When we talk about job stress we naturally think of military roles, police and fire fighters who often have deal with unhappy people and are physically under threat. Their jobs can be very stressful but there are many different kinds of stress.
Remember the Olympic games in Sydney? When Kathy Freeman, the Australian golden girl of athletics was left standing under a burning cauldron because the majestic ascendency of the flames was interrupted by a PC rebooting. How do you think it would feel to be the person responsible for turning Australia’s favourite daughter into a shish-kabab while 3.6 Billion people around the world watched? How much stress do you think the IT support team were feeling at the time? (stats from http://www.statista.com)
In contrast, one of my ‘pay my way through uni’ jobs was to sell seafood across the counter in a shop in Redcilffe, Queensland. There were elements of the job that were less than pleasant. The smell for example, not the shop; it was refrigerated and cleaned on an hourly basis but when you left to go home and the warm Queensland sunlight hit the prawn juice and fish scales in your cloths – the smell has been known to stop traffic. BUT: The shop sold quality produce at reasonable prices and 9 out of 10 people who walked through the door were smiling. It wasn’t a lot of money but it was easy money.
The future careers of entertainers, event coordinators and public relations officers are constantly at stake. I’m willing to bet that Meatloaf’s agent has had a quiet time since his performance at the 2011 AFL GF. (Australian Football League Grand Final – if you didn’t see it, Meatloaf’s performance was cringe-worthy, even to a seasoned Meatloaf fan like me).
As a project manager you are an event coordinator. You are a public relations officer. You have budget and time constraints and your performance in your current project affects, not just your self-esteem, confidence or sense of achievement but also your personal and professional reputation and your future career potential. Pretty much every aspect of your hierarchy of needs (according to Maslow) is regularly under threat.
So you might say project management can be a stressful job and for many years, for me it was. Professionally speaking, my saving grace was that when it all came to a head, my home life was even more of a train wreck. You know how stressful moving house can be? At one stage, within the space of 18 months I had moved house 6 times. 3 of those moves were interstate. I sold my house, bought two others; My brother was involved in a serious motorcycle accident; I changed jobs 3 times; broke up with the only long term partner that I’d ever had only to find that the person I’d started seeing was known to the police and possibly a psychopath; I was coping until I caught a cold. So really, worrying about someone else’s project was a pleasant distraction.
Now that I’m living a spectacularly normal and delightfully average life I’ve had time to reflect upon my career as a project manager. The result is ‘What they didn’t tell you about project management in class’. (for details about the book click on the blog’s ‘home’ button)
The outcome of so much pondering is that I’ve come to the conclusion that project management needn’t be stressful. I remember the exact point in time when I started to see things differently. It was when the owner and GM of Clarity Consulting (through whom I consulted at the time) Dennis, called to offer me a lift home. It was 3am. I was so stressed that I didn’t even think to ask what he was doing out and about at that time of night. On the way home we stopped at a little bar in Chapel St called ‘The Pig’s R’s’ – strangely appropriate I thought. Dennis offered to buy me a drink. Since I wasn’t driving and I saw no reason for restraint and while drowning our sorrows I heard Dennis say, “But then if they were competent, capable professionals, they wouldn’t need us so shut up and take the money”. I looked at him. He was grinning like a Cheshire cat. He was absolutely right of course. That was the point in time when I began to look at the role of project manager from the perspective of ‘the project manager’s mission’.
No amount of effort on my part is going to make this system work. I don’t have the technical expertise and those who do, tell me the design is flawed and those who have the power to change the design aren’t listening. I can remember Dennis telling me, ‘we track their progress, we offer them help; We bring to them the best advice available. If they won’t accept help and won’t listen to the advice then they’ve got to go’. This is a very scary concept when you are talking about the one who signs your pay cheques, someone head-hunted into the company directly by your project sponsor.
It gives me no pleasure to tell you, or even to remember, that it happened exactly as Dennis predicted. The Group IT manager lost his job. The project manager can’t make the impossible happen, no matter how powerful the sponsor. I was beginning to see that the ultimate outcome would have little to do with my expertise. My contribution was simply and only some coordination and communication (in this case between warring parties).
I dreaded the circus otherwise referred to as the weekly team meetings. It always involved a lot of shouting, usually at me, however I soon learned that if I’d done my co-ordination and communication appropriately then the shouting quickly re-directed to those who deserved it. Pretty soon those who were being shouted at began communicating with me much more freely between meetings and pretty soon the obvious and inescapable conclusion that some bad decisions had been made, bubbled to the surface and that’s when it became possible to manage the managers.
So is project management stressful? Sometimes but you know you’re doing it right when everyone else is stressed and you’re not. In ‘What they didn’t tell you about project management in class’ I compare project management to prostitution. You are often treated harshly, but they pay you accordingly and there’s always an end date.