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How Emotional Intelligence Can Create Resilient Project Leaders

How Emotional Intelligence Can Create Resilient Project Leaders

By Ardi Ghorashy, M.Sc. Engineering, PMP, PgMP | Senior Executive Director, Global Solutions, IIL

What is the secret ingredient that certain people possess and allows them to rise from the ashes of failure? I’m referring to this dynamic that drives them to try again and again, while others are stopped dead in their tracks.

This question came up at a conference I presented at recently, and here are some of my thoughts.

According to Greek mythology, a phoenix is a bird that dies in a show of flames and is born again, rising from the ashes. This is indeed a powerful symbol of resilience.

Oxford Dictionary defines resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.”

Merriam-Webster’s definition is “the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.”

Psychology Today defines resilience “as the ineffable quality that when some people are knocked down by life allows them to come back, often stronger – rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their reserves, they find ways to rise from the ashes.”

Having spent many years in the project environment, I would say that resilience is one of the most important attributes that a project manager can cultivate. Projects by nature are rife with constraints, risks, challenges and setbacks requiring constant problem-solving. Project teams are made up of diverse personalities, often with competing agendas that contribute to interpersonal roadblocks. No one sets out to dance with disaster, but it is always lurking on the sidelines.

How do we as project managers maintain our mojo in the face of these conditions? Where along the spectrum of resilience do you fall?

Say, for instance, that you’ve studied hard for an exam and failed.  What would you say?

  1. I am not good at this subject.
  2. I had a bad day, next time I’ll pass.

From an emotional intelligence perspective, examining the Emotional Intelligence EQ-i 2.0 model, we can see resilience being a function of several sub-domains, but strongly of Emotional Self-Awareness, Stress Tolerance, Flexibility, and Optimism.

Emotional Intelligence Flowchart

Adapted from the EQ-I 2.0 Handbook
  • Emotional Self-Awareness is the ability to recognize your feelings, differentiate between them, know why you are feeling these feelings, and recognize the impact your feelings have on others around you (EQ-i 2.0 definition).

Consider Phillip, the integration testing manager, unaware of how enraged he was with a tester who made a mistake. Phillip was oblivious to the impact he was having on the tester and the rest of the team and unaware of how his behavior would affect how the team viewed him.

  • Flexibility is the ability to adjust your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors to changing situations and conditions.  Flexible people are agile, synergistic and capable of reacting to change without rigidity (EQ-i 2.0 definition).

Sandy received an email from the head of design letting her know that Jeff, one of the best designers on her team, was being reassigned to another project. A few minutes in the conversation, she tried to understand the rationale— Sandy called the team to figure out how best to minimize the impact of Jeff leaving. Rather than getting upset, arguing, or escalating the issue, her mental sturdiness and flexibility allowed her to minimize the impact on the team and the project.

  • Stress Tolerance is the ability to withstand adverse events and stressful situations without developing physical or emotional symptoms, by actively and positively dealing with stress (EQ-i 2.0 definition).

Andrew has been under a lot of pressure recently with several deadlines to meet and very little time left to complete two major deliverables with his team. Looking ahead to the upcoming week, the first thing Andrew puts on his calendar is to go to the gym every morning, and then starts planning the week.

  • Optimism is the ability to look at the brighter side of life and to maintain a positive attitude even in the face of adversity.  It is an indicator of one’s positive attitude and outlook on life.  It involves remaining hopeful and resilient, despite occasional setbacks (EQ-i 2.0 definition).

It is important that optimism is balanced with Reality Testing, a sub-domain of emotional intelligence, to eliminate the Pollyanna effect!

Having been turned down on her fifth attempt at obtaining project financing, Carol’s friend asks her what she is going to do next. “Keep trying,” Carol replies. “The whole economy is slow and cost of capital high, so investors are looking for the best of the best.  I’m sure I’ll get financing soon and in the meantime, I’m improving my position and proposal from the feedback I get from each rejection.”

