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Project Manager Over Engagement – A Challenge for Our Time

By Ruth Pearce

At a project manager symposium in September 2022, 87% of the audience said they had burned out at some time in the career. At another event that number was more than 90%! Over-engagement may be part of the problem!

When my book was accepted by the publisher Berrett-Koehler Publishers, I could not have been more excited[i].
I put as much effort into that book as I had ever put into anything. It was a big team effort!
There it was, in glorious technicolor on the virtual shelves[ii]. Despite great reviews from insightful people, this topic was a little left field for most project managers.

One even said to me at a conference, “It sounds like social intelligence; we are about execution not feelings!”

Fast forward 4 years and I almost wish I had not written the book.
Why?
Because it only tells half the story.
Now I wonder if it has contributed in its own small way to the ever-increasing levels of burnout and stress in project management.

What’s wrong with the book?
We need to connect people to their core motivators. We want to encourage them to leverage strengths in the workplace, to build engagement and collaboration. I have witnessed AND experienced it.
What I think about now is that our relentless pursuit of being the best we can be is burning us out.
Based on experience as a coach, I suspect that the interventions to build engagement forgot about disengagement. We forgot about the moments when we recharge and get ready to start again.
We can blame covid-19, social unrest, political and economic uncertainty, but those things or things like them, have been around for a long time. Burnout is something I hear about more and more from clients, audiences, and in particular project managers.

Unappreciated wisdom of parents
My father was full of useful sayings. At the time they irritated me beyond belief. Now I recognize them as having merit (Sorry Dad). For example, moderation in all things including moderation. Of course, he was paraphrasing Oscar Wilde (a good choice!), but it was a good reminder that we should not do anything to excess.

And I now believe that we may have done “playing to strengths” and building engagement to excess. What the book needs is the other side to balance it out.

The book needs to identify ways in which we can deliberately disengage and recharge. What to do when we are NOT being connected to work, the mission, or the goal of our organization. Even ways to engage in OTHER things. My mother’s favorite phrase was “a change is as good as a rest” and there is science in that premise [iv]We’ve incorporated that into our team practices.

Turning on and off
Several years ago, I saw a one man show by Stephan Wolfert called “Cry Havoc!”[ii]. He shared his experience of the military and what he said struck a chord.
Veterans have learned to protect their “brothers and sisters”, to react quickly to cues, and, in the extreme, to kill other people.
What we don’t do is regulate them. We don’t show them how to react in ways that better fit civilian life – or even better, we don’t show them how to CHOOSE when to be ON and when to be OFF.
I believe we have been doing something similar with our engagement policies at work.
Ever since Gallup started to tell us how low the level of engagement is at work, and how destructive negatively engaged people are in the workplace, we have been compensating with a wide range of engagement initiatives. My book is a small part of that. What it needs is the other side. What it needs is balance.

Choosing something novel
So, let’s start now. What is something totally new you will experience this week? Even taking a different route to work or to pick up kids from school counts!
What is something novel you can do with your team in work?

What is a novel way to approach the next issue that comes up on your projects?
How about Red Team – Blue Team? Assign people to work in groups to propose solutions but ask them to make the argument AGAINST their preferred solution.
Or send out a brain teaser….
Let Ruth know what you try out and how it works! You can contact her at RuthPearce@projectmotivator.com or connect on LinkedIn www.linkedin.com/in/ruth-pearce-projectmotivator
A sample of the book’s reviews…

This book will make you better at working with people and a better Project Manager!

Truly my favorite book this year and so happy to have it part of my collection!

Joe Pusz – PMO Joe Host, Project Management Office Hours

[i] Berrett-Koehler is a wonderful independent book publisher, and I am enormously grateful that they supported the publication of my book and continue to do so! Find out more about them here: https://www.bkconnection.com/ also Berrett-Koehler Publishers
[ii] Stephan Wolfert is the founder of De-cruit an organization that helps military veterans transition out of their role into civilian life. You can find out more about him and the organization here: https://www.decruit.org/about/ and DE-CRUIT INC
[iii] The designer of the book cover – Susan Malikowski owner of Designleaf Studio – launched my brand – tying my message to my love of elephants.
[iv] e.g., https://www.cbc.ca/news/science/novelty-its-own-reward-for-brain-1.582020


Ruth Pearce

Ruth Pearce is an ICF accredited ACC coach, author, and speaker. Her first four Linkedin Learning courses on Character strengths, mindfulness, and burnout and bravery are already available. She is planning two more courses for 2023 and an update to two of the current courses. More than 80,000 people have viewed the courses so far. You can find them here: https://www.linkedin.com/learning/search?keywords=Ruth%20Pearce

Since giving up day to day project management, Ruth has focused her attention on coaching project managers to high performance AND wellbeing. She coaches for BetterUp and Coach123 and in 2023 will be launching a full Burnout Recovery track to include a book, self-paced course with practices and drop-in group coaching. Ruth lives in North Carolina near the Cape Fear River with her husband, two dogs, two rabbits and lots of soul nourishing nature all around.

Browse IIL’s Project Management courses here!

Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.