Conflict, Misunderstanding and Other Project Realities

By Susan de la Vergne

 

Once upon a time, people thought of reason and emotion as opposites. One is rational, the other irrational. One is ordered, the other chaotic. One is controlled, the other runs wild.

But now we know better. Now we know emotions help us organize our thinking. They help us adjust and adapt, they inspire us, and they make us sign up for the long haul. They help us recognize significance, which helps us sort out priorities. Emotions do that, not reason. We don’t reason our way to inspiration or commitment. We feel it.

Emotions complement reason. So says Dr. Peter Salovey, a leading psychologist and researcher at Yale in the field of emotional intelligence. He’s not alone in his opinion. In the last 30 years, an army of psychologists have demonstrated repeatedly that emotional intelligence and cognitive intellect go hand in hand.

The alliance of emotional and reason is not just a subject of academic interest; it’s topical and relevant in business leadership every day.

Dr. Salovey conducted a year-long study of emotions in the workplace. In it, he found “…people who score high on emotional intelligence are rated as more sensitive, as more sociable, that is more friendly, as generally having more positive interactions, as helping to create a positive work environment, as being more tolerant of stress, of generally being in a better mood, and as showing more leadership potential.” (Source http://kms.jpn.org/keynoteaddress6.pdf.)

Wow. Who wouldn’t want to work with people who fit that description?—instead of negative, grumpy, stressed-out, hostile people!

The study also revealed that people with high emotional intelligence were more likely to be promoted and to receive bigger raises. Not surprising, given the correlation between emotional intelligence and leadership potential.

If that all seems to make sense to you at some level, you may be left wondering how emotional intelligence plays out in the workplace day to day, and whether it’s worth it—or even possible—to become better at recognizing, understanding and managing emotions at work.

Emotional Intelligence and Project Management

One way to take a look at emotions on the job is by looking closely into projects. Despite the Project Management Institute’s claim that rigorously managing cost, schedule and requirements is all it takes to succeed, projects are, in fact, hotbeds of emotion, emotion that affects progress directly. Project managers ignore that at their peril.

Some examples:

Scenario 1: A test team lead isn’t working very hard, despite the fact that the deadline for testing is rapidly closing in. Her lack of urgency is contagious—her entire team doesn’t seem to care much about getting the job done. The frustrated project manager is at a loss. It’s too late to get anyone else to do the testing, but if the team slips the deadline, they’ll miss the window to introduce the product to the market.

What’s the holdup? The test team lead is a veteran in her role, and she’s tired of having her accurate, painstakingly prepared estimates tossed in the trash every time a project gets behind schedule. “We’ll just cut some testing time if we need to” is a common refrain, and she’s sick of always being the one who has to either kill herself to get it done or shortchange quality to finish by the date. She’s staging her own private work slow-down, and the rest of her team has joined her. The PM, however, is clueless because he lacks the emotional intelligence to understand what’s behind the problem.

Scenario 2: A key stakeholder, who is also the executive overseeing the project, has just given an amazing pep talk to the team. He was genuine, warm and humorous, and he thanked the team for their important work. Everyone left inspired! But the project manager failed to extend the enthusiasm. In fact, she deliberately drove everyone immediately back to the grindstone, never mentioning the executive’s encouragement again—completely missing an opportunity to capitalize on the momentum his speech could have generated.

Why? Because she’s jealous of his ability to inspire her team, of his popularity and presentation skills. She’s a drab speaker and has embarrassed herself more than once delivering awful presentations. Her lack of emotional intelligence shows up here twice: first by not translating the positive emotions from the speech into energy and forward progress; and second by not recognizing the effect her own resentment and insecurity are having on the team.

The cost and schedule implications in both scenarios are obvious. And in both cases, emotionally intelligent project managers could have helped the projects through these situations.

What else arises on projects? Conflict. Competition. Miscommunication. Discouragement. Misunderstandings. Excitement. Anxiety. All of which affect progress. Excitement drives progress. Conflict stalls it, and sometimes derails it altogether.

What’s a project manager to do about all these swirling emotions? First of all, don’t ignore them. Since we now know rational thought and emotions aren’t opposites, it would be a bad idea to dismiss “all that” and hope it goes away. Instead, recognizing what emotions are in play, and then using them in decision-making—for example, never unloading bad news on an audience without taking into account how it’ll be received.

Understanding that all behavior is motivated by something, usually emotional, and trying to look under the hood to see what’s really going on is a more effective way to lead.

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