Project management

Best behaviour

4 August 2016

Your behaviours and emotions can have a huge impact on your team’s performance, says Eleri Evans


Team leaders face many challenges when delivering a project. Some of these are around timescales, budget or the supply chain. These are visible – and hard, quantifiable information is usually available to assess any impact these may have.

Other challenges are not so easy to see or quantify.

All team leaders seek to have healthy, engaged and high-performing teams – however, this is not always easy to achieve. But if you can create an environment that helps your team flourish and be happy in their work then they are likely to be more productive, which can help ensure project success.

The flip side is trying to avoid team members getting frustrated, discouraged or anxious. If this happens they can be distracted from their responsibilities, which can lead to poor judgement and poor quality of work.

There are many external factors that influence a project’s success but an important element is the impact you have on the team’s performance. Your behaviour affects how other team members behave and react to situations. Your influence is far-reaching and affects every team member by shaping their behaviours, now and in future.

Create the right environment and your projects have a greater chance of success, which will allow you to progress your career and receive the appropriate rewards. Your projects will run more smoothly for the following reasons.

  • You get better at managing your behaviours when asking the team to do things, questioning whether they are on track or when you are investigating issues with delivery. Taking an approach that is aligned to the mix of the personalities in the team can increase engagement and improve results. The team’s confidence grows.
  • When you handle problems objectively and support those involved, issues are brought to your attention – your team learns that, when they highlight issues, you are good at managing your emotions and will not over-react. They do not need to fear you and are therefore more open to raising concerns and discussing options.
  • A calm, consistent leader has gravitas and builds trust with the team. The trust you build is returned, and when you are not there, the work still progresses.

Your journey as a team leader will also be smoother and less of a roller-coaster ride as a result, because:

  • when problems arise you handle them calmly
  • when someone makes a mistake you work things through with them to identify a solution
  • your frustration levels are low.

Focusing on your team is an ongoing activity and takes effort. When the team see you behave in ways that foster their cohesion, they will start behaving in the same way. So where do you start?

A lot of work has been done around how behaviours and emotions affect your success, under the banner of ‘emotional intelligence’.

Emotional intelligence [is] a subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use the information to guide one’s thinking and actions.

Peter Salovey & John D. Mayer, “Emotional Intelligence”, 1990

As a team leader, what you do and the way you behave affect the way people measure you. People who can regulate their emotions pay more attention, work harder and achieve more. Improving your emotional regulation can lead to benefits in all areas of your work, including your judgement, decision-making and leadership.

People who regulate their emotions are also better at motivating others, resolving conflicts and being more caring towards others.

However, regulating your emotions does not mean that they go away; they are real and valid, but should not overwhelm you. For example, being anxious before an important meeting is understandable, but you should use the energy from that anxiety to be better prepared, not create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which you fail.

Neuroscience has shown that you can train your brain by repeatedly practising new behaviours. Your brain builds the pathways needed to turn behaviours into habits. Just as when you are exercising your other muscles, repetition and changing the load allows those pathways to grow.

Your challenge as a team leader is to change, although personal change is not always easy. Here are some pointers.

  1. Pick an area to change; for example an emotion you wish to manage better or a behaviour you would like to change. It may be that you wish to manage your levels of frustration, how you handle fear when you make a mistake or your low confidence in certain situations. Look for any emotion that is pulling your focus away from your day-to-day work.
  2. Identify why you would like to change. What outcome do you want? What is the benefit? For example, your frustration may distract you from the task in hand and you may pass this on to your team, meaning they may also get distracted. You may worry you are not seen as being a leader in control, which may affect your confidence. You want to change to show gravitas and be a leader who people will follow. You want to maintain the team’s focus.
  3. Understand why the emotion or behaviour serves you as it is. Does your emotion or behaviour provide a distraction from the real issue? Does it allow you a get-out from looking at the real problem? For example, if you are frustrated because someone constantly fails to deliver, what could this be covering? Could your frustration be hiding the fact that you do not understand how to change this situation? Is this person failing to deliver in order to retain some power over you as the manager? As a leader and manager, your role authorises you to own the power of managing the team. How do you change what you do in order to get the balance of power back to where it should be?
  4. Decide what you are going to do the next time you are faced with the same behaviour or emotion. Decide on the goal and the action plan. Is it time to tackle this issue head on and reclaim the power from this person? Or is it time to put some actions in place to discharge anything that is causing tensions and prompting this person to behave the way they do? Or does this person need some help to get up to speed?
  5. Learn ‘the new way’. As you start trying new approaches you will find yourself in a position where you know the ‘old way’ is not the right way. You may also be confused about what to do next. What is ‘the new way’? Have the courage to continue through this uncertain phase – knowing that you will reach a point where you realise that getting frustrated can use up energy that you can direct into other areas. Use the energy initially to find a different approach. You may feel very uncomfortable and frustrated because managing your emotions may take a lot more effort. Follow this discomfort and use it to understand better how the old behaviour was serving you.
  6. ‘The new way’ becomes ‘the way it is’. Follow steps 3, 4 and 5 until the new approach becomes normal and ‘the old way’ feels like something others would do. Once you have found a way to manage your frustration in this scenario, you will take the learning into other situations.

Personal change takes time and ongoing effort. Change is also incremental and you should focus on one behaviour or emotion at a time. There are 2 ways to achieve the change you want: on your own or with the guidance of others. As with any project:

  • you pick an area to work on, then set a goal and define the actions to get there
  • if the goals are small and achievable you can do this through managing the change yourself (self-coaching); for larger or more complex changes, or for areas that you find difficult to manage on your own, you can work with a coach
  • whatever your approach, the key focus is the goal and you need to monitor progress to make sure you keep on track; obstacles will arise and you may need to revisit what you are doing and plan again if necessary
  • focusing on the goal and working towards it tirelessly will deliver the results that you want.

It can be exhilarating to do something in a way you would never have done before and see that you have changed in a positive way. Knowing that you are now different brings a sense of achievement and will boost your confidence. This is reflected in the way others see you.

Eleri Evans is Director of Trans4rm and Secretary of the APM’s People Specific Interest Group

Further information