Three nasty traps for project professionals

In Change by A. Geoffrey Crane

Recently, folks have been asking me what I’ve been up to at school and what kinds of things I’m researching. My main interests will always revolve around both emotional intelligence and project management and how the two fit together. Recently, I’ve been digging into the psychological risks that follow PMs around and trying to get a better handle on what makes us tic. Here are a couple things you, or your PM friends, might find interesting.

Identity reconstruction

You know the drill: anytime we move from one job to another, we have to totally reshape ourselves to fit in with our new workplace. It’s a new company, with a new manager, new clients, a new set of colleagues and a new Keurig. It’s hard. Depending on the role, however, many sell-side PMs will find themselves moving from place to place 5-6 times a year or more! You might think this gets easier, but many people report that it doesn’t. It gets worse if you stick your foot in your mouth with a new stakeholder – now you have to undo your mistakes.

And you’re an outsider. I’ve personally witnessed contract employees being left out of meetings because they “didn’t belong”. Nic Beech (2011) found in his work that “there is a social separation in which the [interim worker] is regarded as ‘unclean’ or ‘prohibited’”. As you can imagine, it doesn’t take a whole lot of this type of treatment for a PM to start questioning how much effort they should put into fitting in. Elizabeth Harrin might recognize the potential of impostor syndrome here, too, which can further alienate the PM from his job, sometimes leading them to feel genuinely unworthy.


The word comes from anthropology and it basically means “in between”. In work terms, this refers to people whose employment is contingent upon project work.

In 2011, a research team driven by Per E. Gustafsson found that people who worked in temporary careers had higher levels of the stress hormone “cortisol” in their bloodstream first thing in the morning, and that cortisol levels were higher the longer people worked in a temporary capacity. This means that individuals with longer histories of temporary employment may expect to experience higher levels of stress related to the *nature* of their work, as opposed to the work itself.

Now, Gustafsson’s team didn’t target PM’s specifically. The fact remains, though, that project personnel only add value for as long as there is a project to be worked. Many PMs today are independent contractors (totally temporary), and PMs who work for a professional services firm are considered “benched” if they haven’t aligned themselves with signed work. Even PMs on the buy-side can find themselves worried about their jobs depending on the structure of their organization (strong matrix/projectized).

Character corrosion

I love this term from Richard Sennett (1998). It just describes the potential for PMs to make bad decisions so beautifully. It’s not that a PM will deliberately enter a project intending to do evil. The vulnerability is much more insidious than that. So here it is – you’re new to the workplace and, as mentioned above, you’re having a tough time fitting in, and you’re stressed out because you’ve just finished worrying about whether or not you’d have a job if you didn’t find your next gig.

You’ve identified your stakeholders and have found out their wants, needs and fears – but *some* of them have another agenda they’d like to push. They’ll ask you to do things that seem innocuous at first but aren’t in the best interests of the project. They know this, so they’ll ask you to keep it quiet. You want to make your stakeholders happy, so maybe, just this once, you’ll go along with it.

We all know how this tragic story ends. Many PMs would say they’re too savvy to fall for that trap, but the problem isn’t always so obvious. Sometimes the stakeholder may be your boss, or, for sell-side PMs, the salesperson on the account.

There’s an interesting problem in economics known as “the moral hazard”: it’s what happens when one person takes more risks because someone else is contractually going to bear the costs of those risks. I like to use this phenomenon to describe this stakeholder influence scenario. It’s no skin off a stakeholder’s nose to try to use influence to gain an unfair advantage – it’s often the PM who will bear the consequences of poor decisions that result. And so they have to stay on guard.

Photo by harrison.anthony25


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