“Stability”

Readers who know their trait psychology will recognise that with “stability” we have selected the positive side for what is often referred to as “neuroticism”. Whilst a popular term for psychologists, we prefer to think of how stable, rather than unstable, project managers can be under pressure. However, the truth is we all differ when the heat is on, and theories vary as to what degree of this trait is genetic. Most agree that a significant part of our stability is inherited.

Project Leaders definition of stability

refers to the extent to which the individual is able to perform well even under pressure; stable individuals remain calm in all circumstances and even enjoy working under pressure

Clearly projects provide multiple opportunities for pressurised working due to their variable and often volatile mixture of novelty and complexity. Add to this often arbitrary (rather than scientifically calculated) timescales and budgets and you have the perfect recipe for stress. Seen another way of course, a perfect recipe for making new discoveries and achieving new levels of performance, leadership and teamwork.

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Before tackling the “what if” and “how” questions, it is useful to delve a bit deeper (and believe me this is still only a dip) into what we mean by “stability”. I have chosen, in order to inspect the DNA of this subject, to start with its ugly sibling, neuroticism.

Neuroticism can broken down further into six sub facets. Namely:

  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Self-consciousness
  • Immoderation
  • Vulnerability

A number of schools of thought can help us better understand these issues. The now prevalent area of emotional intelligence (EI) may offer the most coherent and accessible source. Simply put, EI looks at both our knowledge and management of self, and our ability to control our dealings with others. It probably doesn’t need Freud, Jung, Eysenck or any of their friends to point out that higher than average (we all have our days) levels of neuroticism will negatively effect a project manager’s ability.

However it is too simple to say that high neuroticism equals poor performance, “mental noise theory” shows that, at times, performance can be higher than average amongst neurotic people. What does change is the degree of variance between tests, or as I once heard it, the likelihood of getting “sixes and ones” as apposed to mid-range scores.

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Why bother with this psychology snapshot? Well, outside genetic influences (which we can’t do much about), the main deciding factor is environmental stress combined with internal (cognitive) noise. As we know, stress in projects is ever-present and noise, internal and external, can be deafening, especially if poorly controlled.

Our concern here links all the way back to the origins of the Project Leaders mission. There are many technically sound project managers out there who struggle with leadership. We believe a major reason for this is that project managers are usually drawn from a previous role where they performed well, rather than from a pool of professional project leaders.

We have seen this in every sector from farming to pharmaceuticals, I.T. to P.E. Good technical managers get “promoted” into managing a project in their domain. Then we wonder why oftentimes their response looks a bit like:

  • Anxiety – nervousness around the viability of the concept or, more frequently, managing the team and stakeholders
  • Anger – visible signs of agitation / frustration whenever things go “wrong”
  • Depression – lack of energy, belief in the chances of success, motivation
  • Self-consciousness – avoiding tough decisions if it runs the risk of making the leader unpopular (or low positive intolerance as we would describe it)
  • Immoderation – wearing one’s emotions on their sleeve, even when positive sometimes a little “over the top”
  • Vulnerability – avoidance of accountability / lessons learned type exercises

No recruiter in their right mind would place someone into a role with these as the potential benefits, yet it happens to project managers all the time, we have seen it globally. Sometimes “natural” leadership comes through and a star is born, usually however the support is meagre and the project manager suffers by fire.

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In this article I will leave you to reflect on the possible effects on the project with a project manager who is low in stability. In project terms, you could list any failure to meet any balanced scorecard measure. It must be apparent by now however that failing to identify, acknowledge and deal with low stability can result in serious, deleterious outcomes for the individual.

This is a particularly poignant message in cultures (like mine) that still believe professional help, whether it be coaching, counselling or anything between, infers weakness. Whilst patently ridiculous, this attitude has historical inertia as its parents and won’t go away immediately. If you manage or recruit project managers it is your duty to ensure stability is high amongst your recruits and support is readily available. (as I’ve already mentioned, we all have our days)

So in the long wait for enlightenment, what can project managers do to help build their stability facet?

  • As we start to work through the 7 facets, combinations between them emerge. To help build stability it helps to also work on the pragmatism facet. Neuroticism is partly defined by over reacting to minor issues. Pragmatism helps keep a focus on the important things and put “irritants” in their place.
  • Similarly, building stability acts as the bedrock for all other facets. In terms of what we have so far covered, clearly a stable character is needed to express positive intolerance. You can’t protect the critical path against the critical masses if you doubt yourself. Also you need to stay calm to access creativity under pressure. (apart from the creativity required to duck yet another tricky situation)
  • Whilst dictated heavily by your organisational culture, emphasise the importance of planning and getting matters clear at the start of the project. Of course things will change but getting your tools clean, ready and lined up with a map of the terrain in front of you ready can be a very calming exercise
  • Use classic project tools to reduce “noise”. You will be trying to turn down internal noise anyway so do yourself a favour. Make sure lines of communication are clear and understood, roles and responsibilities likewise, try and give dependable people key “single point of control” responsibilities such as change control, risk management and logistics.
  • Use tools like the Johari window and specifically emotional intelligence expertise (e.g. JCA Associates - http://www.jca.eu.com/ ) to run diagnostics and coaching to develop emotional stability. There is no substitute for awareness here, it is the starting point of doing practical things to help you develop. Feedback is always useful but sometimes starting with professionally trained people is most appropriate. (i.e. feedback from an “unstable” source may not be very reliable!)
  • Try and start small. Going straight into large and complex projects can unearth degrees of neuroticism that managers until that moment had managed to suppress. This can be a highly depressing realisation for the individual and surprise for the recruiting manager. I have seen this with IT managers used to managing their own mini, in-house team moving straight into massive, multi-partner global outsourcing projects. Unsurprisingly the typical response (in a huge percentage of cases) is bi-polar. Either micro management or total abdication. Stable?
  • Develop and engage in training that uses simulation. Project Leaders has found that experienced managers, who are highly thought of in their organisation, can be found to be quite unstable when the heat is on. This gives you a safe environment to find this out and begin to deal with it. (much better than finding out in front of a client / patient / policeman / boss etc)
  • If the change is sudden (shame on the organisation) try and line up mentoring support. We have mentioned this approach before and it helps add “on the spot wisdom” and “hindsight up front”. Both put things into perspective.
  • Remember, as the project manager you are the conductor, not the lead violinist. Keep feelings of inadequacy in check (“they know more than me”). The whole point is YOU DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING, be open about your concerns and make the most of the talent around you, it is liberating for both parties.
  • “Check in” with yourself every morning before second nature takes over. Are you “up for it” today? Are you brining road rage into the office with you? Are you Australian and will the ashes become the driving force of your mood today? (sorry, couldn’t resist)
  • All theories tend to also emphasise “balance” for more robust mental health. Make sure you have a life outside the project (to help keep perspective and give you a chance to relax and have fun), try and keep physically active (you don’t have to do an iron man!), get good sleep (outside conference calls!) and watch those “crutches”, booze, fags, Percy Pigs (my vice) etc.

Whatever the approach, stability is not one to get wrong or marginalise. Of all the facets it probably has the closest link to the individual’s mental health. If you suspect you, or the project managers you are responsible for have issues that have been touched upon here, act now. Enlist the support of experts if you are unsure on how to proceed. In my experience JCA are one of the best.