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Angry Goat

As a project manager you will be be dealing with people under stress – a lot. There’ll be nervous bosses, recalcitrant contributors, conflicting agendas and angry, fearful victims upon which you are about to inflict unwanted change. How you respond to aggression and bullying attempts will affect your ability to work constructively with the parties who, to all intensive purposes are trying to run out of town.

It is quite the challenge. From ‘What they didn’t tell you about project management in class’: If you are inclined to react or defend yourself when confronted with verbal (usually) abuse then perhaps project management is not the career for you. I’d like to expand upon that a little. So what are you supposed to do?

Susie my life coach has been telling me to ‘respond’ rather than ‘react’. The difference being that the former requires consideration; the latter is more of a reflex. Try this: before you respond consider the outcome that you seek. ‘Seek’ is significant because it can be confused with desire. Your assailant’s unpleasantness may cause you to secretly wish that they burst into flames – or perhaps that’s just me. Either way, satisfying as it may be in the short term, it is probably counter productive in the context of the project.

So before you respond, it helps to remind yourself that this is work and not recreation and presumably the annoying person has something to contribute to the project. Perhaps it’s your boss. What response on your part will get you closer to a satisfactory outcome? Let that guide your next move and how you articulate it.

Your bruised ego might need to take a hit for the project but a point worth noting is that while your ego might be currency for negotiation, the truth is not and neither are the core elements of project execution as agreed in the charter. Ie if you need to change direction in order keep the peace then you will need the approval of your sponsors.

A lesson I learned the hard way was to consult them early. Advise your sponsors of the disharmony and ask them what compromises will they accept in order to keep the peace. The response might be indignation and even anger at you for suggesting that their decisions be challenged. On the other hand if you escalate an issue to the sponsors and they do not back their original decision, ie if they accept a compromise, then your enemies have outflanked you. Either you misrepresented the boss to them or you did not represent their concerns adequately to the boss. The net effect is that you have been successfully opposed and future negotiations are going to get even more ugly.

Remember that anger is a source of physical energy but if your battle does not involve wielding swords then that energy can lead to hasty and counter productive reactions. So respond rather than react; stay focused on the required outcome; consider the nine steps to conflict resolution (in ‘What they didn’t tell you about project management in class’) and keep your sponsors informed. Consult them well before the need arises to engage them.

Perhaps the most powerful lesson of all is one I learned in martial arts classes. You can’t lose your temper and win the fight. I’m quite sure that not all of John McEnroe’s on court tantrums were about him losing his temper. He has as much as admitted that if he could get his opponent angry it would take the edge of their game and give him the advantage. You can’t lose your temper and win the fight.