Nine Destructive Project Manager Behaviours: Part 7 of 9

We’re almost there. For six articles now, I’ve been talking about certain behaviours project managers that will have a direct, adverse affect on their projects. As project managers, it’s imperative we be able to take stock of our own behaviour, because the choices we make in that regard can develop or damage the relationships of the people we work with.

That’s the intent behind this series. I hope you’re enjoying it!

In this article, it’s time to talk about a behaviour I’m personally terrible for, so the advice I give here will be specific tactics I use to help minimize collateral damage. I bring you…

Bad Behaviours: The Wanderer

Image courtesy of jpmatth on Flickr.

7. The Wanderer.

I’m bad for this one, and I find it a difficult behaviour to break. To all outside observers, you don’t listen, and don’t pay attention, even when a team member is trying to convey important news to you. The impression you convey is that you’re thinking about irrelevant things.

If you’re a Wanderer (like me /blush), you know well that nothing could be further from the truth. While you might look like your mind is wandering, you’re actually dealing with multiple crises in your head at the same time, and trying to sift through them at the same time you’re trying to pay attention to what’s happening around you. While your project team is waving their arms in front of you, and seemingly from a great distance shouting “hello! hello! Is anyone home?!”, you’re trapped inside your own head with multiple problems.

Consequences:

The biggest concern of Wanderers is the impacts to those around them. Team members become frustrated when they don’t believe they’re being heard. That frustration can lead them to take matters into their own hands, and make uninformed or potentially damaging decisions on their own. As a leader of people, it’s imperative that they can trust you enough to bring matters to your attention. When they do, you need to be there for them.

Prevention:

The first thing you can do when someone is after your attention is to prepare your workspace to reduce the possibility of distraction. I’ve found this to work for me, and I’m notorious for this behaviour. First of all, arrange seating such that when someone approaches you, their seat and possible distractions like your computer monitor, phone, and desk area can’t be in the same field of vision at the same time. That way, in order to look at a distracting element, you have to physically break contact with the person you’re speaking with.

When someone approaches you, make a point of physically putting down a pen, mouse or phone, or close your laptop halfway. It doesn’t really matter what you do, just make a deliberate, physical act of breaking with distracting elements. This act prepares you mentally to clear your mind of anything that isn’t the person you’re about to speak with. Sure, they may look at you a little oddly when you do this, but it’s better than the alternative.

With physical distractions set away from you, the next step is to keep your mind clear. That’s often difficult for a Wanderer because as their counter-party speaks, things they say will often trigger ideas in the Wanderer’s mind, which he or she will start to pursue. To the counter-party, the Wanderer’s eyes have glazed over and it’s clear they’re not listening anymore. Here are two tricks I have used to help with this:

1) When they sit down, find something on them like a button, or a hairpin or their watch. Anything really, just hopefully not near any…embarrassing spots. When you feel yourself starting to drift back into the miasma that is your brain, shift your eyes to that item and focus on it until you’re able to come back to the land of the living. That’s why you don’t want to identify an item near their belt or chest (if it’s a woman). An inappropriate prolonged stare can be…awkward. You need to identify the item at the start of the conversation or you won’t have anything to mentally grab on to in the event something they say triggers churn in your mind.

2) Ask questions frequently. You need to understand what they’re trying to communicate anyway, and questions are a necessity. As their tale unfolds, hold on to questions in your mind, and once there’s an appropriate point, ask away. This keeps you present in the discussion.

Because this is a behaviour I’m particularly awful at, I’d love to hear if anyone else has a tough time with this, and whether or not they have any other tricks they use to keep focus when it’s needed. Sound out in the comments section below!

Next up: The Anticipator.

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I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
  • Sas

    Yep. I'm with you on this. Meeting someone's gaze and actively listening is a real skill (particularly if you are talking to testers – I mean bloody hell do they have to give me every single detail? boring, bored, wandering back to something less boring in my brain).

    I always have a notebook with me so that if someone triggers or reminds me of something I can make a note and come back to it. And organising my day/week helps. When I am alert and have high energy (i.e. not the post-lunch coma hour) I can deal with the people that require full attention.

    Mostly though it's about respecting the team, understanding they need to trust me to tell me when the manure is about to hit the fan.

    I have found that yoga has taught me how to stay present and in the moment.

    This is also a strength – you are holding a lot of information in your head and being able to problem solve while doing something else – this is called multi-tasking. The trick is to multi-task with two mutually exclusive (right brain, left brain tasks) so you can do both well. For example riding my bike through the park and mentally updating my risk register or cleaning the white board before a presentation while anticipating likely questions.

  • HAHA Sas yes I know what you mean about testers. Gotta love em. The best part is when they won't let you get in a word edgewise during their “detail assault” so you can keep the both of you in sync.

    I think the notebook is a good idea, although I'm personally prone to unconsciously doodle if the person I'm speaking with is going on and on. (Once I doodled a caricature of an old teacher I had and the person stopped talking and said, “is that supposed to be me?!”)

    I also block my calendar off during times like the first hour I'm in the office, and the first hour after lunch. Your comment is a good one about the post-lunch coma hour. You can't be present if you're still waking up or trying to hold your blood sugar levels up with a rope. Most people are pretty good about understanding that…and it's time you can quietly work on other things.

    Thanks heaps for a great comment, Sas! 🙂

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