Stress in Project Management

How did it start?

Since projects have claimed their rightful place in the business as a means of achieving complex goals, one can observe a tendency to attribute the success of a project to a method applied. It's widely believed that an innovative and up-to-date set of routines is a key factor in having your goal achieved within the budget and to the proper quality. It's a statement that has become almost a myth, therefore more and more companies worldwide struggle to apply tools and newest methodologies to optimize their processes and ensure that the risk of failure is mitigated.

Okay, enough with the academic jibber-jabber, let's get to the point.

In this article I'll try to convince you that it is flawed thinking - in reality, there is a big amount of factors that are creating an impact on the project success or failure and very few of them are related to applied methodology or tools used by the project team. On the other hand, neglecting one of them could have a catastrophic consequence to the project. 

 I will try to show you that a lot of problems one encounters when managing a project are created by people and it's the people who have the biggest impact on the project outcome. If you acknowledge stress as a manageable factor, you can make it much easier for your colleagues and yourself.

Take into consideration that that information below is just the tip of the iceberg and there is so much more to it. However, in order to get familiar with this subject, you must learn the basics first and then get to the very point of the problem. In the end, I will introduce a few techniques to reduce stress in the team. 

Please remember that those techniques are not one-size-fits-all solutions. It's a difference between relieving the pain and reacting against the source of a problem. Dealing with the symptoms and killing the virus is what you should do.

Project as a stressor

This is a worn-off maxim, but every project is unique. Its uniqueness is not only illustrated by different triple constraint values and products, but also by different project teams that would execute it, organisations that fund the endeavour, project management methods chosen and such - the list goes on. There are so many factors to consider and monitor that it causes headaches. The project manager must be aware that things can always go south and be prepared for the worst.

Getting something to go off the rails in the project is one thing, but monitoring, recognition of potential conflicts and taking countermeasures is something that all project managers do. Most of them, I believe, do it subconsciously and some of them are fully aware of the situation - they are responsible for the stress level both in the project team and for their own.

What is stress actually?

Stress is a physical, mental or emotional factor that causes tension in the body. 

I am not going to elaborate on what kind of chemical reaction it triggers, I'd rather show you how your prefrontal cortex works when blasted with catecholamines cocktail (adrenaline and dopamine), according to Dr. Amy Armstern :

The graph above shows that there is a parabolic relation between stress level and productivity.

Low levels of catecholamines will result in sleepiness and low focus level, whereas a high level of them will increase stress and productivity reduction. The optimal level of them will result in peak focus, productivity, and organisation of the work.

That should give an idea to you that stress should be reduced in the work environment but only to the point of high productivity. Complete elimination of it might result in a lack of motivation in the team, which is similarly counterproductive as too much stress.

Let's break down the stressful situations of a project manager and a project member to better understand them and find techniques that can affect their work positively and negatively.

Project Manager's stress

According to a 2012 study by Samad Aidane, project managers are more prone to stress-related work in comparison to other office professions. It means that project stakeholders formulate demands of delivering value for the organisation with high disregard for anticipated and unexpected obstacles that can be run up against. This comprises of company policies or internal conflicts or triple constraint limitations.

In another article, Barry Z. Posner lays out the most popular stress factors that project manager have to face:

  1. Inadequate resources allocation to the project

  2. Unrealistic deadlines

  3. Unclear goals

  4. Lack of team members' motivation

  5. Insufficient planning

  6. Ineffective communication

  7. Goal shift or resource availability

  8. Internal conflicts in the organisation

If you compare them with the personality traits of above-the-average project managers, you will see that to every stress factor there might be a corresponding trait. (see the list below and associate the skills with the list above) That shows that top problems that project managers are facing are people-related and I am not the only person to formulate such a thesis.

  1. Organisation skills

  2. Experience

  3. Leadership skills

  4. Team-building skills

  5. Organisation skills once again

  6. Argumentation skills

  7. Resourcefulness

  8. Team-building skills once again.

S. Lysonski and V. Nikalant in their article are mentioning similar conclusions.

They indicate that the project manager's role is exposed to stress, friction, and conflicts. According to the authors, it can be sourced to one of the roles that the project manager has to play, a „Boundary Spanner".

