Psychology at Work to Improve Performance

PM Articles by Project Times. 

Most of what gets in the way of optimal performance is rooted in psychological or emotional issues. That is why the most valued traits for a manager are communication, emotional and social intelligence, empathy, and adaptability.


Psychology is the study of the way the mind functions and influences behavior. Individual psychology influences relationships and relationships are the key to effective performance, wellness, and optimal living. It follows that attention to psychology is a pillar of performance management.

Though, in many organizations, psychology has gotten a bad name.  It falls into the mental health realm. Attention to it is often avoided unless behavior gets so severe that it undeniably gets in the way of living and performing well.

Take for example a steering group of peers charged with making important decisions. One member is designated as chairperson. The chairperson takes the title to heart, does a lot of good work, but attempts to silence anyone who raises issues regarding the team’s process and performance.

One team member confronts the chairperson by raising uncomfortable issues. Over time the relationship between the two deteriorated. The chairperson has left the team member out of important meetings, does not respond to emails and has ignored  a direct outreach by the team member to meet and discuss their relationship in any way the chairperson chooses – one on one, mediated, in person, virtual, etc.

The refusal to engage in a dialog effects the degree to which the group can make effective decisions because it blocks the social interaction that is critical to team performance. The rest of the team “feels” the subtle disturbance. Hearts and minds close down. The free flow of discussion is blocked. Life goes on, but it is not pleasant.


One doesn’t need a PhD in psychology to know that there is a psychological process at work in this relationship, that effects performance. Causes may be fear of competition, over-aggressive perfectionism, aversion to conflict, or over-controlling. These are all related to the participants’ mindsets.

This is just one example. Performance is effected by issues that stem from anxiety, depression, need for excessive control, excessive competitiveness, obsessive and compulsive urges, and addiction expressed as anger, withdrawal, and the kind of behavior that disturbs relationships – angry outbursts, abuse, withdrawal, unnecessary and poorly managed conflict, discrimination, gossiping, absenteeism, and more.

But there is avoidance. Handling psychological or emotional issues remains difficult. Some people believe that personal psychology is  “too personal” to be addressed in “public”.  They want to separate the personal world from their work world, as if that was possible.

Some are not introspective and don’t acknowledge the internal processes that lead to external behavior or, if they do, they may not think they can influence the process with self-management.

Some just don’t care how their behavior affects others, thinking and saying “This is who I am, live with it.”

Changing the Narrative

Interest in emotional intelligence with a focus on performance has  changed the narrative  by changing the terminology – people want to be more intelligent, they do not want to be lumped into a mental health category. However, to become more emotionally intelligent one must

  • Acknowledge that behavior results from internal psychological processes, the individual’s mindset, and setting.
  • Recognize the effect on others of their speech, actions, and even their “vibe.”
  • Care.
  • Accept that mindful self-awareness enables self-management.
  • Manage emotions to optimally perform.

It becomes obvious that the person who expresses anger overtly or as passive aggressive behavior impacts the team’s performance. One who views any criticism as an attack gets in the way of performance improvement. One who is afraid of speaking up robs the group of valuable insights and information.

Look to the Process

Promoting process thinking is the key to being able to manage psychological issues. Process thinking recognizes that everything is caused by something – a process.

In general, a group will operate more effectively if the members acknowledge and skillfully address both the visible processes and the processes operating below the line of consciousness, as needed, to optimize performance.

For example, to overcome aversion to criticism, cultivate awareness of both the process improvement process and the presence of internal psychological processes that lead individuals to be overly and unskillfully critical or unable to accept and value criticism.

Participants can work together when they realize that the problem of aversion to criticism gets in the way of effective performance. It involves a conflict between the idea that constructive criticism makes a positive contribution vs. the need to protect oneself or one’s position.

Overcome Resistance

Cognitively knowing that behavior is the result of a process is an important starting point for cultivating the capacity to avoid unskillful behavior. However intellectually knowing that mental habits like aggression or avoidance are not effective does not immediately translate into behavioral change.

