Be a Winner not a Whiner

There is an excellent scene in the Devil Wears Prada where Andy (played by Anne Hathaway) tells Nigel (Stanely Tucci) that she is working hard and her boss Miranda (Meryl Streep) is being so mean to her.

“I’d just like a little credit because I am killing myself trying” she says.  To which Nigel says, “You are not trying, you are whining”.  He went on to point out the various ways that she wasn’t really trying and that she was not doing everything possible to get the results that were expected of her.  I loved it!

Devil 1b

How many of us have people around us whining all day?  How many of you have people on your teams that tell you how hard they are working or how much effort everything takes?  Nigel’s response to Andy in the movie was, “Quit!  I have a hundred girls who would kill to have your job.”  It would be easy in this economic climate for someone like me who is a natural task master to say something just like this.

On the other hand, emotional intelligence training would tell us that it is important, critical even, to be empathetic.  So the question I have for you is this, how do you balance a need to be empathetic toward people when you are results focused and have a violent reaction to whining???  In fact, I hate whining.  So what do I do when people whine?

The thing is, I have a small confession.  As much as I hate whining, it turns out I am also a bit of a complainer myself.  Perhaps it is my old age setting in but I am starting to complain about cold weather, lousy drivers, the music my kids listen to, and occasionally how hard I am working.

When I do it with my wife, it stresses her out.  She thinks I am going to have a meltdown or she is going to need to fix me somehow.  It has only been through therapy that she has learned to say – “you sound like a whiner!”  It helps.

What she challenges me to do is evaluate what it is I am trying to accomplish and to reframe my complaints in terms of specific facts and requests.  She wants me to take responsibility.

I think this same kind of model applies to others whining to us.  What are they trying to accomplish with their whining?  Do they have any intention to change or do anything different?  Are they taking personal responsibility for a solution, or are they simply complaining to complain or to generate self-pity?

The challenge for us as project managers and leaders is this – how do we balance genuine empathy with a disdain for whining?  How do we acknowledge that it can be tough but we know that people can get the job done?  How do we discern those individual on our teams who have real problems from those who have simply grown accustomed to whining?

No Whining

Consider the following balance between empathy and a results focus.  The idea of the chart is showing that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Empathy vs Results

In this framework, we could think of 4 different possible positions.

  • Vacant Lot – Those that don’t show much empathy but don’t expect much from people  are in the vacant lot camp.  They don’t really expect much to come.
  • Boot Camp – Those that are low in empathy but have high expectations for results are what I would call the boot camp mode.  Drop and give me 20 Soldier! would be an appropriate statement.
  • Day Care – Leaders that have high empathy but lack a results focus would be in the day care camp; they coddle their team members and don’t expect or get much from them.
  • Apprentice – The final category is what I woud call the apprentice model.  In this case, leaders have both high empathy and high results focus.  They are focused on developing the people around them and getting the best results from them.

I think it is possible to balance empathy with a strong results focus.  It takes incredibly good listening skills but we need to show people empathy while at the same time letting them know that we expect them to meet their deadlines for tasks and deliverables.

Being both empathetic and results oriented with people isn’t always easy, but it is the best way to encourage whiners to become winners.  Here are some action steps you can take now with your current team:

  1. Ask people what they need – When others seem to be whining or complaining to you, ask them what they need instead of trying to solve their problem.  In most cases, people are not interested in you solving their problem – they just want to be heard.
  2. Set limits – Set time limits on listening to whining.  We used a rant concept on a large IT program a few years ago.  During our weekly status meeting, each team member was given 30 seconds to rant about anything they wanted.  After the ranting, we told people they needed to move on to take ownership for a solution.
  3. Anticipate breakdowns – Help others to anticipate and avoid some of the common breakdowns or team failures.  For example, if it is winter time in Chicago, we can always expect some weather related issues in travel or even just people getting to the work location.  If we have a project that is in crunch mode, we need to have a plan that incorporates weather disruptions.  We need to communicate our expectations ahead of time whether that includes everyone taking their laptop home every night or making sure their VPN software and other tools are up to date.
  4. Grow People – Treat every day as an opportunity to coach and mentor, using the apprentice model.  Grow and develop the talent under you so that your job is easier.



Seek the Best in Others

This post is one in my series “Soft Skills for Hard Time; 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 Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Steve Martin and John Candy were paired up as an odd couple that were stuck together in a nightmare travel scenario.  The two of them had very little in common yet they were stuck together through the whole movie.  You can see by looking at them that they are very different.


Early on, the character played by Steve Martin establishes that he is the more sophisticated of the two, the “better” of the two.  It is clear that he doesn’t like John Candy’s character though he is polite enough to not ssay anything out loud.  However, Candy begins to get under his skin and you can see the result as his irritation builds and builds and he has a lot of trouble keeping his cool.  And as their situation worsens, he starts to find more and more tiny faults in John Candy’s character.

Do you do that?  Do you start out polite with everyone and then when things get tough, you begin to criticize them or find fault with them?

I know I do.  I am a natural born critic.  I tend to sell people short.  Not usually when things are going well.  But when things are not going well, I tend to find every fault they have.  It is almost like each little tiny quirk is magnified X 100.  And, because I am in the red project recovery business, I often find that I am in situations where things aren’t going so well.  And so the tiny cracks and quirks cause me to grit my teeth and just want to choke someone.

