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Friday, July 11, 2014

Stuart Smalley, Dilbert & the Project Manager

     “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it people LIKE me!”
     That’s the mantra “Stuart Smalley” used to intone while staring at himself in a mirror on Saturday Night Live.
     I loved the Al Franken parody, although it mocked a behavior management process I have worked with since I became a personal productivity consultant in the late 1980s. I felt the same about Scott Adams’ skewering of managers and project management in the Dilbert comic.
     In both cases, the genius of the satirists may have popularized their mockery to greater public effect than all the training, speaking and authoring of mere mortals who take those subjects seriously.

     It’s all about personal behavior. The person who wants to lead and influence others acts in ways that are driven by the person’s deeply held personal convictions. Project managers succeed at the highest levels when they are confident and competent, because then they act that way.
     These are people who fully command the complex processes required for project management; they are people whose manner and behavior are those that cause others to expect success in following their lead.

     I’ve met a relative handful of leaders over the past 30 years who seem born to the role. Get to know such shining examples well, though, and you find that it took very conscious, sustained and often painful effort to get them to the top.
     The real “gift” most often is determined, intelligent devotion to building the skills, a commitment that most of us don’t feel at such a level.
     Sure, there may have been inborn talent, but I suspect each of us has some of that. We just don’t get far enough out of our comfort zone to bring it out and test it in the heat of serious challenge.
     All sorts of wisdom has been spoken about repetitive failure being a prerequisite for success; that the difference with bigtime succeeders is that they just got up from more falls than everybody else. In fact, they may fall more often because they take more chances.
     How do you get yourself to be like that?
     Unfortunately, Dilbert and Stuart Smalley, for all the skilled – and hilarious – insights of their creators, don't have the answers for us. Dilbert provides the laughs in the human failings we see every day, but it’s all negative. Stuart’s cuddly reassurances tell us nothing about what to do and how to do it.

     Actually, the study of workplace behavior and mental self-talk is a significant launching pad for learning and tuning our skills as project managers.
     A good leader, for example, is a good listener, a person who takes responsibility, a problem solver. Those are three of the characteristics of people whose leadership we look up to.
     Well, instead of satisfying ourselves with admiring that person and wishing we were like that, we can actually do something about it. How about noting the words, the facial expressions, the specific actions during key moments? Writing them down, then studying them, and finding small moments to put them into practice? Doing them?
     You may well find that it’s not particularly easy to get really specific about the working parts of leadership in action . . . and then it can be surprisingly scary to try them out in real situations. That sensation reveals how unused we may have become to poking out of our own comfort zones.
     Psychologists will tell us, though, that you can influence internal convictions by repeated external actions. You do something often enough, and you convince the inner you that it’s OK to do this – it’s really me now.

     In fact, the secret of positive affirmations – those phrases Stuart Smalley kept saying to himself – is that when done correctly they can have the same effect on one’s self-image. When they are vivid, action-worded and satisfying, they convince that central command post of yours that you actually did all that, and did it well. Stuart’s problem was that his words were none of those things.
     We are told the mind is fulltime occupied with a powerful flow of images, impressions, thoughts, responses and feelings. That flow directs our attitudes, and our actions are controlled by the attitudes.
     When you tinker with the stream of thought – blocking a few negative memories, redirecting a few others, purposely inserting a specific new positive – the stream resists.
     You have to keep at it. You have to reinforce it by performing a few actions in this newly determined behavior, and then focusing on the positive outcomes you have created.
     It works. Look where Stuart Smalley is today.     
     Seriously, we don’t know what Al Franken was saying to himself when he went into politics, but he didn’t get to the U.S. Senate by telling himself he was just a comedian. And Scott Adams certainly doesn’t run his operation like a pointy-haired boss.

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