Rational thought is lost to the emotions and to unhealthy beliefs and mental habits. Psychological issues are often deep and painful. Habits are hard to change.

So how do we get people who are stuck in neurotic patterns like resistance to criticism, shutting down communication, and yelling, to change their behavior?

There is no simple formula. The complexities include the degree to which organizations can require people to be self-aware and overcome the resistance to psychotherapy.

With the knowledge that organizational performance is the sum of team and individual performance, effectiveness becomes the measure of how well teams functions. Organizations are motivated to create a culture in which addressing emotional and psychological issues is part of performance management.

At the same time the workplace is not the forum for psychotherapy. At work, addressing these issues is about changing behavior. It is up to each individual to assess the causes of the their own disruptive behavior and adapt it to benefit the health of the team.

Stop focusing on labels like depression and anxiety. Instead, focus on the symptoms and their impact on performance, where performance includes the happiness and wellbeing of the people involved.

Going Forward

There is a simple, though not easy, process: raise consciousness, apply it, and adjust so that it there is neither too much nor too little attention to psychology and its effect.

Cultural change is set in motion by training to acknowledge the need for self-management, process-awareness, and self-awareness and how to apply them in teams.

Regularly (not too often) dialogue about the symptoms and impact of psychological issues on performance and what to do about them. When issues arise address them in the context of what the team has learned. Over time, assess your process and adjust.

With the right mindset, behavior that downgrades performance automatically motivates action. That mindset needs the team to be willing and able to cut through the psychological issues that get in the way.

Depending on the culture and individuals involved, readiness for this kind of change can be quick and self-supported, or can take months or even years with expert coaching and consulting.

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Collaborative Relationships Between Project and Functional Managers

PM Articles by Project Times. 


Project Management texts usually assume we’re starting at the beginning of a project, with control over scope, schedule, and resources. Frequently, project scope, resources, and schedule are already determined through strategic planning, Project Portfolio Management (PPM), or the project charter process. In other cases, we take on projects that are in progress. This can occur as a normal part of the project lifecycle as a hand-off from a project initiation team to a project delivery team or due to other circumstances. The existing Project Manager (PM) may be moving to a different, higher priority project, assuming other responsibilities within the organization, leaving the organization for other career opportunities, or leaving the project due to the problems that have arisen. In all these cases, the new PM is required to assess the current status of the project, update or create a plan leading to a successful conclusion of the project, and execute that plan through project completion.

There are specific things that a PM can do to improve their chances of successfully completing the ongoing project, regardless of its current state or delivery phase. While these will be covered in future articles, and in my book, There’s a New Sheriff in Town: The Project Manager’s Proven Guide to Successfully Taking Over Ongoing Projects and Getting the Work Done, in this article we will examine how likely it is for a PM to step into an ongoing project.

Assuming management of an ongoing project is a lot more common than many people think. All the PMs that I’ve met over the years, through work, at conferences, and online, have taken over projects that were already started. Industry results and surveys also show that the overwhelming majority of PMs have had to assume projects or programs that were already in flight. Close to 200 project managers responded in 2022 to an online global survey on their experience with joining projects that had already been started.

PMs are much more likely to take over existing projects than to start with a “clean slate.”

Roughly 93% of the PMs responding have had to take over a project that was already started at least once in their careers. There are significant differences and additional challenges when taking over projects that have already started. Despite these circumstances being very common, they are not routine and should not be treated as such. We need to recognize the challenges of joining a project that has already started, along with the typical challenges of managing projects.


How frequently does this happen?

Two-thirds (67%) of all the projects managed by these PMs had a different PM when they finished.

Far from being a rare occurrence, we should assume that most projects will have a change in leadership before they finish. How many PMs plan to hand over leadership to another PM? All too often, we assume that we will finish what we start, so if a change in leadership does occur, we are not prepared for it. Whether we are handing off the project to another PM, or if we are the incoming PM, the hand-off will be more challenging and less successful if we are not prepared for it.

Why is assuming management of an ongoing project different than starting a new project? Table 1-1 provides a brief listing of project characteristics, components, and key management decisions that are still being formulated when a project is initiated but are usually set once a project has started. We’ll discuss some of these issues, and how to handle them as an incoming PM, in future articles.

