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.






What is the Worst that Could Happen?

This is a post about the importance of optimism. I recently came to appreciate the role that optimism, or lack of it, plays in my life.

My outlook on life is largely shaped by the last few things that have happened to me.  I tend to take my most recent experience, and extrapolate a continuation of that into the future.  If a couple of good things have happened to me in that last day or two, I tend to think that trend will continue and I am very positive about the future. And that is great because when I feel positive and optimistic, I also tend to be more confident, I assert myself more clearly, and I take more risks.  These traits help me to perform better at work and at home.


The opposite of this also occurs.  When I have a couple of negative things happen in a row, I tend to extrapolate that and feel very negative and pessimistic about the future.  I find that I am in a ‘bad mood’ and I tend to do things which are unproductive.  I take fewer risks, I act more cautiously, and I tend to try to be more politically correct.  I also project negative feelings and intent on others and I isolate from them.


Most of the things that influence my mood are external to me, and that is a problem.  For example, I have noticed lately how much the ups and downs of the US stock market affect my mood and outlook.  The market has wild swings of 3-4 % in a day and +/- 10% in a week.  When the market goes up, I feel positive about the future.  When it goes down, I feel pessimistic about the future.  The irony is that while the change in the stock market may affect my meager retirement savings, it has absolutely no impact on my life today.  Right now, it makes no difference if it goes up or down.

The real challenge for me is that I tend to put more emphasis on the negative than the positive.  This is especially acute when there are a couple of negative events in combination.  For example, consider the hat trick when the stock market goes down, I get into an argument with someone, and I learn that my job may be at risk.  This is when I cannot see anything but negativity far into the future.  I see myself as isolated, out of work, unable to meet my financial commitments, and ultimately going bankrupt.  And though the consequences are improbable and far into the future, I feel them today in the here and now.


The irony is, my feelings of pessimism in the here and now cause me to act in ways that are not only counter-productive, they also have the potential to be self-fulfilling prophecies. That is, my negative thought patterns cause me to behave in ways that ensure the negative things that I fear actually happen in the future.  If I think negative, I make negative things happen.


By the way, there is actually a name for this behavior and it is called catastrophizing.  Catastrophizing a form of cognitive disorder, also called stinking thinking, defined in Wikipedia as:

Catastrophizing – Inability to foresee anything other than the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or experiencing a situation as unbearable or impossible when it is just uncomfortable.


So what do I need to do to overcome catastrophizing?  Here are some of the things that I need to do that you might also find helpful.


  1. Get in touch.  One of the most important emotional intelligence skills is to be aware of our feelings.  This catastrophizing behavior is one way for me to dodge my feelings.  Some feelings are painful and on some subconscious level, I want to protect myself from feeling them.  By focusing on the stock market or other external events, I can avoid feeling scared or hurt or angry right now.
  2. Recognize what I get out of the behavior.  By focusing on external events and potential negative events in the future, I get to avoid feeling my feelings in the here and now.  On some level, I am also lowering my expectations.  When I think that failure is imminent, I give myself permission to stop trying.  I give up on my goals and on myself.
  3. Cut it out!  My mentor will often say to me, “stop indulging yourself”.  He’s right – sometimes I need to just recognize what I am doing and stop it right then and there.  I need to give myself a shake and get over it.
  4. Laugh at myself.  I find that laughter tends to help me feel better pretty much any time.  It is especially helpful when I can look at myself and see how ridiculous I am.
  5. Orient to the truth of my life and feel grateful.  For me, this is about reminding myself of the successes I have had over the years and feeling grateful for them.  Some people use a gratitude list for this.  I have never experienced any of the various negative or catastrophic events that I fear up to this point.  In fact, I have actually had many successes and positive experiences.  When I stop and focus on the positive things that I am grateful for, it is easy to ignore or push the negative events out of my mind.
  6. Learn from everything.  One of the great lessons for me from the Mindset book by Carol Dweck is that we can continually learn and grow, even from negative events in our lives.  When I see life as an extended learning process, I let go of success and failure and tend to be more grounded in the here and now.

