Dec 6, 2010

PM - Q & A - Dealing With A Pessimist In Team

Q. I am leading a team of 10 software professionals. We are working on pretty challenging project with strict deadlines and changing requirements but overall team is motivated as work itself is interesting and we are working on new technologies. However there is one guy who is always complaining, finding negative things, spreading rumors and in short, dragging whole team’s motivation down. On the other, he is very smart and I really want him to be part of my team. Suggestions please on what should I do?

A. Great question. Dealing with a pessimist in your team can be challenging, frustrating and real test of your leadership and management skills. Ignoring and forgetting the spread of negativity in your team will only come back to haunt you in critical phases of project, therefore handling, fixing and confronting is the only solution. There is wealth of text available in books, research papers and blogs on this, following solution is the extract from those resources and practical experience on ground:

1. Understand the effect of negativity
The first thing is to choose not-to-ignore-it. Many project managers are content with the 70%-80% motivated team – but that is NOT right – your team’s motivation level should be 100%, in order to achieve project success. Negativity from even one member will eventually kill innovation, motivation and bring halt to team’s momentum. This is enough reason not to let negativity linger and opt to confront rather than ignore it.

2. Understand reasons of negativity
Let me share with you something great that I not only read but also observed: Negativity can be useful. Yes, that’s true – have you heard about pessimists in NASA. There are two kinds of negativities – habitual and genuine. As a project manager, you need to understand the real reason behind negativity and to differentiate whether it’s a habitual or based on genuine worries. For instance, it is not unusual for employees to feel insecure in days of economic turndown, or when project gets delayed, or when some key team member leaves for better job. Similarly, team members may feel de-motivated if they feel project is not going in right direction, or there is some technical mistake being made, or quality is compromised etc. You need to sit with those team members, who you think, are spreading negativity and understand their feelings. This is very important because many times it is thought that discussing negative emotion will further fuel them, while this may be true but you cannot possibly fix an ‘effect’ without understand ‘cause’ behind it.

3. Create Awareness & Find Solution
Based on your meeting with team members, you have good idea whether negativity is habitual or genuine.

If genuine, that is easier case. Think about grievances of team members and try to fix them. Even asking team members for ideas would be smart thing to do.

If habitual, you need to further talk with your team members spreading negativity. Try these two things:

i> First thing that many good project managers do is to make team members understand their worth. Statements like ‘you are a key team member, other peers look up to you and you have no idea what happens when you say so-and-so negative stuff’ help. These confidence boosting phrases kill negativity.

ii> Ask for solutions. Tell them you are interested in fixing things they are worried about and need their help in solving them. This will make them understand your perspective and bring them back to real world.

4. Create positive environment
Great, so you have already met unhappy team members, implemented solutions and almost killed negativity. Now it is time for some more action:

i> Involve whole team: Let team participate in important decisions making, discuss solution and give their own point of views.

ii> Establish open dialogue: Develop an environment where everyone feel encouraged to challenge everybody – even you also. Team should not be compelled to keep their grievances in heart and then spread them negatively.

5. If all else fails…
If despite your best efforts, certain team members keep spreading negativity in your team, this is time to say goodbye to them – despite their skills & experience. You cannot let even your star team member to contribute to project’s failure by dragging whole team down in performance and motivation charts.

For further reading:

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