The results of the survey, discussions with PMs across the globe, and personal experience have all shown that we don’t always start on a project with a clean slate where we can work with the sponsor and business owner to establish the triple constraints. In fact, it is almost guaranteed that during our PM careers we will have to take over an ongoing project. The bad news is that this can be very different from initiating a project, with additional challenges that make it hard to succeed. The good news is that we are not alone in facing these challenges, and that there are proven techniques that greatly increase the likelihood of success. In addition to covering these in my book, we will address many of them in future articles.

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George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

Goals are NOT Expectations: Change Mindsets to Avoid the Suffering of Disappointed Stakeholders

PM Articles by Project Times. 

Goals are something to work toward or aspire to. Expectations are beliefs that something will occur in a certain way. Goals are not expectations. And knowing the difference can help to avoid unnecessary disappointment and conflict.

Last month I wrote about embracing imperfection to achieve ongoing performance improvement. The implication is that we must expect imperfection, though it is certainly not a goal. Over time imperfection (for example schedule overruns, defects, and unnecessary conflicts) is very highly probable. So, expecting it to occur is realistic. It is what risk management is all about.

We also expect to achieve our goals. That expectation may be more or less realistic, depending on the goal and the capacity of the people involved to achieve it.

The Problem and Symptoms

While it may be wise to have no expectations, they are a natural part of life. The expectation is not the problem. The problem is failing to remember that the expectation is a belief or desire subject to uncertainty and change.

Failing to remember is a problem because it leads to unnecessary stress in the form of anxiety, anger, blaming, and more. Symptoms are conflict, unmet objectives, and the disappointment and unease of unfulfilled expectations.

Case Example

Imagine this scenario. Senior stakeholders have set a goal. To accomplish it means initiating work in late March, to meet the need to use an expensive, elite contractor team, only available for three months. At the end of June, the resources are firmly committed elsewhere.

According the contractor’s detailed schedule and a guarantee, the work these resources will perform can be done in three months, with some time set aside as a buffer to account for delays related to the work itself, for example sick time, slippage, testing, etc. The contractor agreement stipulates that if work does not begin in March there will be no guarantee of completion by June. If the team has to leave without completing the work the entire project will be significantly delayed.

Project management and the steering group expect that in the two months beginning January 30th the negotiation of a contract and the receipt of permission to perform the work from a corporate controller will be completed so our elite team can begin their work on the planned March start date.


Contract negotiations with the involvement of a legal department has commonly taken an unknowable amount of time owing to the availability of attorneys, their priorities, and the issues that come up in the negotiation. The time the controller department takes to review and sign off begins only after the contract is signed and is subject to committee schedules and the number and type of issues found.

Senior sponsors expect the PM to take care of everything and get the job done. The PM believes that the predecessor tasks will be done quickly, trusting in the attorneys and accountants to do their jobs on time.

What is the likelihood of slippage? When it happens will there be anger and blaming or acceptance and understanding? Who will pay the costs associated with the delays.

The Cause

Over confidently expecting goals to be met with certainty is the problem. But what is the cause?

The cause is ignoring the fact that expectations are beliefs and that there is uncertainty about them being met. People tend to ignore this reality because they are so attached to the expected outcome that they can’t bear the thought that it won’t be accomplished. we tend to like certainty, especially when it comes to accomplishing or acquiring what we want.

The root cause of suffering is ignorance which appears as attachment and aversion, according to Buddhist psychology. It seems true. We tend to cling to an impossible idea or belief until we are convinced it is impossible. For example, being certain that we will meet our schedule (“I’m sure the legal department will get back to us with time to spare”).

Ignorance is an interesting word. Many people are insulted by being informed that they are ignorant, they don’t like to admit they are ignorant of something. Others do not realize or care that they are ignorant of something, for example the demanding boss/client/sponsor/project manager who is not aware of the complexity of the work that has to be done and the risks involved, and who isn’t motivated to find out.

