Feelings about feelings

Before you skip past this section, assuming it's touchy-feely stuff that doesn't concern you, let me ask you one question. Have you ever wondered why people behave differently under stress? If you don't care, or don't see the relevance to project management, feel free to move on. But I pity anyone who works for you. (See, guilt-tripping has its place.)

OK, that was unfair, but it worked. To reward you, let me tell you a precious nugget about human behavior. Virgina Satir, author of several books on psychology and human behavior, has a simple model for helping explain why people can be so unpredictable. Simply put, sometimes when we feel a certain way (say, upset or hurt), we quickly have a second feeling about that first feeling, and it's that second feeling that we tend to act on. For example, let's say I tell you that you smell funny. This makes you feel sad. But perhaps you feel angry about the fact that I made you feel sad. So, instead of expressing your feelings of sadness, all you are able to do is express the secondary feeling of anger (Figure 11-3 shows a simple example of this). Later on, you might get around to realize the core feeling was sadness and then feel sad, but in the moment, it's all about your feelings in response to other feelings.

Figure 11-3. The Satir model explains that the feelings we act on are not necessarily the core feelings we have.

Figure 11-3. The Satir model explains that the feelings we act on are not necessarily the core feelings we have.

In Volume 1 of Quality Software Management, Weinberg goes on to explain that Satir's model has other useful implications. Often, what causes that second feeling is a belief or habit that we've been taught, which isn't a constant for healthy emotional behavior. Feeling angry about feeling sad is not a universal behavior for human beings: it's learned. In fact, according to Weinberg, our responses to many emotions are simply what we were exposed to in our own emotional development.

The funny thing about childhood development is that we all get hand-me-down belief and emotional systems. Most of the behaviors we follow are by and large learned from our parents, who learned their behaviors from their parents, and so on. Until someone stops and examines the value of their behaviors and emotional responses, independent of where they learned them from, it's difficult to grow in emotional maturityor even to know how emotionally mature and healthy we are. And worse, we potentially pass destructive or confused behavior on to others (e.g., our students, co-workers, friends, and children).

Some of the rules we learned might be good, and others might be bad. But simply because we historically respond in a certain way to something doesn't mean those responses are healthy for us or useful for making progress happen.

The lesson here for PMs is that sometimes the emotions you receive from people you are working with will not be related directly to the actions you have taken. You may point out a bug in someone's code and he'll get upset at you, even though you were polite and pointed out something important.

More specific to this chapter, human behavior becomes more erratic under stress. There are more pressures and feelings involved, and their interaction is harder to understand. So, as a manager, who often works with others, great patience is required to sort out which parts of what you're receiving are due to what you said, and which parts are due to some other feelings people are currently having.

What you want to prevent from happening is a cascade of these nondirectly related feelings. Imagine if, in Figure 11-3, someone else responded to an expression of feeling B with a statement reflecting feeling C, further obscuring the real cause of the whole situation (feeling A). It's entirely possible to end up with a meeting of five people, all arguing and yelling, yet no one is in the same emotional context: they're all expressing and responding to different feelings about the actual topic of discussion (for example, think of your last family reunion).

Other notable writers on human emotion, such as Leo F. Buscaglia or John Bradshaw,(7) go on to point out that the healthier and more emotionally mature a person is, the more aware he is of his own emotions and those of others, giving him a wider range of choices for how to respond to the emotions of others. This implies that a leader in a crisis situation has better odds of success if she can see emotional patterns and make use of different ways to manage them.

11.7.3. The hero complex

There is one special kind of person when it comes to dealing with pressure: the person who has a hero complex. This is any individual who compulsively creates dangerous situations simply so he can resolve them. He may so depend on the thrill and challenges of extremely difficult situations that he will not do very much to prevent trouble from starting in the first place. In the minor form, it's simply someone who likes working in risky situations and surviving them. In the major form, a person with a hero complex may be putting the project at risk, or even trying to sabotage it.

When things go wrong on a project, people with hero-complex tendencies will thrive. Whereas some people wilt or shy away from stepping into the fire, these people jump right in, as if the project is finally getting interesting to them. Having people on the team with minor forms of the hero complex is great because they seek out fires and put them out, but they will rarely cause fires of their own. It's the full-blown cases of hero complex that you have to watch out for because their behavior may deliberately cause the project to become unstable. Or more commonly, they will fight to the death against actions that will make high-risk situations impossible.

