Managing Fear in Your Project Team

By Bob McGannon, PMP and Conrad Imel

Managing a new project is a lot like approaching an iceberg. If a group of people are sailing and come across an iceberg, naturally, the group will be fearful. It is the responsibility of the ship’s captain, the leader, to dispel the fear. Basically, people know quite a bit about the iceberg, they just don’t understand where the edges are located. Are the edges just under the visible ice? Or are they shooting out for miles? Fear of the unknown can become overwhelming.

If left unchecked, fear, sometimes justified but often representing ‘false events appearing real,’ can become toxic. Fear can cause a team to self-destruct; not fulfill its potential nor effectively execute the project. However, there are many techniques project managers can implement to manage the fear and move a project team forward.

1) Neutralize Your Own Fear

The cause of fear is not as important as much as recognizing that there is fear. Once recognized, the fear can be broken down and neutralized. This fear can be magnified or reduced by the behavior of the project manager. No action that a project manager takes reflects the presence or absence of fear more than the approach taken to making difficult decisions. Suppose that you have a very difficult and potentially unpopular decision to make. You may be very concerned. When you break down the apprehension with a series of questions the ultimate fear may be “I’m going to lose my job.” Is that a reflection of reality? Also, does making a less controversial decision actually put you in more jeopardy in the long run? As a leader, you need to logically reflect on the situation and consequences in order to make the right decision for the sponsor and stakeholders. Approach all decisions logically, and definitively. Understand when fear is present and think through the reasonable benefits and consequences, rather than some emotional, exaggerated fate such as “I’ll get fired.” Once your own fears are broken down and neutralized you can instill that confidence in the team.

2) Outline Expectations

The first thing to do when managing team fear is to inform your team about your expectations. Your team needs to understand where they need to go and what to expect from you along the way. You may say to your team, “Our project objective is to complete your project objective cheaper and more effectively, without adding any new people or skills.” Given just that objective without understanding your approach – or being able to work through that approach – the team is going to wonder, “How are we to be expected to do this?” Without outlining those process steps, or involving your team in creating possibilities, you should expect nothing other than fear from your team.

3) Make Employees Comfortable in New Situations

If you put someone in a situation like driving a car in a city they are not familiar with, they will be hesitant. They will spend considerable time and energy trying to figure out where they are going, and their driving skills will decrease. Their ability to anticipate danger decreases as well. Your team will feel the same when working on a new project. Understand and prepare for this phenomenon, by making the team feel comfortable and familiar with the environment. There are a number of activities that can be done to accomplish this:

• Facilitate direct communication between the team, the sponsor and major stakeholders

• Hold team building sessions with a definitive purpose, such as discussing what work or communication guidelines you will use as a team

• Allow team members to participate in planning and decision making to the greatest degree that is feasible

• Allow for face to face meetings whenever possible. This is becoming more difficult as “virtual” teaming increases, however the benefits greatly outweigh the travel costs. When this is not possible, utilize technology to its fullest. Although no substitute for face to face meetings – videoconferences and web meeting tools are helpful. Learn to use them and use them effectively.

4) Instill Trust in Your Team

Even though expectations can be conveyed to your team, there will still be apprehension about a new project manager. A common quote from team members in this situation sounds like ‘This is reasonable, this is do-able, but I still have that person I’m reporting to and I don’t know what he/she is like.’ You must build trust with your team. People will be hesitant if they don’t trust because they won’t know what to expect. Trust is a confidence and comfort level combined with the notion that one can be successful on their own terms. As team members come to the work environment they want to work with people they trust, work on something they feel comfortable with, and want to be part of a result that matters.

How do you quickly get your team to trust you? Take the first step yourself. Share your personal shortcomings from a skill perspective; admit when you have been (or are!) wrong. Being truthful and vulnerable is the fastest way to instill truth and trust in your organization.

5) Be the First to Change

As a leader, the change begins with you. If you are truly going to be a leader, you have to “fully engage” and say, “I am going to strive to be the first person to embrace this change.” If you have achieved a leadership position, presumably you have been a person that has embraced change and responsibilities. Like Tom Peters says, “Enjoy the chaos.”

Whenever there is change in an environment, the leader must demonstrate that the change is going to be agreeable and accepted. If an organization, environment, or process is going to change, the manager must lead the way, understanding that he or she may have to reset expectations and performance measurements. Do this swiftly and overtly, and the staff will follow.

6) Demonstrate a Positive Attitude

The leader is always a beacon for the project environment. The people that report to the leader will reflect whatever attitude the project manager brings to this environment. To understand how powerful your perception is, all you need to do is go to work and look worried. Watch your team react to this. The entire team will pick-up on your changed behavior and begin to feel nervous, as they wonder what is troubling you. As a manager you must exude a realistic, but positive attitude through your behavior in order to instill confidence and manage fear.

Ultimately, the goal is to move the organization forward and accomplish your project goals. Using appropriate strategies to manage fear within your project team will help everyone navigate the obstacles of change more quickly and assure you avoid hidden “icebergs.”

Bob McGannon and Conrad Imel work with MINDAVATION, a company providing project management services, leadership workshops and team building programs throughout North America. Mindavation can be reached at MINDAVATION via the web at WWW.MINDAVATION.COM or by calling 866-888-MIND (6463).


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