The good news is that since ignorance is not having knowledge or information, it is curable.

The Solution: Risk Management

There is a solution to the problem of over confident expectations. It is to cure ignorance by making it clear to every stakeholder that uncertainty must be accepted because uncertainty in project work is an undeniable reality. That is why risk management is part of the project management process.

The core of the solution is to change mindsets. The desired mindset is one that expects uncertainty and change.

Mindset change can occur as part of a formal training program. Or it can be in the form of content in conversations, proposals and plans that highlight where there is uncertainty, what the probability of negative and positive outcomes, and what impact they may have. Mindset change can be as simple as presenting ranges of cost and schedule expectations.

With a change in mindset, practice estimating and scheduling skills to integrate risks and buffers to assess multiple scenarios and get a practical sense of how likely it is under various conditions to achieve the goal. Then throughout project life report, reassess and adjust as needed to manage expectations.

Going Forward

Eliminating the pain triggered by mistaking goals for expectations is simple. Get rid of ignorance and the light goes on making everything better. Simple but not easy. changing mindsets takes intention, time, and skillful effort. It is a change management or transformation program.

The effort is easiest if there is an existing process improvement process and mindset is addressed as part of it. If that is not the case, then the effort is more difficult. If the most senior leadership is open-minded and aware of the situation, change is more likely to be successful.

If the cause is not recognized on the highest levels, then rely on subtle bottom up change in which there is firm push back and skillful communication to set rational expectations.

Managing Expectations: A Mindful Approach to Achieving Success by George Pitagorsky
The Zen Approach to Project Management by George Pitagorsky

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Wabi-Sabi: Embrace Imperfection to Continuously Improve

PM Articles by Project Times. 

“There’s a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

– Leonard Cohen

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese wisdom principle that has great relevance to project management and, in fact, any management, including self-management.

The principle is to embrace imperfection, surrendering to the reality that nothing is permanent, and nothing is complete. In the complex world of projects, imperfection is inevitable.

In my forthcoming book on achieving optimal performance, I include Wabi-sabi as one of the elements that treat the cause of unnecessary stress. I tell the story of the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma who had a string break in the middle of a performance. Rather than being set off balance by the disturbance, he paused, changed the string and continued his performance. He was practicing wabi-sabi, cool and accepting. Equanimous. Imagine how it might have been had Yo-Yo Ma not been so equanimous, calmly accepting the situation. Likely, his performance would have suffered.

In organizations, a Wabi-sabi attitude is instrumental in promoting continuous improvement and avoiding the blaming that creates conflict, motivates people to hide errors and defects, and gets in the way of learning.

Acceptance that there will be imperfections eliminates the denial, anger, and fear that arises when the imperfections appear.

Active Acceptance

There is often a misunderstanding about the attitude of accepting and embracing imperfection. “What! Accept imperfection?” some might think. “Isn’t perfection what we are after. We want to be free of defects, errors, and omissions, not accept and embrace them.”

To clarify the misunderstanding, we have to explore what it means to accept and to embrace.

To accept in our context is to realize that things are as they are. It does not mean to accept that they will continue. Acceptance is active when we realize that everything is continuously moving, in process. Nothing is complete. Accepting the present reality, things as they are, is an ideal foundation for planning and moving forward to a desired outcome.


When an error is detected, will it go away if you deny it or try to cover it up? No. It is there. Accept it. The alternative is not pretty. Deny or hide the error and it is likely to come to light again, probably when it is even less convenient. When it does, there is a sense of distrust. The error has been compounded because imperfection was not accepted.

Acceptance allows embracing. To embrace means to accept something willingly and enthusiastically. You don’t have to hug and kiss the imperfections. The method is to be grateful that the error has been identified so you can enthusiastically see what you can do with and about the particular imperfection you have encountered.

This attitude motivates project team members to bring existing imperfections to the surface (not to create new ones). Embracing imperfection leads to actively improving performance and product quality by assessing each imperfection to determine its impact, its cause, and what to about it – in the short term, to manage the impact and longer term, to learn and improve.

