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The Art of Assertive Waiting

Waiting is a fact of life. We wait because we want something to happen. We want the bus to come, to get to the front of the line, we want some work to be completed or some event to take place.

The way you wait effects your health, relationships, and performance. There are choices. You can be active or passive. And if active, you can be aggressive or assertive. You can make waiting for an opportunity to relax, do something productive, and cultivate mindful self-awareness. Or you can grumble, complain, and stress-out.

“Waiting is” is a quote from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. It refers to waiting without wanting things to be different from what they are. The bus hasn’t arrived yet, there is nothing you can do to make it come. If you accept that and make the best of your situation, you are happily waiting for – stress-less peace caused by accepting things as they are and knowing what you can do to influence things going forward.

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Waiting in Projects

In the realm of projects, project managers wait for resources, decisions, and deliverables. Schedules predict task duration, the wait time to completion. The more critical the task, the more difficult it is to wait for it to be completed.

The art of waiting is in the way performance is managed. Your project control process makes a difference in the quality of your waiting and the way you wait for influences the way you control your project and manage your relationships.

Decisions and work by functional managers and contractors are often more difficult to manage than other kinds of deliverables. Decisions, particularly the more critical ones that can hold up a project, are made by powerful stakeholders like clients, sponsors, and regulators. These folks are not as likely as others to have a clearly stated due date, and even if they do, they are subject to dynamically changing priorities. Most often they are not held accountable for missing a target date.

The contractors and functional groups contributing to your project have conflicting priorities as they juggle your work and the work they do for others. Direct project team members may be late in completing their deliverables, and late and inaccurate in reporting progress for any number of reasons.

So, there is waiting and with waiting, uncertainty. Uncertainty anxiety and annoyance arise and they make waiting more difficult than it needs to be. You experience the stress of not knowing what is going on.

Waiting happily is up to you. The trick is to decide what to do (or not do) and how to do it while you are waiting. Do it, and be happy.

Assertive Waiting

There are choices – assertive, aggressive, and passive waiting. ‘Aggressive’ is sharp, there is a flavor of violent forcefulness. “Assertive” on the other hand is confident and connotes a softer active effort to achieve a goal.  Both connote action, doing something to move things along. In “Passive” waiting, there is no action beyond observing.

Assertiveness implies confidently speaking up for a point of view while respecting others. Here we are using the term to mean being

skillfully active while waiting. Your action is motivated by the goal of assuring success. You respect others. You can choose to act or not act.

Project Control

Effective project communication and control procedures influence the waiting process.  In an ideal world waiting for a resource, deliverable or decision is easy.  People know what they have to do, by when, and they do it without prompting. A reporting process keeps everyone up to date. If people become aware that they can’t fulfill their commitments, they make that known. The project manager monitors progress and does not need to do anything if things are moving along well.  If they are not, he, she or they would assess cause and impact and manage expectations – adjusting the plan and informing stakeholders.

But what if things are less ideal? For example, if the progress reporting process is not effective because it either does not exist or some players don’t update their plans or report inaccurately.  Then greater assertiveness is required.

What can you do?

Ask questions with kind inquisitiveness, be gently assertive. Be sensitive to the other parties’ sensitivity to hierarchy and control issues, their fear of being judged for not performing to plan. Maybe they do not have the information needed to accurately revise their estimates. Maybe they just don’t care or they don’t believe in schedules and progress reporting.

Understanding others, you can craft the most effective response.

For example, you can call, email or message a contractor or functional manager to say something like,

“I am submitting a progress report to the boss/sponsor/steering committee/etc. and I need to give them a sense of where you are in your task and your estimate to completion.  Let us know if there any issues that might get in the way.”

At first, there is no need to copy anyone besides the people with the information you need. Depending on the level of awareness of the players and the cultural setting, there may be sensitivity about letting others know that there might be an issue.

If there is no adequate response, then call. If still no response, you have a problem. Send a reminder of your request and cc someone to create accountability and an audit trail. Avoid exhibiting your frustration, remain calm and persistent.  Make a resolution to fix the project control process to make waiting easier for everyone.

Be patient, persistent, compassionate, and, if you can, help others to get what they need. Be patient but don’t stand for abuse.

What Makes Waiting for a Challenge?

Antsy feelings – restless, nervous, impatient, anxious, a gnawing sense of worry – are at the root of aggressive behavior.  With mindful self-awareness hard to be with feelings that can be observed and accepted, and you can choose the behavior that suits the situation best.  You become responsive rather than reactive.

Without mindful awareness, there is a tendency to impatiently react. The opportunity to develop greater self-management is lost. You may get what you want but not what you need, and you lose the respect of those you work with. You may lose your best players. You lose the opportunity to rest peacefully at the moment allowing things to unfold while being appropriately active.

Happily Waiting

There is a time for everything. Projects rely on activity. But that doesn’t mean there is no place for inaction – not doing. You need time for rest and reflection. There are periods during project life when there is nothing for a project manager to do but wait.

When you are waiting, let go and trust in the process. Relax. Find your calm center and let your intuition and experience lead you. Respond mindfully and skillfully. Choose between anxiously waiting and happily waiting.

For more on waiting happily, see the article “Happily Waiting: What to Do with Your Impatience”

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.