Following a presentation I gave this week on how project managers can cultivate psychological safety within their teams, an attendee asked me to what the relationship is between psychological safety and emotional intelligence (EI). After answering her I felt it was worth writing about it.
EI is normally considered to be a personal trait although it is possible to claim that one group of people has a higher degree of EI than another. Psychological safety is usually defined in the context of a team as it wouldn't make sense to assess the level of psychological safety of an individual unless they are suffering from multiple split personalities! It would be difficult to assess psychological safety for an overall organization as companies are normally composed of multiple overlapping teams. However, it is possible to assess if the executive team is committed to building a team culture of high psychological safety within the divisions which they lead.
One model for EI uses the following four attributes: self-management, self-awareness, social awareness & relationship management.
How do these traits help a team to become psychologically safe?
Team members who are effective at self-managing and are self-aware will be better equipped to handle actions, comments or behaviors from their team members which they take exception to. They know what their own strengths are but they also understand their weaknesses which means that they are more likely to say when they don't know something, are making an assumption or need assistance from someone else on the team. They have self-confidence which means they are comfortable with experimenting and not feeling that a failed experiment reflects poorly on their abilities.
Social awareness and relationship management relate to how much empathy we demonstrate towards others and to our ability to work well in a team as both a contributor and a leader. Having higher levels of these characteristics means that individuals will be better at picking up on the discomfort of their peers and can help those who are silent to find a voice. It also means that they will be more effective at resolving conflicts which could mean interceding on behalf of a team member if they are being persecuted.
So it seems like a reasonable assumption that on those teams where the members exhibit higher levels of emotional intelligence they are likely to become psychologically safe quicker than others.
But is there an inverse relationship as well?
It is difficult to effectively improve one's emotional intelligence without receiving coaching and support from those whose feedback we trust. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel safer providing feedback with radical candor to their peers. As such, I'd assert that psychological safety can act as an accelerator for increasing the overall emotional intelligence of the members of a team.
A rising tide lifts all boats!
The restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in more project managers working remotely. While this keeps everyone safe, it also means that there is a larger supply of project managers available to lead a given project since location is less critical. So long as a project manager is temporally close to key stakeholders, in many situations they should be able to get the job done.
While this provides greater opportunity to gain experience outside your locale it also means you are facing much more competition for these roles. Your experience, education and "who you know" can certainly help to differentiate you relative to other candidates, but building a solid brand is equally important.
One of the definitions which Merriam-Webster provides is apropos to our purposes: "A public image, reputation, or identity conceived of as something to be marketed or promoted".
The first thing is to decide what you want your project manager brand to be. Perhaps it is a "Steady Eddie" who can be relied upon to get the job done or maybe you want to be the "Red Adair" of the profession who can always be counted on to extinguish the flames of a project which is on fire.
But once you have decide what your brand is, how do you go about proving that you live up to it?
A simple answer is to deliver expected project outcomes, but that's table stakes. If you don't have a track record for that, you may be in the wrong profession or, at the very least, working for the wrong company.
If successful delivery is the foundation of your brand, you still need some solid walls. These include:
But these just relate to the projects you've managed.
What do you do to give back to others? Perhaps you mentor some practitioners who are new to project management. Or maybe you volunteer your time and skills to lead initiatives for not-for-profit organizations. Maybe you are a thought leader and have helped to evolve the profession through research or work developing standards or practice guides.
Your brand as a project manager is built across multiple dimensions. Neglecting those might result in you receiving a different type of brand as per Merriam-Webster: "A mark of disgrace"!
It would be an understatement to say that project managers have had to deal with a lot of change this year. Projects have had their budgets vastly reduced or been cancelled outright, and remote work has become the norm rather than the exception. We are still far from the end of the pandemic, but in those areas where they have successfully flattened their first waves, some companies are starting to encourage their staff to return to the office.
For PMs who now have to adjust to being in the office with their team members, things are not as simple as winding the clock back a half-year or so. They will face a number of challenges including:
So how can a PM prepare for the transition and what should they do once they get back?
When the pandemic hit, many project teams were caught off guard. Project managers should heed the adage "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me".
