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Why your project management role is more stressful than it needs to be (and how to change that)

If you’re a project manager, you know how stressful it can be. You’re responsible for delivering on time, on budget, and on scope all while dealing with limited resources and unrealistic expectations. And usually, you’re caught between the people doing the project work and the people who want the project done.

But can anything actually be done to make your job better? Is the role of a project manager just doomed to a forever state of dysfunction and high stress?

Thankfully, the answer to that question is “no.” But in order to start to make real, positive changes in your role, first you have to understand the dynamics that cause these dysfunctions.

You’re utterly reliant on information from two different parties

Your role entirely revolves around information coming from both ends of the project: the developers and the product owners. Both of these groups have motivations to withhold information or put a cast on it in an attempt to control the reactions of the recipients.

A common example is the question, "When will X be done?" The people doing X are unwilling to give a good answer to that question out of fear that they will fail to finish at that time and experience negative consequences. The people who want X done are unwilling or unable to articulate what that information will be used for.

The end result is you have one party asking for information typically to help them feel better about the project. And the other party is motivated to hide that information, either with a vague response, no response, or a deceptive response.

So, the project manager depends on information, but the sources of this information are often impediments to getting it.

You’re accountable for things you cannot control

In most cases, the project manager does not manage the people on the project, nor are they involved in hiring and firing decisions, nor are they involved in budget/resource decisions, nor are they doing project work on the team.

Despite this, the team often holds the project manager accountable for decisions made above their heads without their input, and management often holds the project manager accountable for project progress (which is always too slow) despite the fact that most project managers have virtually no direct contribution to project progress.

Imagine telling your doctor that you were going to find a new one because you don't like how the CDC responded to COVID, or getting on to your son because his teacher was late entering his grades. But this sort of thing happens to project managers all the time.

There's an old "Simpsons" episode where Homer goes to work for a new company as a manager, and he's surrounded by people working machinery he doesn't understand. The scene goes like this -

HOMER: Um, are you guys working?

WORKER 1: Yes, Mr. Simpson.

HOMER: Could you... be working... harder than this?

WORKER 1: Of course, Mr. Simpson.

And they all start pushing buttons faster, etc.

I honestly think this is the position most project managers are put in and what people expect of them.

Many project managers tend to suffer greatly from this dynamic. They have very little to no power but very high levels of judgment and accountability. It seems as though nobody wants to actually talk with them or have their involvement, but simultaneously they are held accountable for the very things nobody wants to talk to them about.

So, a lot of project manager jobs boil down to something like this:

  1. Get a deadline from management.

  2. Get an estimate from the team.

  3. Try to bring #1 and #2 to some kind of parity.

  4. Repeatedly ask the team if they're going to get done in time.

  5. Tell management the team's progress. Experience collective unhappiness. Be tasked with getting the team "back on track."

  6. Repeat steps 4-5. Sometimes 1-5 if things really get out of whack.

This isn't a very fulfilling job, and project management has a decent degree of burnout with people citing factors like exhaustion, alienation, and not being able to perform.

But…there IS good news

First of all, know that you aren't alone. A lot of project managers experience these extremely common circumstances and feelings.

It may help you to get connected with fellow project managers to share experiences and empathize with each other. Set up a regular happy hour with local project managers. Follow other project managers on LinkedIn. Find a supportive community of people dealing with the same things you’re dealing with. This will help you feel less isolated and might spark ideas and discussion around dealing with the everyday challenges of project management.

Secondly, know that a lot of these tensions have to do with underlying dynamics, and these can be changed to a large extent (or at least, you'll be directly confronted with an unwillingness to change and you can decide if you're ok living with that or not).

Work circumstances are going to suck sometimes. That's why they have to pay you to do it. But there is a huge difference between facing obstacles when you have power and facing them when you don't.

For more information like this, listen to Integrity Inspired Solutions' podcast, Agile Bites!

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