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Playbook

Remaining Positive When Your Project Is Taking a Turn

September 21, 2018

Project manager

We’ve all faced it. That point in a business-critical project where the outlook seems grim. You planned, you engaged your stakeholders, and you analyzed the risks, but unforeseen challenges arose. As a project manager, it’s your job to rally your team. How do you do that without appearing overly optimistic?

Women in leadership roles are often concerned about being perceived as unqualified. Someone who reacts with positivity to a project snag may fear that others will see her as naïve. I’ve been accused of being a cheerleader, someone who could cheer for a team with no points on the board. But optimism is important to team morale. Motivational writer Ralph Marston said it best: “Being positive in a negative situation isn’t naïve; it’s leadership.”

Bringing positive thinking to project management

With that in mind, try some of these strategies to encourage your team to remain positive through tough times:

Embrace the mission. If the project you are leading was your idea, chances are you have bought into its mission. But what about a project that was just handed to you? You have to find a way to embrace the project’s mission, know why it’s important, and get your team on board with its value. When the project runs into issues, connecting everyone back to the mission will keep them focused on the “why”—and that is what drives the “how.”

Communicate with confidence. You don’t have to be a gifted orator, but you will have to relay information and sometimes emotions to stakeholders, and deliver it with confidence. If you are used to using language that’s less direct, be intentional and fearless. Confident leaders are clearer in their messages and more compassionate in their listening, and they give clarity to project direction. If you’re not comfortable leading, they won’t be comfortable following.

Change the music. Runners realize the importance of the tempo of music they listen to while running. When they’re tired and about to hit a wall, changing the music can hype up even the most tired runner and motivate them to push through. Your team may not be running a race, but they are exerting considerable effort, and a looming project failure can be exhausting and demoralizing. So, “change the music” of your team: Help steer the conversation. Encourage optimistic thinking. Reward positive language. And change the music in your own head too.

Review the past to see the future. If you’ve ever invested, you have seen the disclaimer “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.” This is true for the stock market, but when it comes to predicting something like human behavior, the past becomes very useful. A better way of stating it is, “Past performance is the best predictor of future success.” Good project managers understand past performance by their management of historical records—old reports, logs, emails, and other records—that are collected during a project. You should also chronicle the lessons learned and create a scorecard you and your team can reference. Use it to remind your team of their own wins, the accomplishments they’ve made, and the mistakes they learned from. And while you’re at it, remind yourself.

Women in the workforce try to avoid being be seen as nurturing, but there are times when that is exactly what your project team needs. So, the next time you find your team in a come-from-behind situation, model the energy and optimism that you want to see. Think ahead to how you’ll celebrate, and remain positive. You’ll be glad you did.

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AMA’s Women’s Leadership Center offers in-person events, networking, and web events like the upcoming “Build a Better Workplace Culture with Compassion and Purpose” (October 11, 12-1 pm).
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About The Author

Alana M. Hill, PMP, is principal consultant and CEO of 2Hill Consulting Services. She is an energy industry veteran who paved the way for other women in the industry. Hill has over 20 years of expertise helping individuals and organizations lead change through analysis, strategic planning, communication, and interpersonal skills. Her clients include Fortune 500 companies, small technology companies, and nonprofits, and she is certified in several assessment methods.

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