Wearing the Shoes of Uncertainty

We all have things we’re known for. In my case, you give me a team that’s completely demoralized and dysfunctional, and I’ll turn it around and get it working effectively again. To that point, someone asked me a couple days ago, “Geoff I hear you’re really good at getting people to work together. How do you do that?” I have to admit I was somewhat surprised by the question, and I started to answer, and then stopped short. “I…er…you don’t?” It was a lame answer but I had never really thought about it before.

Over the next little bit, as much for my own benefit as yours, I’m going to try to articulate some of the things that I do in this area that seem to be successful.

Ever Been Thrown to the Wolves?

Ever been thrown to the wolves?
Photo courtesy of nataliejumblat on Flickr.

The first thing that comes to mind, is (shocker) roles and responsibilities. Do your people know what’s expected of them?

It seems like a dumb question, especially in a room full of project managers, but you’d be surprised how often I speak with people who are vague about their job. In this article I want to put us in the shoes of someone who’s struggling with that.

Has a sponsor or stakeholder ever thrown you to the wolves with no background or advice, locked the door behind you, and muttered, “just deal with it”? If they have, you know that’s a very unsettling experience. When you walk into a situation you’re not clear on, you intuitively know there’s a million ways it could go badly, and you get scared. You also know that the reason you’re there in the first place is because the jerk who threw you there didn’t want to deal with it himself.

While it’s upsetting, it’s a one-off scenario, and you get to walk away from it with bruises and cuts and go have a beer later to calm down. But what if every day were like that? What if the people you were working with were, for whatever reason, unable or unwilling to give you the information you needed to do your job? Does that mean you’re incompetent? Does that mean you were a terrible choice for the position you find yourself in?

No. It sure as hell doesn’t.

When fear of the unknown occurs day in and day out, it stops being fear. People can’t sustain the kind of adrenaline required to remain in a heightened state of uncertainty five days a week for eight (ten / twelve) hours a day. So what do they do? They adapt to protect themselves. Generally these adaptations aren’t helpful to your project.

If people on your team have spent too much time unsure of what they’re supposed to do, you might observe things like this:

  • apparently lazy behaviour
  • lack of interest or participation in meetings
  • anger, resentment, hostility
  • quiet tension in the work environment
  • lack of collaboration
  • sloppy work, and little interest in discussing it

When people behave like this, we tend to punish them. After all, it’s not much fun working with someone with a bad attitude. The question is, which came first? The bad attitude or the prolonged uncertainty (or some other factor)?

Bad attitudes are hard to fix. Uncertainty isn’t. And it’s surprising how fast people who know precisely what to do will rally to their calling.

So how do you eliminate uncertainty as a blocking factor on your team? More on that in an upcoming article!

(That’s a cliffhanger bwahaha)

Iโ€™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.
  • Rick Valerga

    Great topic, Geoff! I agree As project leaders, we own reducing uncertainty for our project’s contributors. And sometimes the role is certain but the outcome is highly uncertain. In these cases we need to capture the spirit of the risk and ensure that expectations are properly managed. It’s all about making the environment as safe and sane as possible for our talented teams.

  • Hey, Rick thanks for the comment! ๐Ÿ™‚ I had a paragraph that I deleted (which would have taken me to a future post prematurely), but basically it said, a project is by its nature uncertain, but that’s not necessarily reflective of a team member’s role. We’re all capable of throwing a bucket down a well to see what comes back up, but what if you don’t know the bucket’s there? Worse, what if your manager is breathing down your neck getting impatient you’re just standing there?

    We do have to make our work environments safe for our people and that means taking the extra step to be sure they have what they need.

  • Elizabeth

    Ooh, a cliffhanger. Can’t wait for the next bit!

    Roles and responsibilities are so important. One of the ways we try to get round this is to have them documented in the Project Initiation Document, or in workstream terms of reference, but often this is just words. You can use 1:1 meetings with project team members to reiterate their roles and responsibilities as well, and the annual objectives and appraisal process, although mostly this will be done in conjunction with their line manager.

  • You’ve nailed exactly where I was going with this, Elizabeth! It’s the question of comprehension. Just because something is spelled out in the PID doesn’t mean a named resource has read it, or understood it even if they did. Too often we blithely slough off the responsibility of effective communication by saying “it’s in the project teamroom, go find it yourself” rather than sitting down 1:1 and making sure our message gets through…first by clarifying it, and then by confirming understanding. But more on that next time ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Thanks for a great contribution!! ๐Ÿ™‚

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