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We’ve seen a lot of outrageous behavior since George Floyd’s death and I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted and sad. And I see implications for project leaders. They have a critical responsibility – to build healthy teams.  Yes, project leaders need to know about scope, schedule, and cost management. They need to understand how to manage risks and issues. They need to be able to communicate with clients and senior management. But don’t underestimate the responsibility of project leaders to build healthy teams. Here are three areas where project managers need to spend some time.

Spreading Love: A responsibility of project leaders

Brené Brown, researcher and author, claims as a fact, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, that “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all women, men, and children. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.” (p. 26)

Different approaches to project management seem to result in a slightly different way of treating people. In a traditional waterfall approach, the project manager functions more like a manager, assigning responsibilities and deadlines to those on the team. He or she also negotiates with functional managers for resources. And, team members are expected to provide schedules of availability to the project manager.

In a more Agile environment, teams are formed to address problems and are often allowed to stay together as an increasingly functioning group – thus improving the execution speed and profitability. Is there a way to combine these approaches in the business world?

When we truly love our teams, and build organizations that reflect that love, it changes our mindset. Click To Tweet

When we truly love our teams, and build organizations that reflect that love, it changes our mindset. We look at our projects and organizations with a sense of grace, joy, gratitude, and abundance. Relationships become more important than tasks and schedules. And the reciprocal nature of healthy relationships is that team members will bend over backwards to meet their deadlines.

A Suggestion for Starting

To begin to develop such an environment, ask the people on your project team what it is they would like to accomplish from working on your project. People will work harder when they are achieving their goals while they help you achieve yours. Said differently, it is important for people to reap abundantly from their project work. When you know what professional goals people on your teams have, other than drawing a paycheck, it may help determine how activities are assigned.

For example, the team member who wants to build new skills may be assigned activities that are entirely new to him/her – with an understanding that progress may be slower. The team member who is more interested in fun may be assigned activities that he/she believes are fun. And the team member who is looking for career growth may want to work on activities with more visibility. It varies from person to person. When your people are really interested in what they are doing, they will perform at a higher level. Don’t assume that everyone wants the same thing.

Building trust: A responsibility of project leaders

Do our teams trust each other enough to disclose problems early? Can our client trust us to disclose these problems, or will we try to hide them from the client? Can management trust teams to deliver results as promised?

The need for trust is particularly important in the non-profit world, where we rely on large numbers of volunteers to execute massive events. It is clear that building trust in our teams and organizations is essential. When we work in organizations where the trust factor is low, it drains our energy and wastes time. In other words, it costs money.

But do people innately trust others, or does that trust have to be earned? The expression – ‘trust me’ – issued as a polite request, or an order doesn’t work very well. What can we do to improve trust?

Douglas Abrams spearheaded a collaborative effort to bring His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu together and documented the results in his book, The Book of JOY – Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.

In that book, he reported that these two men teased each other throughout the five days and consider it a “sign of intimacy and friendship.” (p. 19) Their jokes were never an attempt to put the other down, but rather a constant reinforcement of their friendship. According to Archbishop Tutu, the teasing is a “statement of trust in the relationship.” (p. 220)

For more suggestions on building trust, check out this blog.

Creating a safe environment: A responsibility of project leaders

A healthy organizational culture is also characterized by a sense of safety. People aren’t afraid. People feel supported. That can be hard to maintain in times of chaos, and a global pandemic certainly qualifies.

In Simon Sinek’s 2017 book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, the author talks about the “Circle of Safety” – and retells an Aesop fable. “A lion used to prowl about a field in which Four Oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them. At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the Lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four. —Aesop, sixth century B.C.” (p. 24)

Sinek focuses extensively on our natural biological state. He talks about how stress, chaos, lack of trust, and ruthless behaviors impact teams. Dopamine and endorphins are the chemicals that drive us to achieve; whether that means finding food, building things, or accomplishing goals. Oxytocin and serotonin are the chemicals that help with sociability. Serotonin is responsible for that sense of pride that we take in the people who work for us, while oxytocin inspires loyalty, trust, and kindness. Leaders need to develop cultures which work with the natural biological state.

A Suggestion for Starting

One suggestion for doing that is to model a tone of voice that deescalates conversations during times of tension. We’ve all worked with folks who just have an annoying habit of getting agitated quickly. This tends to escalate the tension. But if we can train ourselves to step back, think, take a few breaths, and respond in a soothing or comforting tone of voice, we can be the calming influence that our teams need.

Teams are better able to manage themselves and the challenges of the project when they don’t have to cope with dangers inside of the organization. Leaders need to build a safe environment in their organizations.

Do you believe it’s the responsibility of project leaders to build healthy teams? How are you doing that? Share some ideas in the comments.