Want to run your next project smoothly, with great teamwork and a low risk of failure? Everyone tells you to work on your leadership, organization, and communication skills to get the job done right. But there are three ingredients nobody talks about that you really need to be a successful project manager: guts, compassion, and cat wrangling (being able to focus distracted people on a single aim).
Let’s take a closer look at each.
What does it mean to have guts? Does it mean to take risks, practice innovation, think outside the box? Yes! And these are must-haves for any project manager who is often tasked with coming up for solutions for unpredictable, and ever-changing, problems.
But there is a quieter kind of guts, too—the kind that knows how to sit back and refrain from jumping to conclusions, to be patient when everything feels like an emergency, and to allow other voices to enter the stream (even when you’re 100% positive your own point of view is the correct one.)
A quote that is often attributed to Winston Churchill goes like this: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” This is the quiet kind of guts that project managers need to have in their arsenal.
Plenty of people are skeptical of developing an “emotional culture” at work—in fact, many organizational cultures draw a hard line between working and feeling. But let’s get something straight: compassion is not sentimental or lovey-dovey. It’s a simple acknowledgement of other people’s struggles (“It looks like Marcia is stressed about finding childcare for the meeting tonight”) and an intention to make them a little easier to bear (“I’ll offer to take notes or record the presentation if she can’t find a babysitter”).
Research showing the benefits of practicing a compassionate attitude at work are pretty convincing. One study suggests that creating a compassionate work culture increases employee satisfaction and teamwork, and decreases exhaustion and feeling “checked out.” Plus, if your team feels heard and cared for, they’re more likely to experience positive emotions that directly impact your project—like joy, gratitude, and creativity. And you want a team brimming with good moods, right?
The downside to compassion? It can be very hard to practice in high-stress situations (territory which project managers know well). When there are tight deadlines and sharply shifting priorities, it can feel like there’s not enough time to give attention to everyone’s personal challenges. But remember it’s not about hand-holding or solving other people’s problems: even directly acknowledging how hard your team is working and offering appreciation for their efforts can give them the boost they need to do their best work.
Okay, not literal cats. We’re talking about figurative cats—project team members who are easily distracted, focused on their own agendas, and have a hard time being a part of the herd. And you, as project manager, have to get them working together on a single goal in order to accomplish your objectives.
One way to wrangle your cats is to embed the notion of collaboration in every part of your project—hold regular meetings, get everyone’s voice at the table, share communications openly, and invite feedback at every stage of the process. This emphasis on teamwork can help prevent extroverts from dominating the conversation at meetings, for example, or stop introverts from slinking away to do their share of work without consulting anyone.
(And remember—cats respond very well to compassion, too.)