Boundary spanner is a role that causes two stressors - a role conflict (as the project manager has to satisfy multiple stakeholders) and role ambiguity (which often means a scarcity of information on how his performance will be assessed and shifting responsibilities in the project).

Above mentioned article can be compared with a study conducted on stress factors of IT project managers by Arina Richmond and Martin Skitmore. The results and conclusions formulated within are extending the founding of previous authors:

  • Stressors of project managers are similar to those submitted by regular managers. However, project managers often try to cope with the stress by the elimination of the problem rather than suppressing emotions caused by it, as regular managers tend to do.

  • One of the biggest stressors for project managers is team availability. It is a widespread practice to not fully reassign a team member to a project team and hence creating two superiors and decreasing the project manager's authority.

To sum up this part, one can see that there are multiple stress sources in a project manager's job:

  • Project manager as a change agent that is responsible for project success no matter the situation;

  • Project manager as a pacifier that constantly monitors for conflict situation where he acts accordingly and in an organised manner;

  • Project manager as a boundary spanner, who tries to satisfy contradictory goals.

  • Project manager as a passionate person, who understands the delicate nature of human relationships and how they affect the project and who can ease down or stir up the ambiance.

Team member and stakeholder stress

In order to manage the team well, the project manager has to understand that his team is also affected by stress.

As a boundary spanner, he has to lead the stakeholders group towards conflict resolution and resuming the work towards the project goal.

It goes without saying that the task is exceptionally difficult, as it requires strategic thinking, analytical skills, and empathy towards the opponent. Those will be yet again the situations that must be approached with careful tending and a cool head.

Luckily for our jinxed project manager, those types of situations are often schematic and can be categorised, identified and understood.

Keep in mind that every person wants to minimise negative incentives and maximise the positives. SCARF model explains that the source of this behaviour is visceral and was used to ensure the survival of a species. Bad/negative incentives were associated with death or injury, whereas positive incentives with survival. (When in danger, most of the glucose and oxygen is  transferred to muscles, rather than the prefrontal cortex, which causes deficiency of memory and analytical thinking).

SCARF model also mentions 5 domains that are affected whenever a conflict arises:

  1. Status as the relation between team members and stakeholders. Won discussion or a quarrel can lead to an increase of dopamine in blood and shifts in the unofficial hierarchy. It goes without saying that these are dangerous events and will create stress reactions in people, no matter who ends up on top.

  2. Uncertainty which is caused by atypical situations which deflect people's attention towards them and decrease focus (see role ambiguity above)

  3. Autonomy as treating the work environment as a controllable entity and therefore feeling of control. Lack of control over the situation or full transition of autonomy to a superior is going to be huge stressors for a person.

  4. Relatedness as a feeling of companionship within the project team. It's pretty important to monitor this one as the sense of abandonment will trigger stress reactions as well.

  5. Fairness as an expectation of proper treatment - this helps out to reach satisfaction when justice is served and decreases uncertainty. On the other hand, when team members are not treated fairly or there are deviations from procedures, the project manager can observe hostile behaviours and scarcity of empathy.

It's worthwhile to compare the SCARF model with 5 groups of stress sources created by a medical committee in Toronto, Canada.

  1. Work-related  I.e. poor working conditions, work exhaustion, time pressure, and physical danger.

  2. Organisation-related i.e. role ambiguity and role conflict, team responsibility, and boundary spanner conflict.

  3. Career-related i.e. over or under-qualification, no job security or an excess of ambition.

  4. Relationships-related I.e. superior/inferior relationships and task delegation.

  5. Structure-related I.e. no decision authority, budget limitations, no emotional support or poor financial situation.

It's rather easy to associate each group to a domain presented by a SCARF model. For me, that means that a resourceful project manager must be aware of stress source groups and what kind of domains they can affect. A complex approach to stress management must monitor stress sources and treat the SCARF model as an indicator of what kind of domains must be addressed in order to ease the tension within the team.

