We hear a lot about work-life balance. The need to find a sense of wholeness, meaning and purpose in what we do is considered to be important. Finding a happy medium between work time and personal time is considered critical. At least, this is the stated ideal and expectation.
The reality for most of us is more complicated, particularly when we’re a project manager. For many, the role is seemingly without any semblance of balance whatsoever.
To a certain extent, that’s by—if not design—a bizarre form of natural selection. I genuinely believe that most of those who find the role of project manager attractive do so in part because it’s an unending series of interesting, different and often difficult challenges. No one day is like the next (nor is it in any way predictable how today is going to unfold based upon what happened yesterday). Variety, challenge and uniqueness are the order of the role, and that is what is appealing to so many.
At the same time, ongoing challenges and a constant shifting of goals, priorities and problems are not without their own levels of stress. And project management is a stressful role. On a good day, it stays at a level of stress that is engaging and stimulating. On a bad day, the stress subsumes us in an overwhelming tsunami of crises and problems, leaving us questioning our ability to even tread water.
The inherent challenge in this is that stress operates on a continuum. On the one hand, it’s a source of motivation. Taken to an extreme, however, stress overwhelms. This is inherent in the reality of how stress works. There is a very, very fine line between stress as a positive influence and a negative constraint.
It has been demonstrated extensively the positive influence that stress has as a motivational force. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a pioneer of the positive psychology movement, is best known for his theory of Flow, which he refers to as the psychology of optimal experience.
In essence, the theory of flow states that we are most motivated when faced with a challenge that stretches our skills and abilities, but that is still attainable. We appreciate the opportunity to learn and grow, and yet still feel that we are sufficiently capable of succeeding. When we aren’t challenged, we are bored and unengaged. Too much challenge, however, and stress becomes overwhelming and debilitating. What works is when we find the sweet spot of being appropriately challenged.
Stress is a product of millennia of human evolution. We’re wired physiologically to be motivated to fight or flight when faced with a threat. When we were hunters and gatherers, this was a useful survival strategy; we encountered many things that could kill us on any given day. While our response to stress is well-honed, the threats we face have evolved considerably. An irate boss, insistent project sponsor or hostile stakeholder doesn’t present the same existential threat as a hungry lion. But our primordial brain doesn’t actually recognize this difference, and today it pretty much treats both threats as equally dangerous.
The result is that as soon as stress becomes sufficient to take us out of our happy place, we become very unhappy indeed. The adaptive value of finding a flow state of engagement turns into a crippling, existential threat that overrides our ability to function effectively, respond appropriately and in any way cope with the challenge that we are facing.
What’s important to recognize here is that the greatest determinant in the amount of stress we are experiencing—and whether we are engaged or overwhelmed—is the degree to which we feel that we are in control. The conditions for realizing flow aren’t just that we feel challenged; we also have to believe that we can be successful. In other words, we are in control of our own fate and have the skills—with some work and effort—to accomplish our goals. When the challenge is beyond our abilities, or we doubt our capacity for success, all bets are off.
My own journey through project management has had numerous situations that illustrate how important this spectrum is to understand, and how narrow the place of positive engagement actually is. I’ve had my share of projects that were in no way challenging whatsoever. They are, for me, probably the most difficult to manage. Where there is no challenge, there is often very little reward.
My initial experience in managing projects was in professional theater. I started very early off as a sound and lighting technician, and evolved into stage and production management—project management by another name. It’s where I learned the importance of communication, the critical nature of deadlines and the ability to figure out how to be successful with few resources and even less money. Without question, I learned skills working in theater that stay with me to this day.
While there were several productions whose size and scale were overwhelming, there were a much larger number that simply involved doing the work. I knew what to do and I knew how to do it, and success simply required putting in the hours to get it done. This is where the challenge, if you will, was the inherent lack of challenge. I reached a point where I stopped feeling stretched. Around that time, I started looking for new opportunities.
I quickly found them in an entirely different universe: information technology. I knew enough about computers and programmers to find a job, and quickly found myself promoted to a corporate database administrator, and then once again to a project management role. Each time I have made a quantum move into a different role, the pressure and stress has ratcheted up considerably. Every new challenge resulted in a steep learning curve before I could truly feel confident and competent.
Whether we consciously recognize and choose this path of career development or not, it is one that we often follow. Striving for a theoretically optimal level of focus, commitment and concentration is not a product of careful career design so much as it is the intersection of opportunity, ambition and sufficient aptitude to appear qualified for the role.
Even where an entire project doesn’t feel like a stretch, though, there will certainly be instances with any projects where we are going to feel challenged and overwhelmed. Sometimes, that’s not about the project. It often feels like it is sparked by the magnitude or complexity of what we need to do, but in actual fact it is a product of dealing with that and everything else that is going on in our lives. Personal commitments, family obligations, partner frustrations and medical emergencies can all make what was a challenging-but-manageable project start to feel like a nightmare of outlandish proportions.
Yes, project management is an exciting challenge. But it’s not a challenge where balance often reigns. Our roles can lurch from boredom to excitement to seemingly uncontrollable in a fleeting moment. It’s what we like about the job, but it’s also what we mostly dread.
Attempting to attain balance in a project environment is a complex and difficult negotiation. The challenges and stresses that we face are often a product of the complexity of the project, the organization and the politics that we encounter. At the same time, we can sabotage our own ability to be in control.
I still vividly remember an organization I was assessing that theoretically had a robust, capable, ISO 9000-certified project management practice. And yet every project manager was a firefighter who savored the fact that they were indispensable to the success of their projects. Even in participating in an assessment supported at the highest levels of the organization, they cancelled meetings, left them abruptly or interrupted them to take phone calls. An organization that should have operated in an environment of focused control lived—and in fact celebrated—an existence of barely controlled chaos.
At the other end of the spectrum were several similar organizations in Scandinavia that undertook a comprehensive review and overhaul of their project management practices with the specific and stated intent of making them more humane. Organizational executives recognized the challenging work and overwhelming hours that many of their project managers worked on a regular basis, and consciously chose to do something about it. They revised processes, fundamentally altered expectations about delivery deadlines and hired administrative support staff, all with the intent of making the lives of their project managers easier and more manageable. The goal was for project managers to work the same hours—and leave work at the same time—as the rest of the staff.
What we view and value as project managers is complicated. We like challenge. At the same time, challenge can quickly become overwhelming. What we—and our organizations—do about this is an open question. The cultural dynamic of many organizations is to value hard work, long hours and heroic efforts to be successful. The challenge is that this can only be sustained for so long. The longer we spend pushing the limits, the more we risk hurtling past them.
Doing something about this requires conscious effort and deliberate choices. We need to call into question not only the work ethic of our corporate cultures, but also our own sense of our role and perception of what makes us valuable. Project managers are people, too. We have the potential to be balanced. But we have to want that balance, and so do our organizations and the executives that we serve.
Projects will always have challenges, of course, but we don’t have to go out of our way to make them harder than they need to be. And our executives shouldn’t expect that we are the last line of defense, ready to put in the hours and do the heavy lifting to get the project done when everyone else has gone home. Dealing with either of these realities, however, requires some difficult conversations and acknowledgement of some challenging truths about how we and our organizations define success. Change starts with us.