Applied EQ #16: Very Bad Things Happen; Why Project Managers Must Manage Their Own Emotions

In the last post, we introduced the concept of emotional self management.  Project managers and leaders of all types need to control themselves and manage their emotions.  They cannot afford to let their emotions overtake them and dictate their behavior or they will find they aren’t leading anyone for very long. 

The project environment provides plenty of opportunities to practice self-management.  Emotions can run high in an environment where the stakes are high both for individuals and organizations.  Deadlines are usually aggressive if not downright unrealistic.  Budgets are often set without regard to the work required.  The scope of work can be unrealistic or subject to interpretation or negotiation. 

All of this can cause emotions, in particular negative ones, to surface.  Negative emotions can be crippling to your project environment, especially when they come from the leader.  Anger, disappointment, rage, sadness, and fear all need to be monitored and managed so that they don’t poison the rest of the team.  That doesn’t mean stuffing these emotions, dismissing them, or pretending they don’t exist.  It does mean managing those emotions.  We will talk about techniques to help us do that in future posts.

There is nothing like the pressure of an intense project to bring out the best and the worst in us.  Any tiny crack in our emotional foundation is brought to light and often, when exposed to heat and pressure, it will result in unpleasant side effects.  This reminds me of a quote.  I am not sure of the origin of this particular item:

Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.

If we don’t manage our emotions in the project environment, very bad things can happen.  In addition to poisoning the atmosphere of the team, we can get a reputation for being out of control.  Others may avoid working with us and our team.  We may have a difficult time retaining the best resources.  Our project team could rebel on us and either mutiny or leave the project.  Our team might also stick around and quietly try to sabotage the project.  Our relationships with stakeholders will suffer.

I have been there myself.  Sadly, I have lost control of my emotions on a project more than once.  Sometimes the consequences are no big deal and the project moves on.  Once though, I paid dearly.

In this particularly painful example, I was the project manager of a large IT team on an international project.  I had a poor relationship with one of the people working for me on my project team.  The relationship had deteriorated to the point where it was adversarial.  There was an ongoing battle of wills about this person’s travel to the client site.  It culminated one day when the resource sent me one more email requesting travel.  I was incensed and had reached my breaking point.  I was also feeling under pressure due to some criticism from the client about the project team’s performance.  Instead of waiting to calm down, I replied to the email in a terse and critical way.  The team member then forwarded it to my manager who called me to ask, “what gives?”  It was embarrassing.  Worse, it lead to a formal investigation which was painful and dragged on for 2 months. 

Sir_please_step_away_from_the_keyboard Of the many mistakes that I made in this situation, the main one was that I responded inappropriately out of anger.  I should have calmed down, evaluated alternative courses of action, and then chosen an appropriate response.  I also should have been addressing the underlying relationship breakdown which was the undercurrent for the issue.  As it was, I responded quickly and using email.  I was not managing myself.  The email response was the single event that I wish I could have taken back.

In this particular situation, the email and the formal investigation showed that I needed to manage myself better.  When the investigation had run it’s course, the individual felt they could no longer work for me and left the project.  That turned out to be very helpful to me and to the overall project.  It was something I wish I had addressed sooner and directly.

As you can see from this example, very bad things can happen to project managers who do not manage their emotions.  In the next post, we will look at different emotional profiles for people who lack emotional self control.  You might find some of these people on your project teams.  You might also see yourself in one or more of these profiles.