When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get...Gentle?


Software projects are filled with productivity needs and deadline pressures. As a project manager, you may feel responsible for project deliverables yet highly dependent on others to complete their work. It's common to push, prod, and heavy-handedly coerce your team to go faster. Sometimes this has the desired effect. And even if it doesn't, you can at least claim you pushed as hard as you could. But is that really all that can be done? Eileen Strider suggests another tool at your disposal.

I'm not sure why "gentle" is on my mind—perhaps it's my recent experience as a project team member. It brought back memories of being a project leader in my youth. Some of those memories are painful to recall and accept. Fortunately, I've learned new tools since those days, which give me a greater range of options than I had back then. Gentleness is one of those tools.

Very quickly, projects seem to develop characteristics and a culture of their own. Much has been written about how this happens. And my own experience with projects urges me to write this column on gentleness as a useful tool.

"When the going gets tough, the tough get going." This is such a long-standing theme in American culture, no one remembers who said it first. I think today it has been adopted as a truism for software projects. Project members expect to be treated with toughness and to be tough themselves. And I think tough has its place—but it's not the only tool that warrants a place on software projects.

As a project manager, I may feel responsible yet dependent on others to complete their work. So I push, prod, and even coerce them to go faster. Sometimes this has the desired effect. But even when it doesn't, I can claim that I did all that I could.

But is that really all that can be done? Let's suppose for a moment that gentleness was a legitimate tool for you to use. It may seem counterintuitive, but what if, when the pressure is on, time is running short and the work isn't done, you could sit quietly with a project member and gently ask what's happening. Then gently listen to him. What if you could calmly ask what might be helpful? What do you imagine might happen?

- The person might unload on you about a ridiculous schedule
- The person might cry, touched by being treated with such sincere attention
- The person might explain he's trying very hard but pushing and prodding is slowing him down
- The person might admit he's stuck and doesn't know what to do
- You might get whatever reaction you can imagine as your worst nightmare

Perhaps you don't ask because you're uncomfortable showing your gentler side. People might think you are a soft touch. Or perhaps you don't trust your own ability to deal with the information. I know I certainly have been guilty of not asking, for all these reasons. And once you ask and hear the information, then you have to figure out what to do. So it seems easier to not ask.

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