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Project managers deal with all kinds of unexpected situations – back to back deadlines, resource shortfalls, demanding stakeholders and unpredictable events. Andy Jordan writes about how Project Managers can cope with these pressures.

When a customer decided that they wanted to use one of their products to support a new marketing campaign, they wanted to move quickly. It generally takes four to six weeks to configure the product for a specific use case; we had four days — including Saturday and Sunday! We made it, and the campaign launched on time and to great success. In its first week, the campaign drive 50 percent more volume through the product than every other use case combined in the first eight months of the year — about a 5,000 percent increase in weekly activity. Clearly great news, but what about the impact on the people involved?

Projects like this significantly raise stress levels as team members absorb increases in workload, put in long hours and deal with the pressure to execute faster while still making no mistakes. In addition, new people who never cared about “normal” projects are suddenly calling multiple times a day to find out what’s happening and why it can’t happen even faster.

If you are a project leader, there will be times when you are dealing with an extremely stressed team. How you handle these situations will have a huge impact in determining the ultimate success or failure of the outcome.

Be the Buffer

One of the most critical challenges is to protect your team from the onslaught of demands and questions that are coming from elsewhere in the organization. The people doing the work need to be given as much opportunity to focus on that work as possible, so they need to be free of interruptions.

At the same time, the people who are looking for information need to feel that they are being heard. Even if you have administrative support, you need to put yourself front and center as the person that they can go to — you are the face on the initiative, and as a leader you can convey the message that you are on top of their concerns simply by being part of the process. Everyone else involved needs to feel that they can refer all questions to you to resolve, freeing them up to focus on their own work.

As time moves forward, you can start anticipating concerns and pushing information out to people in order to preempt questions. A simply daily update on progress can help to throttle the volume of ‘what’s happening’ questions. No matter how frustrating it may be to have to answer some variation of the same question multiple times, you need to recognize that often the people coming to you are under their own pressures — in my case, people who had real customers looking for information.

Steady Resolution

No matter how much pressure you are feeling, you need to portray an outward image of calm control. Rushing around telling people how urgent everything is will increase in the blood pressure of everyone else. I once worked with someone who would say, “I know that you are working hard on this, but I really need you to get it resolved quickly.” Do you think that comment more likely had a positive or negative impact on the stress levels of team members?

I capture the list of issues and actions and have brief daily meetings to communicate the latest items to the team and get updates. Sometimes, something more urgent comes up and has to be addressed in the interim. My focus is always on ensuring that each team member understands:

  • The issues that they are assigned to resolve
  • The priority of those issues
  • Where new issues slot into that priority
  • Any hard deadlines for the items that will have immediate impact if they aren’t achieved by a certain time

I always make sure that I communicate the lists calmly and without any undue urgency. If I can convey confidence in the team’s ability to resolve the problems and an attitude of calm around the work that has to be done, then that can go a very long way to helping the team to stay motivated and focused.

Humor Helps

In times of stress it can be easy to forget the leadership basics, but that’s when they are needed more than ever. You are never too busy to say thank you, and you are never too busy to say it in person (or on the phone if people are remote) rather than via e-mail or instant message.

The ability to reduce stress levels with the use of humor is also a good investment of time because it helps to alleviate the stress that inevitably builds up in people — it’s a pressure release valve that allows people to let off steam in a controlled manner.

When the immediate crisis is over, you should also be looking at more practical measures to appreciate the effort — an extra day off, formal recognition, whatever is appropriate to the situation. I also try to facilitate recognition by the sponsors — in my situation, the people who came up with the campaign that started frenzy of work. It’s one thing for me to say thank you, quite another for them to do it.

As a leader you will be faced with these high stress situations. How you deal with them personally will shape how your entire team deals with them, and may ultimately define success or failure.  No matter how stressful the situation — keep calm and carry on!

This article was originally published on Project at Work and can be accessed here. (Note: registration may be required to access articles on this website.)

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by: Sharmeen Hussain

Updated: 22 November 2012/ Responsible Officer: Director, IS / Page Contact: ITS Project Office