How to decrease the stress

Okay, we've got stress sources and domains fixed for both the project team and the project manager. It should be easy now to understand the struggles of people within the team and this should be the very half of battle.

Now I will talk about how to cope with exceeded levels of stress.

Reduction of stress should be approached by limiting the stressors and stimulating the reward emotions. Let's break it down for every SCARF domain.

  1. Status - it's a touchy domain, one must remember that even little gestures have big impact.
    • Self-evaluation would be a great way to prevent a person from turning hostile to the rest. By admitting to wrong-doing by himself, there is no environmental pressure to assign blame. People would be more prone to correct themselves if they truly believe there is something to work on, rather than accepting the role of a scapegoat, knowing there is so much more to the problem than their behaviour.
    • Public praise and private slap on the wrist in case of giving feedback. The first option impacts the status greatly and the second one does not leave it in shatters. Public praise shows that the environment is well aware of someone's productivity and opens up a clear path for others, who'd like to increase their status. Private slaps are obviously better than public ones, as you don't have to kick dirt on someone who's already being looked down on.
    • Promotion - affects the status domain greatly, but it can also relate to fairness, as other team members might treat is as an unfair move and as an outcome, it may increase overall stress in the team. It depends on the situation. A fair promotion produces a living example of career path rules introduced or a complete collapse of motivation in the team.
  2. Uncertainty
    • Proper planning and execution of projects that are done to the highest standards. If it's ensured that team members are exactly aware of what the project is about and what goal they are trying to achieve, they are more confident in their decisions and work.
    • Also, proper communication in a timely manner will let people prepare to face upcoming difficulties and thus increase uncertainty. 
  3. Autonomy
    • Support this domain by creating maneuverability for team members - let them off the leash and let them solve the problem on their own rather than imposing your own solutions onto them. It's their job to find a solution rather than mindlessly follow your orders. 
    • A large enterprise might have a problem with the solution above, therefore project manager might declare an escalation policy that regulates the gravity of problems that team member is permitted to solve on his own. That way you can cope with the inertia of a big organisation.
    • The elasticity of work hours - if it's possible, do not stick to 9-5 schedule. Let people adjust them to their own daily routines. If possible, of course.
  4. Relatedness - also a touchy domain, as it might go unaddressed in larger organisations.
    • Create mentoring programs - show team members that organisation and people within care about their development and they are not disposable mercenaries.
    • Create small and high-autonomy workgroups, where people can relate to each other. Make them aware that they are not left alone with the problem. Let them consult each other and together find the optimal solution. That's why you hired them. 
  5. Fairness - easy to manage and has a big impact on the team.
    • Increase transparency and quality of communication. Put things simply and in plain English or whatever language that applies. Let people know what's going on.
    • Let the team create its own rules. They will create them for their own benefit of course, but it will become the leverage of their own productivity, as they will feel like appreciated experts. And they will start to behave alike.

Keep in mind those domains and work with them. If you are an observant individual that takes care of the team, you will see that the stress is greatly decreased among the members and it affects the work environment considerably.

Now, it doesn't mean this is applicable to all teams everywhere. Sometimes the condition requires to act the other way around and against the domains. Those are very delicate and extreme situations and I am not going to cover that part in this article.

It is worth mentioning that there are also techniques that aim towards relaxation of the body and mind. Some of them are widely known but they should be applied together with those mentioned above. They can be also applied by a Project manager to decrease his own stress level.

  1. Yoga - proven to be good stress fighter. 

  2. Paris Method - great meditation technique to calm the mind, finding inner peace and increase confidence. 

  3. Rebirthing/breathing exercises - I'd recommend „Hack the flow state" by Wilson Meloncelli.

  4. Hypnosis - not going to link anything, this is something to discover on your own :)

Well, I hope that piece of information is going to help someone. Let me know if you have any questions, I am always eager to talk or calm someone down - find the email address here ;)