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Be a Mindful Project Manager

Mindfulness has received significant coverage as a good practice for improving one’s interactions with others on both a personal and business front. It is rare to find an article in the Harvard Business Review on leadership, conflict resolution or negotiation that doesn’t touch on the concept.

But what exactly is mindfulness?

Maria Gonzalez defines it in “Mindful Leadership” as “simply noticing the way things are.” Our own biases, emotions, and preconceived notions get in the way of truly seeing things for what they are. The decisions we make based on that altered view of reality are what get us and our projects into trouble.

So what does mindfulness mean to a project manager?

  1. Be present. When meeting with your key stakeholders or your team members, don’t dwell on the past or dream of the future. Focus on what is being said, who is saying it, and how they are saying it. It can be a tremendous recognition for someone to know that the person they are speaking with is giving them 100% of their attention, especially because this occurs so rarely!
  2. Be aware. Mindfulness is not about suppressing one’s emotions and reactions. It is about recognizing them as they bubble up and not letting them control you. When meeting with a stakeholder who has let the team down, or confronting a team member who repeatedly misses their commitments, it can be easy to let anger drive your behavior. Acknowledge the feelings of frustration but don’t let them drive you to an impetuous response.
  3. Be calm. The first line of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If “, says it the best “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.” Not only does calm in the face of chaos help you make better decisions, but it is also contagious. If your team members see that you can be calm even when it seems like nothing is working out for the project, they will draw strength from your composure and will be less likely to make things worse.
  4. Be focused. Projects can have hundreds if not thousands of moving parts, and team members might be tempted to juggle multiple tasks along with their operational responsibilities. By focusing them on one or two concurrent tasks, throughput will increase, and you’ll generate less waste.
  5. Be clear. Emotions can introduce unpredictability and inconsistency into decision-making. If you know what the expected end state or outcome is for your project, and what the relative priorities are of all of the project’s constraints, then that can inject objectivity into the decision- making process.
  6. Have equanimity. I wrote in an earlier article that the “Serenity Prayer” should be a mantra for project managers. The uncertainty that is present in all projects will result in issues that you and your team will not have direct control over. While you may not be able to control the occurrence of an event that impacts your project, you have total control over your reaction to it. As the project manager, you need to set the standard of behavior for your team, and if they witness you accepting the bad with the good, and proceeding in a thoughtful manner, they are also likely to proceed in a calm manner.
  7. Be a positive force. When your project is behind schedule or over budget, it can be easy to fall into a fugue, and this can colour your interactions with stakeholders and team members. However, if you can accept that things are tough, but still greet people with a smile on your face (and in your heart), that might be one of the easiest forms of recognition you can offer each day.
  8. Be compassionate. Like charity, compassion begins at home. We are our own worst critics, and if we are beating ourselves up when things are going bad on our projects, this is likely to reduce our ability to cope with stress, leave us more open to getting into unnecessary arguments, and increases our likelihood of making poor decisions.
  9. Be impeccable. This doesn’t mean that you are always right, but it does mean that you demonstrate integrity and honesty in all of your dealings. If you have made a mistake, then take responsibility for it and don’t look to find a scapegoat.

While each of these behaviors might seem obvious, incorporating them will take lots of practice.

Without this practice, the analogy of an anti-drunk driving television ad from the past decade comes to mind. It shows a view of the road through a windshield getting progressively blurrier as empty beer glasses are placed in front of the camera lens, one after another. Our emotions act in the same way – if we let them cloud our judgment, we are committing the sin of project managing under the influence.

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