Sensitive souls need not apply: Project Management, Politics & Stress

“I can manage the work and the activities but it’s the people I find difficult to deal with!” – words uttered by Project Managers with sensitive souls the world over

Author: Fay MacDonald 7th December 2011

Sensitive Souls

Sensitive souls are where people react by their thoughts and feelings by over-reacting to certain situations. They stay in the realm of high level superficiality with an aim that everyone will like them if they consistently deliver good news and are never challenging.

They do not fare well when working with challenging communication regarding difficult situations and delivering difficult messages; as the perceived reality in their minds is clouded with an over-reactive filter. The filter pushes them into an overly stressed state.

If they were to rise to responding in a difficult situation e.g. a high profile and potentially stressful situation such as a Board Meeting they, will typically react from a place of emotion rather than from rational thoughts and beliefs. Fear of the situation can mean that they often will

  • not show up to meetings if it is likely to be contentious; or
  • show up but either stay quiet or deflect questions onto others; or
  • show up, remaining quiet until they are questionned directly; at which point they become defensive or passive-aggressive if challenged.

Sensitive souls typically have a:

Some people have a heart for the world and some for Project Politics - a good Project Manager needs to be both

  • LOVE OF GIVING GOOD NEWS: delivering good news is usually met with smiles, thanks and praise;
  • LOVE OF RECEIVING PRAISE FOR A JOB WELL DONE: praise makes most people feel valued and respected;
  • LOVE OF WRITING / WORKING IN THE BACKGROUND: it can be easier to make progress with a task which has dedicated time, with no interruptions and no questions;
  • STRENGTH OF EMPATHY WITH PEOPLE’S FEELINGS: responding with a kind word to assure people that they have been understood usually builds good relationships which is a must-have for people-pleasers who need to be liked ;
  • LOATHING OF BEING PUT ON-THE-SPOT: taking things personally and becoming defensive as they have taken it upon themselves that they alone must have all the answers, but of course they don’t;
  • FEAR OF QUESTIONS: panic sets in as they do not like being in the hot-seat and will either go numb and say very little, mumble or pass the query to someone else in the room, who is even less appropriate than they are to answer ;
  • FEAR OF FEEDBACK: taking things personally and becoming defensive / aggressive as they have taken it upon themselves that they alone must have all the answers, but of course they don’t;
  • FEAR OF NEEDING TO CHALLENGE OTHERS: this will typically be avoided at all costs.

There are times when a sensitive soul will blossom and times when they will at best struggle, in the middle become extremely stressed and at the worst will become ill with stress.

Pushed into the Battleground of Large Complex Projects

Humans mostly wish to avoid pain. People with physical sensitivities / allergic reactions typically avoid settings which will inflict pain or life-threatening conditions, for example: nut allergies which can bring on anaphylactic shock or cat/dog hair allergies which can bring on asthma attacks.

Yet it appears that many people with emotional sensitivity don’t seem to feel able to apply the same level of caution to their emotional health when faced with the opportunity for a huge challenge, e.g. a large complex Project. At work they may be driven by fear of losing their job in a difficult economic climate.

In recent years this has happened to a large number of people who have come from operational type roles with little change day-to-day. They are suddenly forced into working on or with Projects which require massive changes and which they personally are not equipped to deal with.

The Projects are tough and can feel like battlefields with no cease-fire or even a break in the firing until the Project delivers and is closed down. There are:

  • many plates to spin;
  • many conflicting deadlines;
  • many conflicting agendas and politics.

This is not the natural home for the sensitive soul, but the alternative option of leaving and looking for other work may seem even worse. So they try to stick it out.

Projects demand: Resilience – Skills – Knowledge – Confidence

Even the strongest of souls can feel bashed, beaten-up and not wanting to continue…but their passion and resilience keeps them going.

However, a sensitive soul will typically fold and find themselves under undue stress. This can happen whether it is only the work element which is pressurising them or it could be an amalgamation of many stressors, including family / home life or other life factors.

There are many areas in Projects which are going to cause stress to sensitive souls, for example:

No. Criteria / Skill Project Need for Skill Aptitude of Sensitive Soul
1 Chasing overdue work High Low
2 Presenting at Board Meetings High Low
3 Delivering bad news High Low
4 Challenging others views High Low
5 Answering challenging questions on delays High Low
6 Answering challenging questions on risks High Low
7 Answering challenging questions on issues High Low

These Projects really are not for the faint hearted!


Stress is now the commonest cause of long-term sick leave


Work stress changes our bodies…and studies show link to Coronary Heart Disease

In the recent report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) the results of studies (from nearly 600 people) indicate that stress has overtaken conditions such as repetitive strain injury and cancer as the reason for employees with long-term absences from work.

It is reported that this is found to be higher in the public sector where there are enormous amounts of change programmes, projects and restructurings taking place.

This survey has been run annually for 12 years and it is the first time that stress has reached the top of the charts.

Regarding the assessment of factors causing stress, a new category was added this year to ascertain whether the biggest effect is from ineffective management or organisational change in the public sector or the quantity of change in this sector.
The findings were the latter.

Frequently little regard has been given to providing change management workstreams within projects and programmes due to in-experience of the teams running them or simply a lack of budget. The more sensitive souls / less-skilled and robust people have been forced into managing complex business process and IT change Projects which they are ill-equipped for.

Mostly, people in operational type roles, have chosen this type of job / career route as they are not people who like lots of change. To throw them into roles which are contrary to this like asking them to swim out into the sea in the freezing cold winter and then just leaving them there and still expecting them to do their job which is back on-shore.

A study in the European Heart Journal in 2008 focussed on more than 10,000 civil servants. The findings indicated that irrespective of the kind of job or level of seniority that employees under 50 years of age who said that their work was stressful were nearly nearly 70% more likely to develop heart disease than the stress free.

The main report commented on the biological mechanisms that link stress and disease – this happens irrespective of the lifestyle factors involved (e.g. diet, exercise).

Stress affects the regulation of heartbeat and also affects the release of hormones with noticeable spikes in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Other studies have indicated that stress at work and working long hours typically reduces the healthy lifestyle factors such as eating healthy foods and taking exercise and instead results in more fast foods, drinking alcohol and smoking. All of which have an additional contributory factor regarding heart disease. A bit of a catch 22 going on here.

Many organisations are now introducing stress policies which is going some way to address individual cases. However, it would be fantastic if this could be managed up-front in planning of Projects and Programmes, rather than as a clear-up exercise when casualties fall by the way-side. The up-front work is ensuring that change management is planned for and managed well and that the overall Project Manager is experienced and robust enough to manage a large complex Project which will have challenges. It is not acceptable to take junior managers and throw them in at the deep end.

The real sadness in all of this is that so many people are not recognising early enough that changes need to be made either in their own situation or in how they are managing others.

Stress is a slow progressive health and life stealer, sometimes people don’t know the true damage until 15 to 20 years later…when it really is too late to do something about it.

T w i t t e r