Have you ever had a boss for whom the only communication was yelling? Or the manager who never seemed to be satisfied, no matter what you did? Or the leader who thought that the only way to motivate was criticism and competition? Did this approach inspire you to do your best work, or just enough not to get yelled at or fired?
As a leader, have you ever expressed to your team that you thought the project would fail? That your product was a lemon? That the organization wasn’t giving you the resources the project needs to succeed. How many times have you commiserated with your team that everything was going wrong and you were sick of it? I’ll fess up – I’ve done it. And you know what, it was a big mistake and I’ve regretted it ever since. Your team is not there to be your mother, your spouse, your best friend, or your dog. It’s fine to complain to them. In fact, I highly encourage complaining at will to your dog. It’s highly therapeutic. (In my experience, cats have no patience for these conversations and walk away – they have better things to do.) Your job as a project manager and as a leader is to be supportive of your team. Yes, you must be honest about problems, and face up to issues as they occur, but you must also be a positive voice of encouragement, no matter how you may feel.
I don’t generally consider myself a naturally optimistic person. I’m a pessimist, though I usually say I’m a realist. I tell people being a realist means that I believe in identifying all possible outcomes. But if I’m honest, I really mean that I believe that if something can go wrong, it probably will. While this has probably contributed to my successful project management practice over the years, it doesn’t always make me feel like a success on a day to day basis. I shared this with a colleague this once, and she was genuinely surprised. “But you always seem so positive! Everyone looks to you for encouragement”. I laughed when she said this, and probably said something self-deprecating. But could both of these things be true? Can you be imagining the walls collapsing around you while keeping your team marching toward success?
I have learned that while it is important to examine what might go wrong, if you don’t believe something will succeed, you shouldn’t be doing it. So how to you turn negative thoughts into positive expressions? By policing your language. Don’t complain about the organization or your customers. Don’t deprecate other leaders or teams. Focus on what you can control. Instead of saying “This will never work”, say, “We have a solid plan. If we follow the plan, we will succeed.” Then make sure you are following the plan. Approach changes not as acts of desperation, but as opportunities that come from what you’ve discovered on the project.
You can also practice compassion. Instead of saying “Judy is so pathetic. She’s always late with her statuses.” Consider that maybe Judy is dealing with a challenge. Go to Judy and say “I know it’s sometimes hard to get the status reports done with everything else going on. Is there something we can do to help?”
I’m not saying you must be a Pollyanna. Bad things will happen, and hard truths must be told. A leader must be the point where reality is addressed. But avoid blame, complaints, and un-productive negative expression. This type of talk drains the energy from your team. Negative predictions have a way of coming true. Instead, look for positive ways to address the same information. Use language that, while acknowledging the problem, focuses on a solution. This works not just for external communication, but it also works for your inner monologue as well. Practicing positive expression in my thoughts about myself has made a huge difference, and allowed be to break through some of my own negative thinking. Policing your language can be a form of “fake it ‘til you make it” – finding positive way to express yourself to your team may just help you find a more positive mindset, and even help you find solutions. No one wants to be part of something that will fail – don’t undermine your leadership by being negative.
And go ahead and talk to the cat – just bring some treats along.