The hero complex most commonly develops in people who started their careers in start-ups or very small (volatile) firms. Heroic and superhuman efforts are often required just to make ends meet because such organizations rarely have enough resources to match their ambitions.(8) If things work out well, the survivors look on their heroic efforts as a large part of why they succeeded. In that original context, they're right. However, there are bad habits hiding behind this logic: just because heroics were needed in situation A doesn't mean heroics are needed, or even beneficial, in situations B, C, and D.

The hero complex has several motivating beliefs, which are explained or refuted in the following list:

• Planning is unnecessary: I've proved it. Because the hero has experience succeeding without specs or schedules, he believes those things are never necessary. This belief fails because of how different projects can be. A 5-person, 1-month project has fundamentally different constraints and risks than a 200-person, 12-month effort. It may demand different approaches to management, planning, and engineering. Part of this (flawed) belief is the notion that the hero has experienced everything there is to experience about software development. This hubris blinds him from the specific problems in each project that demand a unique balance of management, process, and team structuring to resolve. Always and never are not valid answers to the question of when a process is necessary: it always depends on the details of the project.

• I work for me alone. The most selfish motivating force for hero behavior is simply that the hero likes being the hero. She likes it so much that she doesn't care what gets put at risk, or destroyed, in the process of her playing the role. Symptoms of this are destructive competition with peers or an indifference to the work of others (or even the goals of the project). She may not realize that her desire to be the hero has any possible implications (because those downsides are largely for other people, not for her). In some cases, she may not even understand why her heroic efforts aren't always received in the way that she expected. ("Didn't I rescue the cute, fuzzy animals from getting burned when I ran into the building to save them?" "Yes, but you also set the fire.")

• The pseudo-hero. I've seen this only a handful of times. The idea is that by making management think something is much worse than it is, and then, magically, making it much less worse than it seemed, an individual can cultivate the perception of being very good at whatever he does (our hero!). The more ignorant or uninterested management is, the easier this is to do. It tends to work only a few times before peers or others catch on. This isn't exactly the hero complex because the person in question doesn't actually want to do heroic things: he just wants to be perceived as being heroic.

• Heroes have their foolish kings. Most of the situations that create heroic opportunities are management failures. If the project is weeks behind, major requirements oversights are made, or bad strategy choices force huge and late design changes, only management is responsible. Sometimes, you will see codependent relationships between management and engineering, where management depends on engineering heroics to cover (and hide) their mistakes. So, instead of admitting to their own failings, they depend on rewarding the brilliant, but possibly avoidable, heroic work of the engineering team. Meanwhile, engineering loves the thrill of those problems and doesn't really want management to get better at planning or managing risk, despite how often they complain about management. An entire codependency culture is created, which depends on heroes and rewards both the creation of risks and their resolution.

• The failure complex. This is different from the hero complex but is related enough to make it onto this list. Some people don't feel comfortable unless there are things to complain about. When presented with a challenge, they feel more comfortable finding excuses for failing and convincing people of their validity, instead of investing that energy in rising to the challenge and trying to succeed. They prefer to blame rather than to win. These folks come in clusters from bad teams (or families) where blame and denial were more important than anything else. They need someone to demonstrate for them that there's a healthier way to go about living.

The best way to minimize the risks of hero culture is to have an active management team. If someone believes that the difference is important, it's easy to tell whether an 80-hour work week is the result of a truly heroic crisis response or a self-inflicted chain of incompetence. As a PM, you may not have enough influence to make the team aware of its hero-driven habits, but the only way to know is to try (see Chapter 16).

It's only by someone calling attention to this behavior that there is any possibility of it changing. Minimally, push hard for a policy of review around heroic acts. Whenever a hero does her thing, there should be a public discussion of what could have been done to avoid it in the first place. Credit can be given to the hero, but rewards should also be distributed for those who find a way to prevent that kind of situation from occurring again in the future.

11.8. Summary

• No matter what you do, things will go wrong.

• If you can stay calm and break problems down into pieces, you can handle many difficult situations. (Remember the rough guide.)

• There are some common situations to expect, which include oversights, being forced to do stupid things, resource shortages, low quality, direction changes, personnel issues, and threats of mutiny.

• Difficult times are learning opportunities. Make sure you and your team take the time to examine what happened and how it could have been avoided.

• Taking responsibility for situations, regardless of who caused them, always helps to expedite resolving the problem.

• In extreme situations, go into damage-control mode. Do whatever it takes to get the project to a known and stable state.

• Negotiation is useful not only in a crisis situation, but also in management. Good negotiators work from people's interests, not their positions.

• Have clear lines of authority at all times. People should know who has decision-making power before a crisis occurs.

• People respond to pressure in different ways. Be observant and open in how you help the team deal with the different kinds of pressure.

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