You know that Project Management is an exciting, challenging, and fulfilling role. But it can also put you under extreme pressure. And setbacks can be stressful, so you need to be able to handle the pressure. The word for long-term coping capacity is resilience. And that’s what we’ll study in this giant guide.
In a way, it’s baked into what a project is: novelty, uncertainty, and deadlines. And all this continues over a period. Sustained stresses can damage your health and reduce your ability to think clearly.
When that happens, your responses are less resourceful and effective. You make mistakes, feel pangs of despair, and things just get worse. Without a plan to maintain and regenerate your personal and professional resilience, things go bad. You and your project can spiral out of control.
The origin of this article lies in a project that went wrong for me. Under pressure, I cracked just a little. I quickly pulled myself together, but soon after, I had one thought: ‘never again’.
So, I decided to learn about stress and resilience. Indeed, my best-selling book is not about Project Management. It is about Stress Management! (Available in our Project Management Bookshop.)
This article is a summary of ‘what I wish I’d known then.’ Those events changed me, and my priorities. So, in this article, I’ll share with you:
In this section, we’ll look at three aspects of building your professional resilience.
At the core of your resilience are you physical and mental health. So these are where you need to start. You need to build physiological and psychological reserves. And there are four keys to long-term physical and mental well-being.
I’ll discuss the first three in this section. And then I’ll expand on the fourth, Good Relationships, in the next.
Make each of these a habit, when things are dgoing well, and you have plenty of time. This way, you won’t only build up reserves. You’ll also form resilience habits. These will help you with the discipline to maintain them in tough times. To take the best of your ‘easy-times’ investment, continue to set aside time for each of these.
They say you are what you eat. And it’s true. Your body rebuilds itself constantly out of the nutrition you take in. I shan’t lecture you on what food you should eat, and what to avoid. There are plenty of better sources for that advice.
And anyway, you probably know what’s good and what’s not. Do you dash-down a portion of sugary junk food at your desk or on your journey home? Or do you choose good quality, nutritious fresh food, and take your time?
Choose a healthy diet and eat it with relish. Make it a social, and emotional pleasure. And if you don’t know what you should be eating, take Michael Pollan’s advice. He summarizes all the available research into 7 words:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Next comes exercise. Make this a part of your routine, because it is vital for your long term physical and mental health. And therefore, it’s also key to your resilience to stress.
Maybe sporting or traditional exercise activities come easily to you. If not, find another activity that you enjoy. What about dance, swimming, or gardening. And remember: walking is one of the most effective forms of exercise. Replacement part of your journey to work with walking. You can cut costs, increase fitness, and gain valuable thinking time with little impact on your schedule.
This one is tough for project managers. With so much to do, you’ll soon find yourself working late and getting up early. For some, this is even a matter of pride. You’ll travel thousands of miles for one meeting. Or you’ll get up for a 6am conference call… just a few hours after you finish writing a status report.
Time to rest and relax is crucial. And sleep is even more so. With a small reduction below ideal sleep levels, your brain function will drop. It’s effect on your performance (and safety) is the same as illegal levels of blood alcohol. And sustained sleep debt can trigger psychological disorders like neurosis and depression. Late night or early mornings: choose one.
To go with good food, exercise, and rest, is good relationships. First, healthy relationships are essential ofor good menatl and emotional health.
But they also create a network thatyou can rely for support in tough times. It’s like an investment. One day, you’ll need to draw from the bank of credit you have earned. So in the good times, ensure these relationships are strong and positive.
We all have people who love us: your partner, your family, or your close friends. These are the people you can call upon for unconditional support during tough times. They are loyal and committed. Their love and friendship is a symbol that they have signed up to support you when you need help.
So, when it comes to a time when you need them, don’t be afraid to ask. They will be willing to be there for you. They will want to help.
But this does need to be a reciprocal arrangement. So invest in your relationship with small acts of kindness. Be generous with your time.
You also have a second tier of supporters. These are your inner circle of trusted colleagues. Their advice, counsel, and support will help you to get things into perspective. When things get complicatd, they will help you understand the subtleties, and make the decisions.
Build up this circle throughout your career. Maintain it carefully and meet people regularly. You’ll need a sense of who to go to for different help. Who:
You get the idea. Create a balanced group, and avoid the temptation to gather people who only agree with or compliment you. Your ideal is a group that is smarter and sharper than you are.
Keep an eye out for one person who is special. At each stage of your career, try to find a wise guide. This is someone with the experience, insight, and gravitas, to transform your thinking. They will ask questions challenge you and knowledge to take you new places.
A wise guide can help you hone your skills and reflect on your experiences. They can both share their experiences and help you find the meaning of yours. This is a relationship will help you grow as a professional. You may be a smart operator now. But don’t you aspire to a level of wisdom that other will seek out?
