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Patience – Is it a Virtue for Project Managers?

“Patience is a virtue.”

“The patient man shows much good sense, but the quick-tempered man displays folly at its height” Proverbs 14:29.

How well does patience serve the project manager?

When does Patience turn into indifference or passivity?

When does it become an obstacle to getting things done on time and within budget?

Patience, or forbearance, is the ability to endure difficult circumstances and annoyances that typically come up during projects. Patience allows the PM to endure annoyances like waiting for delayed deliverables and dealing with people who he/she perceives as slow witted, uncooperative and poor performers, without acting out anger. In Buddhism, patience is is the ability to control one’s emotions even when being criticized or attacked.

Impatience is identified with anger. Anger in any of its forms — from annoyance to rage — is, in most people, a natural occurrence.

Imagine a super-patient PM

Imagine a PM who is the personification of patience – easy going, unruffled, understanding. How would this person do in an environment in which only “squeaky wheels” get what they need from others?

What are squeaky wheels? In organizations they are people who make noise. Noise may include yelling, complaining, nagging, and exhibiting non-verbal behaviors that clearly show impatience. They make it clear that commitments are not being fulfilled. They yell, confront, send accusatory emails, escalate or otherwise motivate others to get work accomplished. Some organizational cultures accept impatience as a virtue.

Impatience as a Method for getting things done

“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” Aristotle.

In the absolute sense, patience may be a virtue. But, that doesn’t mean that the patient person cannot display anger as a means for getting things done. Nor does it mean that he or she can never get angry.

There is a thin line between impatience and the due diligence required of PMs to fulfill objectives on time and within budget. We can look at a display of anger and impatience as a means for getting things done or as a sign of immaturity and lack of self control. Sometimes, only those who raise their voice and act out angrily get the attention they need. At other times, the same behavior will get you disrespected, feared or fired.

Learning Patience

It is possible to not have anger come up when faced with annoyances, but, being patient doesn’t necessarily mean never getting angry or feeling impatient.

Being patient implies having the ability to withstand the physical and psychological discomfort that comes with not getting your way or not getting what is expected. That ability can be cultivated. You can practice to be non-reactive, to feel the sensations that underlie impatience and allow them to be as they are. Can you treat impatient feelings as if they were an itch that you choose not to scratch?

I coached one project manager who said he was impatient. Sometimes his impatience was useful, it helped motivate himself and his staff, but mostly it got in the way. His body language and facial expressions displayed his impatience even when he was not overtly acting out. His displays of impatience instilled fear in his subordinates and made his peers and superiors think he was unstable and immature. It made him feel as if he was out of control.

I asked him if he thought that impatience was in his DNA and a permanent trait. He actually thought that it was. I said, “Well, then you are doomed.”

He laughed. But I was serious. If you believe that you can’t change, then you are likely not to change. Identify yourself as impatient and you will continue to be impatient. Acknowledge impatience as a temporary trait that can be overcome and you have a chance. It takes quite a bit of effort and, well, patience, but, patience can be learned.

Patience is learned in stages.

  1. Recognize and acknowledge impatience and it’s effects. Note for yourself when impatience has come up and what it feels like. Be aware of how you react and how your reaction effects others. Identify the situations that trigger impatience.
  2. Make a value judgement. Is impatience a trait you value? Do you want to keep it as a a personal trait? Or, is impatience something you want to do away with? If you want to keep your impatience, then you are done with this list.
  3. Be kind to and patient with yourself. Realize that it will take time and effort to cure impatience. Impatience is like an infection. You start a course of treatment and understand that it takes time for the treatment to work.

    Treat your anger with the utmost respect and tenderness, for it is no other than yourself. Do not suppress it—simply be aware of it. Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed. When you are aware that you are angry, your anger is transformed. If you destroy anger, you destroy the Buddha, … . Mindfully dealing with anger is like taking the hand of a little brother. – Thich Nhat Hanh

  4. Dismiss any sense of impatience being a permanent character trait and replace it with the notion that impatience is a habit that can be unlearned.
  5. Commit to the fierce practice of experiencing the feelings of impatience without reacting.

    At first, you may not be able to do anything but observe yourself as you react. That is where kindness to yourself comes in. Don’t beat yourself up or feel that you will never be patient. Learning to be patient with yourself is a major step towards being patient with others and the things around you that don’t fulfill your expectations.

With patience comes the ability to choose a course of action that is situationally appropriate. If you want to behave as if you were impatient to get someone to move when all they will respond to is a display of impatience, you can do it. But, mostly, you will establish a system that positively motivates and holds people accountable for their actions and inaction, and, patiently, let the system do its work.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

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.