The way out of this type of thinking is to make it a point to find the best in everyone.  This is something that my wife is great at but I struggle with.  Everyone has a strong suit; we just need to pay attention to them and determine what it is.  If you haven’t found someone’s strengths and weaknesses, you haven’t tried.  And it will help you immensely if you can develop the habit of quickly sizing up people.

Go one step further by striving to affirm others.  Make it a point to call out there positive points and strengths.  Build the muscle of finding the best in others.

Last year I took on a group of projects that were in trouble.  I spent a lot of time thinking about the 6 project leaders responsible for those projects.  And I began to perform regular assessments of them and their leadership skills.

This is really easy to do.  Just start by listing each of your team members in a column and then draw a column for strengths and weaknesses.  I do this in a three column format – been doing it this way for year.  The format helps me to see if any patterns emerge.  I also can see where there may be opportunities to pair people up to balance strengths and weaknesses.  In fact, you will see my own name on the list.

The key to success here is not perfection – it is to raise your level of awareness of the capabilities of your team.  A few weeks after I completed the analysis above, I was asked by my executive sponsor what leadership changes we needed to make.  I had a pretty good idea and I was able to make recommendations based on strengths and weaknesses and not just on how I felt about an individual in the moment.  We moved one person out of a leadership position and changed the responsibilities of two others.  The project tea thrived as a result.

Action Steps:

  1. Complete a strengths and weaknesses analysis for your current team.  This shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.
  2. Look for clear gaps or shortcomings in yourself and others and determine how you can pair people up.



Tell the Truth – Part 1

This post is part of a new series that I call “Soft Skills for Hard Time; 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.

People laugh when I say that we should tell the truth.  They say that of course you need to tell the truth.  I am not necessarily talking about telling the truth in big ways like, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”.  What I am talking about is truthfulness and integrity across all of our communications.  It also means being able to tell the truth in a way that is responsible and not mean-spirited.  And it means not leaving things out or telling only part of the truth.

I find that I really appreciate people that tell the truth.  In the movie Liar Liar, Jim Carey plays an attorney.  For a short period of time, he cannot tell a lie.  As a result, he finds that both his personal and professional life becomes untenable.  My favorite part of the movie is when he is asked to say something about each of his co-workers gathered together in a conference room.  Since he must tell the truth, he tends to say the things that everyone knows about each other but no one else is willing to say.  Everyone finds it hilarious as he goes around the large conference table saying what everyone has thought about but never said out loud.


Unless you are ready to make a job change, I suggest that you think twice before you go into work and try to do the same.  But I would contend that people that can tell the truth in a direct and responsible way are valued.  Think about your close friends and co-workers.  Do you value the ones who “tell it like it is” or always let you know where they stand?  I know I do.

Telling the truth is a key part of the emotional intelligence competence of relationship management.  Truth is critical to effective relationships.

The challenge for many of us is that we have been taught that telling the truth is not a good idea when it comes to others.  Each of us were taught some rules about what is OK to say and what is not.  Take a look at the following spoken and unspoken rules from my childhood and see if you can predict the impact that the rule had on my ability to tell the truth as an adult.

  1. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
  2. Children should be seen and not heard.
  3. Respect your elders
  4. We don’t talk about things outside of our family

Look at each of these rules from a “truthfulness” point of view – do you think that these rules would tend to shape children into truth tellers?  Well, no.  In fact, my tendency in the past would have been to say nothing so that I didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings.  Or, I would leak out my “truth” in a very sarcastic or mean-spirted way.

If I want to be a strong leader and project manager, I need to be able to tell the truth as directly and responsibly as possible.  Tellling the truth makes me trustworthy, it attracts followers, and helps me to build strong relationships with others.  I know all that but I still find it challenging some times due to my early childhood training.

Not long ago, I was responsible for a critical IT program and I reported directly to the executive sponsor.  One day prior to a large program review, I received an email from my sponsor’s manager “Gary”, who was also a critical stakeholder.  Gary said he wanted a program update directly from me.  He said he wanted the unfiltered truth about the state of the program.

I was flattered and excited.  He wants to hear from me!  Wow, I must be important.  We had the call on a Friday morning, before a broader program review with my sponsor and other key stakeholders.   I was pretty blunt and straightforward when I shared my thoughts and recommendations with Gary.  I think I may even have quietly congratulated myself on what a good truth-teller I had become.  I did not, however, tell my sponsor about the call.

Later that day, in the middle of the broader program review, Gary dropped a bomb.  Out of nowhere he said something like “this was one of the things that I asked Anthony about when we spoke this morning”.  Ouch!  I did not see that coming.  My sponsor didn’t say anything (out loud), but his body language spoke volumes!  In fact, he did not say another word to me that day.

It was clear that he didn’t like being blindsided.  Duh!  I should have let him know I was going to talk with his boss about the program.  I went from feeling like someone important to feeling like a snitch.  I felt like a total schmuck for not telling the complete truth to my sponsor.

Later that day, I caught up with my sponsor and I apologized for not telling him about the call.  I told him that I would always let him know whenever I had any type of conversation with his boss.  He said that it was OK and I think that I repaired some of the damage, but I know that my actions that day cost me big time in terms of his trust.

So do you think you are good at telling the truth or in need of some help?  Here are some action steps to help you improve in this area.

  1. What are the spoken and unspoken messages you learned about telling the truth as you were growing up?  If you don’t remember, call your siblings and see if they do.  Dig in to see how those rules affect you and your relationships now as an adult.
  2. What are those areas where you are challenged to be entirely truthful?  What can you do to be more truthful?