As always, I am interested in your reactions and comments.  If you are interested in learning more about stinking thinking, I’ve written about the following cognitive disorders in my book:

  • All or nothing thinking
  • Always and Never
  • Being Negative
  • Filling in the Blanks
  • Should Statements
  • Personalization and Blame



Tips for Leading Agile Teams with Emotional Intelligence

As I noted in my last post, I am working on the second edition of Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.  Thankfully, I was able to send the manuscript on time today, so that is no longer hanging over my head!

The second edition includes a new chapter on Success with Agile Teams.  Anyone who has used Agile methods though will attest to the fact that leading Agile teams is not the same as leading traditional teams.  Agile teams are expected to be self-organizing. This doesn’t mean there are no leaders,
but it requires a style of leadership that is less prescriptive and more supportive.  It is often called Servant Leadership, and it requires a lot of emotional intelligence.

I ended the new chapter in the book with the following 9 tips for leading Agile Teams with Emotional Intelligence.  I’d love to hear your feedback on these.

  1. Evaluate your level of Command and Controlism.  Take a step back and really evaluate the ways you use command and control.  Are you holding back the teams you lead by trying to control them?  If you are having trouble seeing it in yourself, note whether you see it in others.  Or, ask those you trust to provide you with accurate feedback on your behavior.
  2. Proactively step back and let others step up.  Try stepping back and letting others decide what to do.  Spend less time trying to force your will on others, or to manipulate them to do what you think they should do.  Trust that whatever they do, they will learn from their behavior.
  3. Say less; a lot less.  Rather than always being the first to speak up, trying shutting up and listening more.  Really tune in to what others say, rather than your own internal chatter, or simply waiting for your chance to speak.  See where the leadership comes from when you don’t hog all the airtime.  Try the empathetic listening techniques we’ve discussed in the blog and in Chapter 5 of the book.
  4. Practice some form of daily mindfulness.  This is important for all PMs, but it is especially important for leaders of Agile Teams.  Whether you use meditation, prayer, journaling, or some other technique, establish this as a daily practice that you do to be clear with yourself before you engage with the team.  Put to use some of those Self-Awareness techniques discussed in this blog.
  5. Get underneath your fear.  Most of us who feel the need to control do so out of fear and many of our fears are irrational or unwarranted.  Look below the surface to see if you can determine what you are afraid of.  I know for me this is usually a fear of failure.  I am afraid that the team will fail and that it will reflect poorly on me.  Some of us also fear a loss of relevance.  After all, if the team can do great work or come up with great ideas without me, what value do I have?  Dig deep into what your underlying fears are so that you can understand how those are affecting your behaviors within the team.
  6. Use Jedi Mind Tricks – When it comes to decisions, put the decision back on the team rather than jumping in and making the decisions for them.  Try holding back on your own opinion even when asked.  Take time to pause and to ask the team, “What do you think we should do?”.  You might be surprised at what they say.  Or you might say, “Is anyone else feeling the pressure to decide right now besides me?”
  7. That’s a Great Idea! – Some of us are so hungry to be affirmed, that we often find it hard to accept new ideas or perspectives from others.  We’re used to saying things like, “that is a good idea BUT it won’t work because of… “.  To overcome this type of behavior, practice saying “That’s a great idea!”, and then look for every opportunity to say it. It may not come easy.
  8. Use Positive Regard with Everyone – See the team at its very best, not necessarily in their worst moment.  Know that the team will rise to the occasion when they need to; that they will learn from their experience, and that they will get better over time.  Hold each member of the team, and the team as a whole, with high positive regard.
  9. Be a Servant Leader – Agile team leaders, Program Managers, and Functional Managers all need to support the agile team.  They frequently need to serve as a buffer between the Agile team and the rest of the organization.  Tune in to the organizational norms that run counter to Agile and run interference for the team.  Help streamline mandatory documentation or other PMO requirements do that the Agile Team can be empowered and self-organizing.

I’ve mentioned this before, but a great resource for Agile project managers, coaches, program managers, and functional managers is Lyssa Adkins 2010 book, Coaching Agile Teams; A Companion for ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition. Lyssa provides many ideas for supporting Agile teams, overcoming command and controlism, and leading ourselves.

I’d love to hear your comments, whether you are an agile project manager or one who is using more traditional methods.