In tough times, your wise guide will be your source of advice and insight. They will also listen to you without criticism. Their questions will help you work out issues for yourself. Your partner may listen with sympathy. Your inner circle may have ideas, but also an agenda. But your wise guide will be objective. They will help you balance the conflicting pressures of tough times.
The third part of preparing for tough times is to anticipate them. Because they will come. What matters is how you handle them.
Things will go wrong; shift happens! And sometimes it will be big. Resilience is not about averting these problems; that’s part of the role of risk management. Resilience is being fit and strong, to handle them well.
But another part of risk management is important to your resilience. This is the part that identifies points of failure and then reduces the likelihood and impact of damaging outcomes. This will reduce your emotional susceptibility to setbacks.
Another part of risk management is contingency planning. This will prepare your team for handling specific contingencies. Think through a range of scenarios. Then:
Knowing you have ways to respond to many scenarios will give you two things. It will reduce the stress of anticipation, making you more effective in focusing on the now. And it will also increase your speed of response when things do happen.
Risk management and scenario planning are powerful processes. You will schedule activities throughout your project.
Take yourself out of your project for at least half an hour. Take nothing but a notebook and pen. This is your chance to take stock of where you are. Your brain is excellent at synthesizing ideas from a vast array of information. But without some quiet time for the ideas to emerge, you will miss out on its insights. This half hour has always been one of the most valuable times in my working week. I can see trends, look forward, or spot things the whole team has missed.
If you are like most project managers, you thrive on constant change. You love the ebb and flow of triumph and tribulation. But what happens when you hit a long patch of problems, set-backs, and mounting pressure? This can leave the toughest of us feeling stressed and out of control.
Now, more than ever, you’ll need to remain objective, and continue making good decisions. So, you’ll need to call on all your reserves of strength and resilience.
In the face of these tough time’s let’s see what options you have to remain resilient. So, I made it my own priority to learn about this after my ‘project fail’ which I mentioned above.
I had let my good habits slip. So, I ate poor food, in a hurry. I took no exercise. And I had too little sleep. Events blind-sided me and I was in a foreign country, a long way from my usual support networks.
So what could I have done, to help me bounce back to form, as fast as possible.
Let’s start with some myth-busting. Because you first priority is to prevent set-backs from becoming full-blown stress. As soon as that happens, your perspective starts to slip. Now you are prey to three dangerous patterns of faulty thinking:
As soon as one of these takes hold, your task of building yourself back gets far harder.
Personalization is that feeling that an adverse situation is all about you. It’s your fault. Or people are out to get you; they want to make your life difficult.
Project manager’s can be at particular risk of this. You often feel a deep responsibility for your projects. From this, you may find you identify yourself with your project, too much. ‘I am my project’, you say. So, you start taking setbacks personally. That can lead to the false belief that there is something wrong with you.
Here’s what to do. Separate what’s happening from the yourself. You are nothing ore than one of many players and influences on events. These events are nothing more than the natural ups and downs of project life. They would be there for any project manager. They are not an attack on you, and nor are they your fault.
If you don’t get a handle on permananece, it can get worse. You can think there is a pattern of everything being against you.
Now, you’ll interpret every event as part of a pattern of bad luck. And that can lead to feeling beleaguered by sustained and inevitable hardship.
See things for what they are. Probably, no more than two or three unfortunate events around the same time. Much of your life is probably carrying on as normal. There are the normal minor ups and downs. This one just represents a small cluster of bigger than normal ones. That’s bound to happen sometimes!
Look for the specific events that have knocked you back. Then examine the background to see what the causes really were. And also look for examples of successes and positive events. These will put the setbacks into their proper perspective.
The biggest danger is starting to see the pattern of setbacks as a permanent pat of project life for you. If your feel you won’t be able to escape, you will want to give up project management. That would be a shame.
In truth, tough times will pass. You may handle them well. Or maybe you won’t. But things will return to their normal pattern soon. As long, that is, as you don’t succumb to the permanence trap. You must not read every minor glitch and setback as part of a permanent pattern from which you can’t escape.
Tell yourself ‘this too shall pass’. Spend with your faithful supporters, inner circle, and wise guide. And plan your way out. Look to the future, beyond the narrow horizon that today’s adversity draws your eyes to. Also look back at past successes. See how this is a run of bad fortune. It is exceptional, rather than part of a pattern. Other runs have come and gone. More will come and go.
How can you escape the traps of personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence? There are three attitudes that research show can best equip you to handle stress and adversity:
Don’t think of optimism as a mindless ‘glass-half-full’ attitude. True optimism is an active search for opportunities to make positive change.
