Emotional Intelligence and Psychology in Project Delivery

Lab Blog Article

  • Published — May 2019
  • Topic — Emotional Intelligence
  • Author — Scott Leckie

If you're a change or project manager, it’s incumbent upon you to make sure that a project gets delivered on budget and schedule. But it’s important to note that project delivery isn’t merely a matter of administrative excellence: psychology is important too.

The roots of our psychology form in childhood. We observe the behaviours of our role models as we grow up and then copy what they do, almost unconsciously. If our mother or father crosses their arms in response to a particular situation, then the mirror neurons in our brain start firing, and we end up doing the same. It’s these mirror neurons that explain why long-lost relatives often have creepily similar mannerisms: it’s all transmitted through the generations.

The problem comes, however, when these learned habits don’t offer value when trying to deliver a project. A situation may arise during work where the learned response is inappropriate. Learned responses can create “ruts in our thinking,” leading project managers to implement the incorrect solution to issues that they face.

Ultimately, delivering a project isn’t about software or technology but people. Software is a great tool, but it’s the people working on a project who ultimately deliver what the client wants. If people aren’t happy or performing to the best of their ability, then the project stands a higher chance of being delayed or not being delivered at all.

For this reason, change managers need to understand the importance of psychology and emotional intelligence when at the helm of any team-based undertaking. Unfortunately, they often don’t. And worse still, they lack the self-knowledge to recognize when they are merely repeating learned behaviors. Instead of exhibiting the kind of behaviors that are optimal for creating a suitable emotional landscape that will deliver the project, they fall back on habit.

It goes something like this: our brains like to work along specific pathways. When we develop our pathways, such as when we practice playing a musical instrument or use a specific tone of voice in a particular situation, we train neurons in our brain to fire. The more we repeat those neuron firing patterns, the more likely they are to spring into action in the future, driving our behavior. It’s a bit like a well-worn path in the forest: the more people use it, the easier it is to traverse.

But just because a brain pattern is a path-well-walked, doesn’t mean that it’s good for project delivery. Our brains adapt for purposes of survival, not purposes of business expedience. What change and project managers say and do can negatively affect the people around them, even if that is not the intention.

The Problem With The Current Approach To Project Management

The problem for many project managers is that they get stuck in one of these learned ruts. Professionals have a clear idea of how they should run a project and they stick with it. It worked in the past, so it should work in the present. Unfortunately, this is not how it goes. Every project is different, so the approach to each project should also be different. Doing the same thing over and over probably won't work.

Worse still, the people around the project manager are also likely stuck in their own little thinking ruts. Team members have a clear idea of their emotional role and that of their manager, and that kind of thinking can sometimes derail a project.

When people get stuck in a particular mode of thinking, the delivery of a project becomes less flexible, and it becomes harder to deal with setbacks.

The Emotional Intelligence Solution

The job of the project or change manager is to recognize when people are trapped by their psychology and get them out of the rut they are in and into a better one. The ability to coax people out of unhelpful patterns of thinking and bring them to a more enlightened state without ticking them off is essentially the basis of emotional intelligence

A good example of this is what comedians do. Things are funny when they’re unexpected. Comedians take you down what you think is a well-worn path and then suddenly subvert your thinking patterns by introducing an unexpected idea. It’s funny because you don’t see it coming: causing you surprise and releasing an endorphin rush. Managers want to be able to do a similar thing while running a project: introduce people to new ways of thinking sensitively and intelligently that positively surprises them.

Takeaways For Running Your Next Project

So what does using emotional intelligence and psychology in project delivery look like in practice? Take a look at some of these takeaways for running your next project.

  • Don’t be judgemental. Brainstorming - or the process of coming up with new ideas, no matter how wacky they might seem - can be a great way to deliver better project outcomes. It can be tempting to judge “off-the-top-of-your-head” ideas, so part of the work of project managers is to make it emotionally safe for colleagues to come forward with proposals. People want to know that they’re not going to be shot down for making suggestions.
  • Be aware of emotional/psychological ruts. Most people lack the self-knowledge and awareness to know when they’re acting in a way that is suitable for the occasion, or when they’re just reacting and traipsing down a well-worn psychological path. Your job as a manager is to identify when this might be happening and interrupt the process. For instance, if a colleague is moaning about their lack of power on a project, find emotionally intelligent ways of giving them more autonomy.
  • Lateral thinking can provide valuable insight. Using lateral thinking techniques might seem like a waste of time. But often it’s just as crucial for a project manager to know what does work, as well as what doesn’t. Thomas Edison invented 502 lightbulbs, and 501 of them didn’t work. The reason the final bulb was so effective was that he had tinkered and experimented with all the other options. The whole thing was a learning process that eventually led to the best outcome.

3 Key Takeaways for Emotional Intelligence and Psychology in Project Delivery

So what does using emotional intelligence and psychology in project delivery look like in practice? Take a look at some of these takeaways for running your next project.

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