What Motivates the Use of Euphemisms?
This tendency to refer to troubled projects with euphemisms like “challenged” is quite common and often stems from a sense that the team members will be demoralized if they hear a word like “troubled”. Perhaps it also stems from the project manager’s own inability to accept the fact that there is trouble. Or perhaps it stems from the belief that while managers can handle anything the staff cannot.
Quite often team members working in a “troubled” project are already quite well aware that the project is in trouble. They are often the first to know and to admit it, usually among themselves. The more a project manager tries to make everything seem sweet and happy and treats the team members as if they were children who are incapable of dealing with the reality of the situation, the greater the chance that there will be demotivation. Using terms like “challenged” instead of “troubled” is a silly game of denial. The word usage does not change the reality.
Candidly Share the Reality
After stepping back to assess the current situation objectively, it is necessary to candidly share the assessment’s results with the part of the team that has to work to resolve “problems” (or are they “challenges”). Once there is a clear assessment and either a way forward or realization that there is no effective way forward, say so. Then it becomes possible to get things on track.
Being candid about the situation shows respect for the team members’ capability to deal with reality. If there is a sense that they are not ready for that, then help them get ready.
Clarity and truthfulness go a long way in building morale and trust. It helps to motivate the kind of effort needed to turn things around. That is, if they can be turned around.
Is Success inevitable?
While in many, perhaps most cases, troubled projects can be turned around and be successfully completed, there are cases in which the project is so far gone that nothing will save it. We can exhort the team to press on and put out the extra effort but if they are doomed to failure and are aware that they are being led on a forced march for no other reason than management ignorance or delusion how will they feel? Will they be motivated to excel on the next project? Will they trust their leadership?
I think not.
It reminds me of an old folk song by Pete Seeger called “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”. It is about an officer who leads his men, weighted down with equipment, to cross a big muddy river. He is so sure of himself that he fails to listen to the advice of his sergeant and continues on as the water goes from being knee deep to waist deep to neck deep and the “big fool” keeps saying “push on” until he drowns. Luckily, in the song, the sergeant takes over and turns the platoon back to shore before they all drown.
Team Members are Adults
Let’s be clear. Team members on commercial projects are adults. If they cannot deal with the reality of their situation, and project managers pander to that, then we perpetuate dysfunction. But, more often, team members can deal with reality. Project managers, who treat them as if they cannot, disrespect them and lose their trust. No one wins.
History judges us by the way we respond to hardship. By looking at the big picture, beyond the current project, we can make the best of any situation. In the big picture, it is our job as leaders to enable those we lead to acknowledge and accept the reality of any situation.
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