jim@millikenproject.com

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Stress, My Friend & Foe

If you’re a project manager, and you’re not tense, you’re not paying attention. Tension, stress, whatever you call it, is a defining worklife trait of effective project managers. You have to be a bit tight to do this job properly. But not too tight.

The shorthand of the workplace too often gets this wrong, equating tension/stress with unhappiness and poor health, period. That oversimplifies and trivializes this most valuable of conditions.

The pursuit of happiness is a stressful business, especially if you take it seriously. You’re chasing something you want but don’t have. The more valuable it is and the more you want it, the more stressful the process becomes. Pretty much by definition, the good project manager really, really wants the desired outcome.

It’s the level of determination, twinned up with the risk, uncertainty and dependencies, that make for the stress.

It’s no wonder, then, that project management draws the kind of people who enjoy challenge, problem solving and dealing with the unexpected under time pressure. And it’s no surprise that they live lives in which the tension can become suffocating.

Here’s why. Whether they admit it or not, project managers take pride in the role of go-to person, courageous decision maker, hard worker, totally dependable leader, manager and teammate.

People frequently find themselves in this work by natural selection rather than conscious choice, at least at the beginning. Early on, they seem to be more willing to take on the tough jobs. They take responsibility for learning how to do what no one else steps forward to tackle.

Over time, they build the reputation – in their own minds as well as among their superiors and peers – as people you can turn to. The workstyle traits that distinguish them become more pronounced as their distinctiveness becomes more sharply defined.

This good thing can become too much, and the invigorating stress, remaining too high for too long, becomes destructive. Wisdom must discipline commitment at some point, or such people can work themselves into burnout or worse.

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