautious about this application because it could also lead to pulling the plug too early, or not fully throwing yourself into a project or initiative, just because it is risky.)  I think the description from James Shore in the Art of Agile Development is the one that I like the best:

Failing fast applies to all aspects of your work, to examples as small as buying a bag of a new type of coffee bean rather than a crate. It frees you from worrying excessively about whether a decision is good or bad. If you’re not sure, structure your work so that you expose errors as soon as they occur. If it fails, let it fail quickly, rather than lingering in limbo. Either way, invest only as much time and as many resources as you need to be sure of your results.

With these principles guiding your decisions, you’ll fear failure less. If failure doesn’t hurt, then it’s OK to fail. You’ll be free to experiment and take risks. Capitalize on this freedom: if you have an idea, don’t speculate about whether it’s a good idea—try it! Create an experiment that will fail fast, and see what happens.

I just spent the previous 3.5 years doing so-so consulting work for a great client. Unfortunately, I became quite complacent during this time and I took very few risks. I wrote less than previously, spoke less, and read less. I CREATED LESS!  I was not challenging myself, I was not taking risks, and I was not failing fast. When a colleague mentioned to me last year that he was reading one business book a week, I was incredulous. “It can’t be done,” I thought as I silently reflected on my own 1-book-every-2-months pace. (Since the beginning of this year, I have put myself to the task and found I could actually complete 2 or even 3 books in a week when I applied myself.)

I am committed to changing my relationship with failure.  2012 is going to be a year of ramping up the risks and the failure rate.  I am going to live like it is 1993 again (sans the painful divorce!).  I am going to fail fast.  I started last month with a new certification and partnering with two different consulting firms.  I am reading, and writing.  (If you are an agile enthusiast, please note that I have launched a new website specifically about agile and program management at www.vitalitychicago.com. )

Stay tuned here for more.  And do please let me know what risks you are taking this year.  I hope they are big ones!