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Under pressure? A ‘can-do’ attitude might be causing you more harm than good

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Under Pressure

“I've been a very stressed individual, but now I am on my way to knowing what to fix in my life and in my projects” attendee at the recent webinar about the importance of understanding pressure and how we respond to it. If you want to join the club and understand how your response to stress impacts project delivery, keep reading.

Carole Osterweil, executive coach and founder of Visible Dynamics presented a webinar about how the brain works and why it’s vital for leaders to be open and honest about what’s really going on. Attendees praised Carole for her ‘eye-opening and game changing content’.

When Carole suggested that project managers spend more than half their time feeling as if they are Walking in Fog*, over 80 per cent of the 200+ attendees agreed with her. What’s more, when she asked if they are brave enough to admit this in formal settings such as review meetings, one-to-ones with team leaders or project boards, 83 per cent said they weren’t.

Carole observes “I see the same pattern at all levels in organisations. When we can’t admit to Walking in Fog, and the stress that goes with it, we tend to agree to things we don’t think possible. Our silence is helpful in the short term, (our secret is safe, and no-one picks on us). Yet it has huge ramifications.”

In the webinar, Carole encouraged attendees to take a systemic view: “When we are Walking in Fog and ashamed to admit it, we are adding to our stress levels. Now a bit of stress is okay, but excess stress can set up a ‘Project Stress Cycle’ that plays out across the whole project. Indicators of a stress cycle include falling levels of trust, poor communication, collaborations running into the ground and stakeholders wanting more and more information in different formats. The resulting dynamics add to complexity and can take a project way off track.”

The Project Stress Cycle helps you understand what’s driving your own behaviour; it gives insight into how your emotions and actions determine the behaviour of others. It also gives you the opportunity to consider when and where your ‘can-do’ response is helpful.

Whilst it is important to remain positive, it’s not healthy to deny reality or to pretend things are going well when they are not.

Carole adds “It’s incredibly freeing to admit when you are Walking in Fog. There are parallels with the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Everybody knows they are Walking in Fog, just like everybody knew the emperor was naked. Yet as in the story, on projects we often go to greater and greater lengths to conceal the truth – generating additional activities, stress and complexity as we do so.”

Here are some of Carole’s top tips to reduce stress, counter the fog and avoid the Project Stress Cycle.

  1. Get used to asking yourself ‘how am I feeling?’ during the day and allow yourself time to tune into the answer, so you can take the right action. Beware the trap of pretending everything is okay and ignoring the signs your body is giving you. Instead, allow yourself to be curious. Explore what’s going on and how to relieve it. If for example, you notice tension in your shoulders - ask yourself a deeper question, ‘what might be driving this?’ and experiment by stretching, taking a deep breath, getting a drink or moving your screen to shift it.
  2. If you are in Walking Fog admit it to yourself. Be explicit and be specific. Ask yourself, ‘what is particularly foggy? What do I need to discover to make it less so?’
  3. Know that Walking in Fog may be uncomfortable, but it is possible to get through as long as you recognise what you are dealing with
  4. Talk to others about the patterns you are seeing:
    • If you are Walking in Fog, say so and be curious. Ask your stakeholders and your team members if they are in fog too, (some might be, others less so). Be specific, ask ‘what is foggy for you?’ and work with them to reduce the fog across the piece
    • If you spot a Project Stress Cycle, ask others if you are imagining it, or if they can see it too.

Understanding how the human brain works is crucial for all project professionals because it enables us to understand why we behave as we do. Rather than hiding our stress behind a can-do attitude, this knowledge frees us to admit when things aren’t quite right. It opens the door to developing the skills to reduce stress and reduce complexity – for you and everyone involved in your project.

Admitting when you are Walking in Fog and talking to others about it is a sign of strength not weakness. It will help you, your project team and our wider project community reduce the pressure of delivery and achieve the outcomes we all aspire to.

*Walking in Fog comes from Eddie Obeng’s book All Change! The Project Leader’s Secret Handbook hence it remains in capital.
Image: JulsIst/

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