So you need to focus on what is important. Tune you antenae to the issues, and you’ll be ready to spot ways to resolve them. One way to get a jump-start is to inventory your resources. Ask:
Aproach your problems in a structured way:
This way, you will start to feel in control. The confidence that you are competent and effective is the basis for your resilience.
Under pressure, do you find yourself getting ‘stuck’ in a fixed way of thinking? This can lead you to the same set of choices, and trying the same thing over and over again.
That’s great if it works. But when it doesn’t, the repeated failure leads to despair. The people who are most flexible in how they adapt to a situation, are most likely to succeed. This means looking for more options:
If at first you don’t succeed…
…try, try something else.
Of these three attitudes, I’ve found gratitude is the most powerful. When things seem to be going bad, it can turn deep feelings of helplessness and depression around. It will restore a healthy perspective on events. So, if you do slip into a level of despondency, then gratitude is a powerful way out.
Here’s what to do. Set aside time each day to think about what you are grateful for. it will help you to put your adversities in context. This works best, when you write it down and create a gratitude journal.
It works because all you can see in tough times are the troubles facing you. But with a deliberate review of everything you have to be grateful for, you can regain your sense of balance.
Let’s get practical. Shifting your attitudes can have a profound effect on your emotional state. But sometimes, things go bad quickly. They can flip you from a cheerful optimist to a miserable victim on a turn. You may not have enough time and perspective to use those ideas.
So, what you need is a tried and tested process. You want something you know will work. And it needs to be easy for you to apply it.
So here are three simple processes that will work.
Overload can trigger stress. But it won’t always. Let’s define terms.
Overload is having more to do in a fixed time than your resources will allow.
It an objective state. And it’s one that project managers are familiar with. We roll up our sleeves and plan our way out.
Overwhelm is different. It is a subjective, emotional state.
Overwhelm is a stress response where you feel that whatever faces you – a little or a lot – is too much.
The tasks you face may be easy to handle. But first, you must overcome the feeling of overwhelm.
The way to do this is to focus on the facts:
You can find a more detailed process for overcoming overwhelm in our feature article: ‘Feeling Overwhelmed by Your Project? What to do‘.
This is a quick way to respond to a situation with the potential to overwhelm or unsettle you. It is the SCOPE Process:
Under pressure, we often try to respond as quickly as we can. Don’t.
Stop. Take a breath. Pause.
Sometimes all you need is a deep breath. At others, you may need to step away from the situation. Sudden pressure to respond can trigger changes in brain chemistry. These activate the less thoughtful, considered, and rational parts of your brain. You jump into action, and the stress response is part of this. The Stop gives you time to reassert conscious, reasoned control.
You cannot respond wisely without facts. So, make sure you understand the situation for what it is. Avoid making assumptions from the one moment that triggered your response. Find out more.
Now think about your choices for possible responses. Review your options – mentally or with others – to damp-down your emotional response. Once you have found some options, assess them and make a decision.
Once you have made your choice, act with speed and determination. Action gives you a sense of being in control. Since stress comes from feeling out of control, action reduces stress.
What’s the difference between wisdom and foolishness? I’ll tell you. Fools carry on regardless:
‘I have a plan: I’m following it.’
… even when it does not succeed.
Wisdom is pragmatic. Check the outcomes and evaluate whether your plan is working. Or do you need to Stop, Clarify, and find a new Option?Project Management - SCOPE Process: Stop - Clarify - Options - Proceed - Evaluate Click To Tweet
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a powerful therapeutic tool. It works well for people with long-term resilience problems. You can apply the principles to avoid long-term problems.
What events triggered the feelings that you are struggling to cope?
The trigger to these feelings was not the external events themselves. It was one or more of the beliefs you attach to them. What are your beliefs about what happened?
How do those beliefs your choices? How do they change your options and opportunities?
Now challenge the beliefs that limit your options (‘limiting beliefs’). Test yourself to find evidence to support those beliefs. And look for contradictory evidence. What alternative interpretations can you put on the events? How do the new insights give you more control over your choices?
Here’s an example. Rather than:
‘This is another example of my bad luck…’
(Personalization and Permanence),
‘These events are out of my control, but I do have control over how I respond.’
How about this:
‘These events are out of my control, but I do have control over how I respond. I will get my team together and create three groups to:
Stabilisation is my top priority. So, that’s where I will focus my attention.’
Isn’t that a whole lot better than feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and defeated by events?
What are your experiences? We’d love to hear your tips and advice for being more resilient, or regaining your resilience.
When have you had problems like these on a project? What did you do, and what did you learn from your experience?
And do you have any questions for Mike and the community? We’d love to help you with them.
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 13 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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