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Reduce project distress

Michelle LaBrosse
December 19, 2011

The holiday season is like a magnifying glass that enlarges both the best and the worst in us. This time of year induces joy, caring, and generosity, but it can also magnify stress, anxiety, and heighten conflict at home and on your project.

The holidays can be stressful. You’ve seen it others around you. Negative Nick is sitting alone under the mistletoe pouting at the office holiday party. Stressed out Susan is in the finance department worrying about pleasing her five kids who want the latest and greatest gadgets, but do not understand the word ‘recession’. Holiday stress is lurking in the workplace and can contribute to conflict this time of year.

The good news is that holiday bliss is in your control. This year, ensure your holiday is peaceful in the workplace with these tips on reducing workplace conflict.

Align goals
Let’s say you’re decorating your house for the holiday. While you are going for fun and gaudy, your significant other is shooting for classy and elegant. As you begin the decoration process, you find that you keep butting heads on every front. What happened?

When initiating any project, it is important for your entire project team to understand and agree on the end goal. Before kicking off a project, get your project team together to create a high-level project agreement to develop a general outline of who is going to do what, when, and what goal you are aiming to accomplish.

Set boundaries
You are throwing a holiday party and have invited only close friends and family. Your younger brother, who is still in college, invited all of his frat friends. The frat came to the party, ate all the food, drank all the alcohol, and stayed until two in the morning. Who’s at fault here?

When planning a party, you need to set boundaries on what is expected of the guest (arrival and departure times), what is appropriate (bring one guest), and how each person can contribute (bring either an appetiser or a bottle of wine).

The same goes for your project team at work. Define boundaries in your project team: when meetings should start and end, how you will conduct the meetings, and what everyone can contribute. When you set boundaries pre-emptively, you can avoid conflicts.

Manage expectations
During your holiday office party, you are playing a white elephant Christmas game where everyone contributes a present to the game. Some people brought gag gifts worth $5, while others spend a lot of money on really nice presents. The result? Angry stilted partygoers.

The biggest reason for disappointment is due to expectations that fall short of reality. To reduce conflict at work, make sure you understand what other people expect from you and from the situation, and manage those expectations to result in a positive outcome.

Get buy-in!
You’ve decided that this year, instead of getting presents for your kids, you are going to donate money to a charity in their name. Christmas morning arrives, your sleepy-eyed munchkins come bounding downstairs, sprinting towards the tree to tear apart… an envelope.

People are generally not happy when changes are made without their input or buy-in. People only change when they have bought into why the change is worth it and understand why the change is a good thing. Before making drastic changes to a standardised process like presents under the Christmas tree, focus on getting buy-in from key stakeholders.

Make faces
The reason that is so difficult to remain in a foul mood during the holidays is because of the looks on people’s faces. From sentimental holiday TV movies to family members excitement to be reunited with loved ones. Happiness is truly contagious.

According to the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, your facial expressions precede your emotions. People also tend to mimic the facial expressions of others around them. Therefore, if you want to boost someone’s mood, try smiling at him or her and see what happens. Most likely they will return your grin, which will put a damper on their chagrin. At your place of work, focus on what facial expressions you’re making. It may have a bigger impact on the interactions you have with others than you think.

So, bring it on, holiday season! Project managers are ready with open arms and smiling faces. Bah humbugs are not invited.

Co-authored with Kristen LaBrosse

Michelle LaBrosse
Michelle LaBrosse (PMP) is one of the Project Management Institute's (PMI) 25 Most Influential Women in Project Management in the World and the founder of Cheetah Learning, a former PMI Professional Development Provider of the Year. She boasts a background in engineering and is a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s Owner President Managers (OPM) program, as well as a prolific writer and educator, having authored Cheetah Negotiations, Cheetah Project Management, Cheetah Know How and Cheetah Exam Prep as well as numerous articles in publications worldwide.
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