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Project Managers Change Expectations and Reduce Stress

I recently read an article about relieving stress.  Peter Bregman, noted author with Harvard Business Review stated, “The best strategy for reducing stress: Change your expectations.”

I thought about this approach for team building purposes.  Managing teams can be highly stressful. Stress comes with the territory.  Project managers often live in chaos.  To me, it’s like working in the big tent at a circus with so many acts to juggle all at once.  If a project manager were to change expectations, what would he/she change?  Many of the variables project managers must work with are unchangeable.  Fixed.  Variables such as budgets, time lines, goals and often, staff.  So what’s left to change?

Once I started reviewing the many variables that affected productive teams, I came up with many ways for project managers and leaders to change their expectations.

Control. What must be perfect. Accuracy. Morale. Relationships.  Attitude. Approach. Conflict resolution. Punishment techniques for mistakes made. Environment. Physical health.

Let’s expand to see what can affect the Stress-O-Meter.

Control.  I’ve seen project managers who falsely believe they own all of the control.   The buck-stops-here attitude.  In reality, that’s simply not true.  Any team member has control about the caliber of work h/she contributes to the team.  That’s a lot of control distributed out to every team member.  So the project manager’s notion of control can change to reduce stress. The most effective leaders I’ve seen admit (often publicly) that they know they do not have complete control of the project because the success of the project depends on the commitment from each team member.  If the leader manages the team by honoring (and monitoring) the control owned by each team member, the stress load can be reduced.

Perfection.  Some things absolutely need to be perfect, other things not.  Good project managers know the difference.  Project managers place undue stress on themselves and the team when they demand perfection in every area (military an exception). That’s ego.

Accuracy.  Ditto above.

Morale.  So many things influence human morale.  It’s the project manager’s responsibility to keep the morale up for all the team members.  That good morale will give the project a better chance of success.  Effective project managers know what does and does not improve morale for every single team member.  Effective project managers also know how to keep their own morale in high status.  It’s a variable that can grow or shrink stress levels.

Relationships.  Granted, relationships between team members is undoubtedly the greatest potential stress area.  Stress goes up when relationships break down or when tension stays unchecked.  We all bring unique personalities to the table.  Good project managers appreciate the differences, expect to have challenges and are ready with a bank of positive solutions.

Attitude.  It’s more than a glass-half-empty perspective.  Attitudes are another area that can be a feeding ground for significant change.  I’ve seen a person’s attitude change immediately after a single word, event or action from a project manager.  Project managers who are less stressed know what to do to inspire, motivate and energize. Attitudes are actually quite malleable.

Approach.  Many of us believe that our approach to problem solving is the best.  Guilty.  The most effective project managers are flexible about how their team members approach a problem.  Some of those other approaches will fail or succeed but the project manager who forces his only approach on others and squashes members to create other effective methods will guarantee a high level of stress – to himself and to the team.

Conflict resolution.  Conflict almost always arises.  Expect it.  As Seth Godin artfully describes in his book, The Dip**, most negative events that happen in all projects are foreseeable.  That means each project manager can plan ahead to resolve conflict.   When conflict arises, the Dip-wise project manager is ready.  That type of planning is a stress reducer.

Punishment techniques.  Here is an area for a lot of flexibility.  When mistakes happen – and they will (see all previous variables) – the project manager has choices in a response.  Good project managers have many responses in their tool kit and are ready to administer any number of punishment techniques:

“Go back and make the correction by the end of the day.”

“You have one more chance to make this right.  If that doesn’t work, we will talk about probation.”

“Go talk to Jane to see how she solved a similar problem.”

“What will it take to correct this?”

“I will get this corrected; please move on to the next phase.”

“I expect you to come in earlier and stay later.”

“Let’s put this problem on the table with the team and see if we can come up with a resolution.”

And on and on.

Environment.  We have read in history books about sweat shops. Oh yes, they do still exist.  Those sweat shops have proven to be ineffective in the long run because they burn out the team.  Managing those who are sweating must be highly stressful!   From sweatshops to playgrounds, work environments have taken on their own unique styles.  A good project manager is creative and influential about providing an environment that gets the most out of his team.  Even though the manager is likely to have limited power and budget to make major changes, there is a lot that’s possible.  Sometimes a simple change in the environment can do wonders.  I’ve seen managers re-arrange desks/cubicles to get the right people working together.  One manager had the west side windows covered with tinted screen to make it more comfortable in the afternoon for his team (I guess that would be an un-sweatshop.).  Good project managers use ice breakers and team building activities every chance they get.  When the team is in stress, the project manager must go into creative mode to identify what can be altered in the work environment to get the most out of the team.

Health.  Healthier teams can perform better.  Simple.  Provide plenty of physical and mental breaks, encourage healthy living and eating.  Some project managers encourage teams to do physical activity together, such as walking, bowling, baseball, etc.

What does your Stress-O-Meter look like? Are you boiling, twisted and stressed or cool, calm and prepared?  It’s up to you.


** If you haven’t read The Dip yet, it’s a great and easy read:

Another original article by The Game Gal. You may reproduce all or part of this content as long as you provide attribution in the form of a link back to this website (or copy and paste the following: http://www.GamesandTeamBuilding.com). Thanks for being a great team player!

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