The essence of project work is uncertainty, and much as we say that we thrive on variety and change, our teams face multiple challenges on a daily basis. A certain amount of venting on the part of team members is bound to happen over a project’s lifetime, but when blowing off steam becomes the norm instead of the exception, and the majority of the complaining is purely negative, it can start to suck the energy out of the entire team.
While most project managers might feel this is the lowest priority of the issues they will have to manage each day, negativity is contagious, and one team member’s chronic complaining will eventually infect others with this behavior and will irritate the remaining ones - in both cases, productivity gets impacted.
Even more corrosive is when the project manager exhibits such behavior. While most project managers are likely to feel that they don’t possess sufficient formal authority over their projects or team members, they do wield enough influence that their negativity is likely to rub off and impact the productivity of the overall team.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating that everyone on the project has to join hands and sing Kumbaya in spite of how well or poorly things are going. There ARE going to be issues, some of which cannot be resolved optimally, but what we can control is how we choose to handle these situations.
The book The No Complaining Rule is written around a parable to provide practical approaches on how to tackle the issue of workplace negativity, and while most of the techniques provided by the author are intended to be applied individually or at an organization-wide level, there’s no reason why they can’t be adapted for use at a team level as well.
One way is to institute a No Complaining day each week – team members (including you, Mr. or Mrs. Project Manager!) who complain without providing solutions or without qualifying complaints with positive thought or action are charged a nominal penalty. The paid amounts will be saved up and used to fund team celebrations or a charitable donation. Once the team is able to successfully handle one day a week without complaining, increase it to be one week each month, and so on.
If the team is already in the grip of negativity, it can be hard for someone who is as close to it as the project manager to identify, but if metrics such as work item completion velocity are being calculated and tracked on a regular basis, it should be possible to identify productivity declines. The project manager should also practice active listening with stakeholders or the customer to see if they are becoming keenly aware of the project being a neverending “whine & cheese” party. Finally, it may be worth inviting peer project managers to sit in on the occasional status meeting – not being directly involved they may be able to pick up on such issues.
To plagiarize (and misquote) a famous Jedi Master: Negativity is the path to the project dark side. Negativity leads to stress. Stress leads to reduced productivity. Reduced productivity leads to project failure.