Yes, we want to be free of errors and omissions. Learning from the ones we or others have experienced, is the basis for being free of them in the future. We can’t change the past or the present moment but using the knowledge of them we can influence the future.

What Gets in the Way

So, if it is such a good thing, why isn’t it universally applied? What gets in the way of taking a wabi-sabi attitude? Perfectionism, emotional reactivity, and an ambiguous definition of perfection are the primary obstacles to embracing imperfection.

Perfectionism is the drive to make things perfect. It can be healthy or unhealthy. If it is managed, it is a highly valued trait, a success factor. But unacknowledged and uncontrolled, it comes to the surface as unhealthy self-criticism and criticism of others, frustration, anger, and overcontrol. Perfectionism is often institutionalized, making it a cultural trait as well as an individual one.

The unhealthy perfectionist is caught up in the obsession to achieve unrealistic goals. The healthy perfectionist is aware of their tendency and can moderate the emotional drive to be perfect or have everything be perfect by rationally assessing how realistic their expectation is.

When perfection includes imperfection (“There’s a crack in everything“) and the imperfection is embraced, perfectionism is channeled into continuous improvement. For example when there is an effective process for managing quality, errors, and issues, and there is more than lip service to wabi-sabi it is a sign of healthy perfectionism.

Emotional reactivity is the second major obstacle to adopting a wabi-sabi attitude. It is related to perfectionism and to unrealistic expectations. In a perfectionist setting the emotions that arise when things are not perfect include anger, frustration, aggression, fear, anxiety, pride, jealousy.

These, like all emotions are to be accepted as part of the perfection. But to let them take over and drive behavior is to be avoided.

Ambiguous definition of perfection is the third obstacle. On the simplest level this means to recognize that while perfection is a target, performance needs to be assessed based on realistic criteria. For example, the recognition that a given level of defect is acceptable. A performer who continuously, even after retraining, makes errors nay need to be replaced. One who makes errors occasionally, particularly when trying new things, can be a star.

On another level, recognize that an unexpected outcome is not necessarily a terrible thing. Many discoveries and breakthroughs have been the result of accidents and errors. For example, sticky notes came out of a failed attempt to develop a permanent adhesive. The ugly duckling is not so ugly when the criteria of perfection are changed.

Perfecting the Process

The motivation to avoid letting these obstacles drive behavior is the desire for a perfect process with a wabi-sabi attitude.

Overcoming the obstacles to accepting and embracing imperfection requires awareness and effort. If there as an imperfect process that wastes the opportunity to improve by hiding from imperfection, do the work of changing attitudes with revised training, policies, and procedures.

This implies that process awareness and improvement is valued as much as current performance. But that’s a subject for another time.

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Best of PMTimes: Managing the Matrix – Work Streams and Projects

PM Articles by Project Times. 

(Published: 5/12/2015)

Many projects are performed within a matrix in which the collaborative effort of several groups with different capabilities under the direct authority of managers of different organizations (e.g., functional departments, vendors, line or operational departments) who may have different priorities than the project or program manager.

Individuals and teams are aligned with two lines of accountability, a project line and a functional or operational line. An individual or team may be working simultaneously on multiple projects.

The relationship between “work streams” and projects in the matrix is a foundation for clearly identifying roles and responsibilities, managing expectations and establishing an effective project control reporting process.

What is a Work Stream?

The Business Dictionary defines a work stream as

“The progressive completion of tasks completed by different groups within a company which are required to finish a single project.”

A work stream may be the work of a functional area such as application development, training, business analysis, sales, product delivery, and engineering. It may also be an effort such as requirements definition which involves members of multiple groups, for example, in product development, marketing, product development, engineering, and manufacturing.

Functional groups, vendors, and operational departments may have multiple projects or processes that are purely internal to the group. For example, an IT group may have projects to develop or acquire software tools or a new methodology. The group may be serving multiple projects that are vying for the same resources.

An operational department like routing, customer service, accounts payable processing, etc. will have its day-to-day activities as its highest priority, over project priorities, even when the project is to improve the group’s own performance. For example, an operations group is often called upon to give up the services of key members in order to provide subject matter expertise on a project that has a long-term impact on the organization, and this may make operational performance suffer.