According to American Psychological Association (APA), Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences as a Phoenix would “emerge renewed after apparent destruction.”

Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn’t experience difficulty or distress. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress.

One of my favorite examples of resilience is Charles Schulz’s beloved Peanuts character, Charlie Brown. He’s described on the Peanuts website as “the kid who never gives up (even though he almost never wins). Even though he gets grief from his friends, his kite-eating tree, and even his own dog, Charlie Brown remains the stalwart hero.”

Examples of resilience:Road to Resilience

The APA lists 11 ways for building resilience. Here, I have connected them with project management and the Emotional Intelligence sub-domains: Resilience is not a trait that people have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone. While some people are naturally more positive and resilient, most can develop and build their capability through coaching or proactive personal change.  In any case, the journey starts from self-awareness and having a trusted network to receive feedback.

  • Make connections. Dig your well before you’re thirsty. Networking and good relationships with people within and outside the company are important, as is knowing when to ask for and accept help and support. Follow the # 1 rule of networking by assisting others in their times of need when you need nothing from them.  [Interpersonal Relationships]
  • Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. Living in a project environment comes with high-stress situations – it’s in the job description; however, you are in charge of how you interpret and respond to these events. Read Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning. [Optimism]
  • Accept that change is a part of living. Change happens. Certain goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter. [Reality Testing]
  • Move toward your goals. Do not lose sight of the end goal. When the going gets tough, ask yourself, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I need to go?” [Problem Solving]
  • Take decisive action. Own the situation, act on adverse situations as much as you can. Take decisive actions rather than detaching completely from problems and stresses and wishing they would just go away.
  • Look for opportunities for self-discovery. People often learn something about themselves and may find that they have grown in some respect as a result of their struggles. [Self-awareness]
  • Nurture a positive view of yourself. Develop confidence in your ability to solve problems and trust your instincts. [Self-regard]
  • Keep things in perspective. Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing the event out of proportion. [Reality Testing]
  • Maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear. [Optimism]
  • Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly. Taking care of yourself helps to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience. [Self-Actualization]
  • Additional ways of strengthening resilience may be helpful. For example, some people write about their deepest thoughts and feelings related to trauma or other stressful events in their life. Meditation and spiritual practices help some people build connections and restore hope.

Emotional Intelligence and Project Management

Over the past 25 years, organizations have invested much of their efforts in training project managers, and we now have over half a million Project Management Professionals (PMPs) globally.  Many organizations have come to the next phase in developing their project managers. They recognize the wide areas of competency a project manager must continually develop in order to cope with the challenging nature of projects.

Training in interpersonal skills now dominates the areas of focus in learning and development; however, building more complex attributes such as effective communications, leadership skills, and resilience requires more than a few days of classroom training or even coaching. Projects are natural gymnasiums for developing leaders and building resilience. There is a need for organizations to work even more closely with Learning and Development professionals, partnering to co-create more integrated solutions and leveraging their own project environments.

Accordingly, PMOs, Senior Management, and Learning & Development professionals need to recognize their project managers’ differing levels of resilience and provide them with opportunities to develop their capabilities.

An employee engagement suggestion would be for organizations seeking to enhance their “Phoenix Factor” to recognize achievements by creating a “Phoenix Award.” An employee recognition program, that awards teams and individuals who maintained an excellent level of performance, leadership, and collaboration under stressful or high-importance projects.

Rudyard Kipling, British Nobel laureate, wrote his poem “If-” in 1895.  The verse is an apt discourse on resilience, written in the form of paternal advice to his son:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Ardi Ghorashy, M.Sc. Engineering, PMP, PgMP is the Senior Executive Director, Global Solutions at International Institute for Learning, certified Emotional Intelligence EQ-i 2.0 practitioner and coach, MBTI Practitioner, APMG Change Management Practitioner, Leadership Challenge® (Kouzes & Posner) facilitator and has a Certificate in the Foundations of Positive Psychology from Penn LPS.

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