Scott Adams does a good job above of illustrating one of the many perils of low levels of psychological safety within a team. Dilbert is trying to raise reasonable doubts with his leader, the Pointy-Haired Boss, but his concerns are met with the threat of losing his job. How likely is it that Dilbert will raise such concerns in the future?
While this scenario has been dramatized for comedy purposes, it sometimes ends with tragic results. In those cases, lives are lost and the post-incident investigations often reveal systemic repression of raising any information which would refute established plans. The March 1977 collision of two Boeing 747 jumbo jets in the Canary Islands is a textbook case of what can happen when staff don't feel safe challenging assumptions.
But most of us don't find ourselves in situations where sticking with the wrong plan will result in loss of life or limb. However, there can still be negative impacts including:
Invalid assumptions are often a source of risk which is why assumptions analysis can be an effective method of identifying project risks.
If assumptions remain unstated because team members don't feel comfortable sharing them, the team loses the opportunity to challenge those assumptions. When they don't feel safe, team members will keep their concerns to themselves, valuing short-term security over long-term benefits. And if the risks are realized, they are likely to say something to the effect of "But they never listen to us" or "I was worried about losing my job".
On the other hand, when the members of a team feel safe, they are less likely to worry about the short-term negative impacts of having made a mistake and will be comfortable proactively speaking up when they are making an assumption about something. That provides an opportunity for the rest of the team to assess the assumption and identify any risks associated with that assumption being invalid. Then, if the severity of the risk is sufficiently grave, they can define when that assumption should be verified and even have a contingency plan to implement if that assumption is proven to be invalid.
But sometimes the assumptions being made are not ours.
In the Dilbert cartoon, the invalid planning assumptions are those of the Pointy-Haired Boss's. Another benefit of a team operating at a high level of psychological safety is that the team members are more likely to challenge their leaders when those leaders have made faulty assumptions. While that is helpful to the project, getting such feedback in an honest, timely fashion will also help the leaders' decision-making to improve.
Silence doesn't create project and organizational safety, it erodes it.
I was asked a very unique question by one of the learners in a project management course I taught this week: "How do I motivate my team members when even I don't believe in the project?".
While I'd been posed this question for the first time, it is not an uncommon challenge. It is hard enough for project managers who are in full support of their projects to inspire disengaged team members so having to do so when the project managers themselves don't feel the projects are worth doing is much worse.
Start by confirming the issue does not rest with you. Are you experiencing some general malaise with the company, your role, or some other personal cause which has nothing to do with the project? If so, deal with that first, or recuse yourself if you have the option to do so until you can deal with your personal issues.
Assuming the challenge is with the project and not you, how do you go about addressing this?
You can't just grin and bear it. If you don't really believe in the benefits from the project, it will be hard for you to create a genuine sense of purpose for your team members. Worse, if you try to fake it, your team members will pick up on this and you will lose credibility with them which will hurt you much more if you have to work with them on future projects.
Make sure you understand the underlying business rationale for the project. Whether there is a financial motive or not to the project's existence, is there something you are missing with regards to its expected benefits? If you have a good relationship with sponsoring stakeholders, meet with them to ensure you have the full picture. Ask your peers if they can see something which you don't.
If it is a non-discretionary project, ask yourself why you don't believe it needs to be done? We always want to lead disruptive, innovative, sexy projects but just because you are working on a mandatory project doesn't mean that your team members can't express their creativity, especially in coming up with lean solutions to the minimal requirements. With such projects it is often a question of re-framing how you perceive them. By keeping your organization safe, you are improving its brand, reducing risk and opportunity costs.
What if it is a discretionary project? Even if it is not improving profitability or solving world hunger, is there any benefit which justifies the investment? Even if the answer is "no", could there be an intangible reason for it such as a promise made to a critical stakeholder which, if broken, would cost a lot more to address in the future? If so, why wouldn't you want to support it?
But sometimes the project you are leading truly has no merit. If so, this is the time to use your powers of influence and persuasion to convince the sponsor, governance committees and other decision makers to do the right thing. And if they don't, you have a tough personal decision to make.
If you are asked to lead a project and don't want to, always start with why.