In the context of project and program planning and control the focus needs to be on the program and project (for simplicity we will refer to project to encompass both projects and programs). It is the project manager (PM)’s job to manage the coordination of the work streams contributing to the project. The focal point is the project.

At the same time, the PM must be sensitive to the perspectives of the contributing organizations and consider them in scheduling, risk assessment, staffing and quality management among other aspects of project planning and control. From a functional department’s or vendor’s perspective, there may be many projects that require their services and expertise. From an operational perspective, the project is a distraction from daily activities.

Related Article: Turning Bad Requirements Into Good Requirements


Given these perspectives, it is necessary for upper management acting as sponsors to ensure that projects represent value to the organization and, therefore, warrant attention. They set the priorities and accept the trade-offs. They promote a common perspective that sees the big picture.

Work Stream Relationships

The work stream “owner” may be any person assigned as the work stream’s point person. The role is referred to by any number of names, including Lead, Manager, Coordinator or Owner. It is the work stream “owner’s” responsibility to coordinate work within the work stream and to work with the project manager in overall planning, providing estimates, resource commitments, and risk analysis. Once initial planning is done, the work stream owner is responsible for making sure the work assigned to their work stream is being accomplished and for regularly reporting to the project manager. The work stream owner is accountable to the Project Manager.

Work stream owners and their management must understand and commit to this relationship. Often, in matrixed environments, the role of the Project Manager is not given the level of authority required to get the job done effectively. This results in a “weak matrix” and, inevitably, to suboptimal performance and unnecessary conflict. In a healthy environment, the work stream owner “reports to” the PM and may also be responsible to and under the authority of a functional line manager or executive who is outside of the project.

This term “reports to” can cause confusion and conflict. Here, it means accountable to. It means that the person must inform the PM of activities performed (progress and status reports, issues, etc.) or to be performed (plans, estimates, etc.) within the project. In addition, the management of the groups providing resources to the work stream is obligated to report any changes that might affect the project and to ensure that the resources have a clear understanding of their responsibilities to the Project Manager.

The project encompasses all the work required to achieve project objectives, regardless of who performs the work.

The PM may or may not have any other authority but without the ability to get information and influence the quality of a work stream’s output, the PM cannot manage.

Work Streams and QC

Getting information and engagement in planning may be easy or not, depending on the character of the organization and the skill of the project manager in setting up an easy to use reporting mechanism and motivating the stakeholders to take part.

The realm of quality control and performance effectiveness is more complex than simply getting status reports. Ultimately, the PM must be able to assess the quality of deliverables and of performance in general and to act on the results.

The PM can delegate this responsibility to a Quality Assurance and Control work stream, but that works stream must be independent of the work stream whose work is being assessed. Further, there must be candid feedback regarding quality, and that feedback must be based on objective criteria.

To avoid conflict, the organization does well to educate everyone regarding the power of receiving candid and objective feedback and its relationship to continuous improvement. That’s a subject for another article.

Work Streams – Not Silos

The bottom line is that in complex projects, programs, and processes, work is performed by people in several organizations with different specialties. Managing in a matrix is efficient and can be effective if definitions and relationships are clear and mutually agreed upon.

Work streams are functional teams contributing to a project or business process. When the stream cuts itself off from the other work streams and thinks of itself as a fully autonomous independent entity, it turns into a silo. Silos are great for storing grain, but, in organizations, silos are dysfunctional.

Healthy work streams contribute to success. They recognize that their work is only of real value because it contributes to project success. Healthy work streams recognize that it is not enough to take in a set of requirements and pop out a result. Communication and collaboration with others is part of the job.

Consider the images conjured up by the words. If you are inside a silo, you have walls that keep you from seeing the big picture and keep outsiders from seeing what is going on within. If you are in a stream there is a sense of differentiation and identification with your group, but you can see out and those who are outside can see in. It is like multiple channels in a river, converging to make the river a mighty one.

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