Are project managers lonely?

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Wellbeing is thankfully becoming a topic that can be openly discussed in the workplace. The Association for Project Management recognises the importance in driving discussions about mental health and wellbeing within the sector. And many organisations now offer structured support around a range of issues such as stress. But project managers can be struck by all manner of personal wellbeing issues, as this Reddit thread shows.

The dilemma:

“Does anyone feel lonely as a [project manager] – like you are always on the outside looking in? Working with lots of teams but never being part of them?

“Some context: I am four months into my first [project management] role. I am working for a big organisation, with a relatively small [project] team. In my role I am responsible for leading two large projects (with mini projects) in different locations – so I essentially split my week in two. And it is going really well. I have built good relationships with my stakeholders, delivered some really successful workshops and actually got some quite stuck situations moving.

“But I feel really lonely at the moment, I've had a few days where I dread going into work because I feel so disconnected. Does this make sense to anyone else?”

Posted by u/BamshamBananas on the project management subreddit.

The responses:

The first thing to note is that u/BamshamBananas is not alone. Their post immediately attracted several supportive comments. An emotional u/gbspnl, for example: “I feel exactly the same… This sub has really made an emotional change to me as it helps to read people with the same thoughts and frustrations.”

“As a [project manager] in academia, I often feel lonely,” wrote u/alwaysearly37. “You're not always part of the team; more to the point, you're often an outsider there for a temporary assignment. You're not in any one place day-to-day. Because I engage multiple stakeholders per day, I know a lot of people – but I know none of them well. And you're often butting up against inertia as a [project manager], so you're not always the most liked person. I know exactly how you feel.”

One solution to this problem – suggested by the original poster’s (OP’s) own partner, also a project manager – is to remember that it’s nice to like your stakeholders, but they don’t need to be your friends. u/AhmedH14 suggested finding other project managers to form a support group: “When I was working corporate, we were five [project managers], each working on different construction projects. But when we were working from head office, we'd have lunch and take coffee breaks together, and that served as a team-builder for us.”

The OP replied that their feelings of loneliness had intensified when another project manager at their level in the organisation had left.

Many of the responses encouraged the OP to work on team interactions – finding ways to forge closer links beyond the transactional moments in the project. “You've got to go out of your way to bond with team members and stakeholders, get to know them: their likes and dislikes, what turns them on and what sets them off,” suggested u/pm_maestro, a 30-year project management veteran. “Do lunch, coffee, drinks, laughs – and commiserate.”

u/AlexanderGo added: “Just remember that four months isn’t very long and relationships will develop more over time. The key now is to maintain your positive outlook, and you'll get there!”

(It’s crucial to remember that “chin up” should never be the only support you offer to someone with mental health issues – even if promoting a positive outlook is helpful.)

The OP agreed with a responder that said external impressions often do not match one’s internal feelings: “On a surface level it looks like I am very integrated, but I still feel that there is a distance and I don't really belong…”

It’s a reminder that you should be sympathetic and listen patiently, without judgment, when someone is having emotional issues at work, regardless of whether it looks like you have an easy fix, or their situation doesn’t seem to merit their sense of being upset.

u/Goozer gets stood out for his unique solution: “You sound good at your job - learn to take pride in your accomplishments, take confidence from them and think of them when you feel low. I knew a bloke who bought a trophy for himself and had it inscribed with the project name and put it on his desk to cheer himself up in low moments.” That might not work for everyone – but finding little ways to focus on your own, your team’s and your organisation’s successes can never hurt.

Brought to you by Project journal.

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Richard Young

Posted by Richard Young on 10th Sep 2019

About the Author

Richard Young is the consulting editor of Project
Project is the official journal of the Association for Project Management (APM).

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