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Managing Project Relationships: “Second Guessing” and Criticism

Relationships in projects are complex. People with a tendency to get caught up in emotions, defensiveness, misconceptions, biases and unfounded beliefs are the major contributing factor.

Relationships is a broad topic, too broad for a single article. This article will focus on the way people deal with perceived criticism and conflict.

I’ve recently been accused of “second-guessing” a colleague. I was taken by surprise, since my role, or so I thought, was to offer candid input regarding decisions and proposals that effect a particular program. The program is large and complex and is focused on the colleague’s business unit. We had agreed to partner on the leadership and high-level direction of the program.

The “second-guessing” incident took place in the context of an invitation to a steering committee meeting. Previously, the steering committee consisted of four executives, including myself, and the program manager. My colleague called a steering committee meeting, inviting two of the executives, the program manager, director of application development and the head of the enterprise PMO. These last three report directly to me. I declined because it was scheduled at a time I would be out of the office. I asked my colleague for a change of time, not realizing the program manager had taken it upon himself to question the invitee list in an email. My colleague responded, saying

“I am tired of being second-guessed on every decision.

The steering committee needs to grow to incorporate the business unit’s leadership team.

You or your program manager could have come and asked me in person if you disagree.”

I was confused. I had not disagreed with anyone about anything, all I did was request a change of schedule so I could attend the meeting. Following a moment of annoyance, I realized that this was a learning opportunity. Was I second-guessing all his decisions? Was it OK for him to change the completion of the steering committee without conferring with me? Was he over-stressed about all the stuff he had to do?

This is a simple scenario, probably easy to resolve with a brief conversation. However, this kind of thing comes up all too often. A designer objects to being “second-guessed” by his team mate, supervisor or architect. A PM objects when a functional manager questions her decision. Functional managers object when their decisions are questioned. The result of these objections can be to drive a wedge between people who must work together to accomplish objectives.

On the job Learning

However skillful one may be in relationships, it is best always to be open to learning through experience and reflection on the relationship process. Because relationships are so complex and changeable, that learning is ongoing. The master of relationships realizes that there is always room for improvement and that reactivity makes things worse. Seek to understand and respond.

The most meaningful learning takes place when actively engaged in performing work and, particularly, when navigating the relationships that are fundamental to effective project management. It is in action that classroom and book learning move from intellect to embodiment.

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Second Guessing and Criticism

With the goal of continuously improving relationships, performance and quality, let’s explore “second-guessing” and the line between it and useful questioning, criticism, risk analysis and raising alternatives.

Second guessing is defined in several different ways. For example, to “anticipate or predict (someone’s actions or thoughts) by guesswork. Judge or criticize (someone) with hindsight.”

“To criticize or question the actions or decisions of someone: to try to guess or predict what someone or something will do.”

Second guessing is perceived as criticism. Criticism is a major issue in the world of projects. “Most dictionaries initially define criticism as an expression of disapproval. Synonyms are attack, censure, condemnation, and disapproval.” Couple this with a tendency of many people to avoid facing the fact that their ideas and performance are not perfect and there is reactivity. Add into the mix the false perception that bringing up objections, risks, and alternatives delay the project and complexity increases.

Like criticism of any kind, second-guessing is an example of feedback. Useful feedback is feedback that has the power to improve decisions or to improve future behavior based on the analysis of past behavior. For example, bringing up risks or alternative approaches when designing and planning can help to avoid problems and result in better outcomes. Evaluating past performance can lead to process improvement changes.


There is a fuzzy line between negative criticism and useful feedback. Much of the difference is in the mind of the perceiver. The distinctions can be quite subjective, based on factors like mood, stress level, biases, the need for control, resistance to criticism and more. One day a person might accept a question or comment as constructive feedback, another day, the same feedback, given the same way, by the same person, may be considered second-guessing and a cause for defensiveness and anger.

If you are committed to continuously improving relationships and performance, explore questions like

  • How does stress, the need for control and the desire to simplify and expedite things by making unilateral decisions effect performance, relationships and quality?
  • How does this effect decision-making and the quality of decisions?
  • How can clarity about roles and responsibilities make relationships healthier and communication and decision making more effective?
  • How do emotional reactions, rudeness and disrespect impair relationships, team performance and motivation?
  • How can formal processes like risk management and making decisions from multiple perspectives help to ensure that feedback is constructive and received well?

The answers to these questions, particularly when you work them out with your team, can clarify the distinctions between negative second-guessing and useful feedback and help to avoid the reactive behavior. There can be a transition from subjectivity to objectivity.

You can assess the following factors to decide whether and how to offer input and how to take it in and respond to it

  • Time – is the feedback hindsight or is it before an action has taken place? Is it getting in the way of progress or dampening motivation?
  • Content – is it true? Is the feedback meaningful, based on fact or analysis, or is it based on unfounded belief or bias?
  • Useful – will it help? Is it worth the time and effort to pursue?
  • Intention – is the intention to show the other party up, improve a future outcome or learn from past performance?
  • Demeanor – are the parties reacting emotionally or are they expressing themselves in a rational and respectful way?
  • Context and forum – Is the feedback direct or indirect; given in public or privately; using the most effective media; part of a formal process?


As a giver, avoid the perception that you are “second-guessing” by making sure your input is at the right time, for the right reason, presented in a way that it can be received as positive input and to the right people. Present your issue with courage, clarity and an understanding of how it might affect the other. Realize that however you present your input, it can be perceived as second-guessing or negative criticism.

As a receiver, avoid reacting to critical input and questioning. If you label it as second-guessing, make sure the label is not creating a bias in your mind that discounts the content. Monitor your moods, emotions, and biases to see if you are being defensive, reactive and avoiding what could be valuable input. Be aware of how invested you are in YOUR way, YOUR decision and how that might close your mind to helpful input. Observe how the perceived need for total, unquestioned control influences the situation. Ensure that your response is respectful and in keeping with the goal of optimal performance and healthy relationships.

Whether you do it yourself or with the team, make sure you take the time to learn from your experience and to carry that learning forward to continuously improve.

Pitagorsky, George, Criticism – An Improvement Opportunity, Breakthrough Newsletter

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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