Posts Tagged ‘powerlessness’

Success takes us to difficult places. Imagine getting the big promotion and finding the engineer from hell heading the department from which you need cooperation. A flood of feelings can surface – rage, fear, anxiety, going blank, etc. What to do?

First, let me say it is best to avoid trying to get the feeling to go away. Embrace it. Why is that? First of all, it will only intensify if you fight it. Second, in that intensity you can lose yourself and cause havoc to occur. Let’s explore.

The feeling can stem from a number of things. This blog is limited to one source, which has to do with an aspect of the weaker part of psyche. So why bother with this weak part? Shouldn’t one just add to strengths and push through? You can but there is an issue with this when taken to an extreme. A strength taken too far leads to weakness based on a one-dimensional approach to everything. Many people take this approach. Look at it realistically, though. You’ve probably worked with someone like this. Can you recall the feelings you had when around this person? Why should others feel any different about you if you try acting similarly?

If we get down to it, there is a big plus to addressing emotional intensity within oneself. It can work when dealing with others, as the following story will show.

The assignment was in Manhattan with an important client. After checking in at the hotel a phone call was placed to the client. None of my support materials had arrived. Panic!

Going to an office supply store the night manager of the printing department was given my copy of the materials. He promised I’d have copies by 7:30 AM the next day. I felt like a winner!

Arriving promptly the next morning at 7:30 there turned out to be no copies. The day manager became “testy,” to say the least.  Rage and panic surged within me. I started escalating with him and use my strength of pushing through in a focused, insistent way to get things done. Before going too far with that approach a question fell out of my mouth, “Does he do this to you often?” The manager stopped dead and asked, “Do what often?”

“You know, promise at night a job that has to be delivered on your shift and then he just goes home without logging the job or starting on it.” He was surprised and his emotions turned on a dime. “Yes, he does this to me all the time. Serving my customers means a lot to me and I am stuck with his messes!”

I asked, “What can we do? I need your help.”

He replied, “What do you need to get through to noon today?” Immediately I selected the bare bones that would get me by until noon and decided to throw myself on the mercy of the client by making the commitment in my mind we would complete the assignment but for just this morning the work would be rearranged a bit. I was able to get to the client’s on time, abridged material in hand, explain the situation and get down to work. The remainder of the print job was not only done by noon but they delivered it free of charge. The next morning I went back and thanked the day manager.


So what was this about? In a word, “Acceptance”. Acceptance of Powerlessness. The night manager had taken the day manager and myself hostage. The unfairness of life was squatting on our heads.

The freedom to act came through the acceptance of the powerlessness and shifting on the spot to empathy with the day manager and answering the question, “What can we do with what we have?”

Those intense feelings that were starting to surge were about not having control. They had a message within them. They were life knocking on the door going, “Hello, time to go a little deeper to get a little stronger!”

I learned a great deal about letting go of emotionality in that split second when the question came out.

Powerlessness brings its own power.  A word of caution is needed, though. Using the power that comes with powerlessness can stir up a hornet’s nest. Having said that, let’s dive in.

“One Question” Revisited: The Short Version

In the previous blog, Frame of Mind, one question was mentioned as being central, “What happens when you follow the rules?” A variation of that question applies here.

What rules apply to this project, how do you see them used, and what is your part?

Ask this of the stakeholder population from client(s) to team members. Look at what is required for the project to succeed. Perform a gap analysis and, voila, you will have a picture of just how far the project can or can’t go. Publish the picture. Do what you can.

There, that was easy. Or was it?

“One Question” Revisited: The Long Version

An important character trait was left out of the mix, one that turns things on their collective head – Expectations. People want what they want when they want it. This includes expecting underfunded, understaffed, underspecified, time-pressured sows ears (contracts) being turned into silk purses (deliverables).

What to do? If the project manager has enough authority then that is sufficient to create the necessary change orders. Without that authority the project manager needs substantial power from another source – himself. The necessary character traits include:

  • Acceptance which answers the question, “What can we do with the committed resources we have? If you listen hard you’ll hear earned value in the background;
  • Willingness to speak honestly without being judgmental is delivering that picture mentioned above. The project is as it is;
  • Humility is very important. It simply is – stating personal, team, and project limits. It also has another aspect, which shows up when combined with the next character trait;
  • Courage is the ability to stick with all of the above in the face of expectations. Humility comes into play with courage when the bombardment of expectations starts raining down. The PM can speak something like this, “You seem very confident this can be accomplished and have stated the team SHOULD be able to do it. Why do you believe that? Who has succeeded at this before? I need to seek them out and learn.”

There is a responsibility with this last approach, i.e., efforts to do the ear-purse conversion have been tested and legitimate barriers have been reached or there is credible lessons-learned available that bring into doubt the probability of success. At the very least a good resource assessment has been performed and comes up wanting.

What To Do

Stay with the humility by avoiding saying, “No.” Simply state what is needed to achieve the goals.  Approach from a humble position. It shows respect and empathy. Keep the focus on the gap. Whatever you do, keep the conversation open and stay with trying to make things work. But also stay humble and avoid turning away from the limits of the situation.

Caution: Avoid Magical Thinking

I want to close this blog with words from one of my mentors from long ago, “When there is no project let go of the situation BEFORE you get the ulcer. No amount of badgering, whining, aggression, or anxiety can magically multiply commitments. Others have to pony up. As PM you are one person who can work maybe 50 or more hours for brief periods.”

It’s simple. Stay in touch with the real limits and don’t flinch. Now, that is hard!