Best of PMTimes: Managing Fear and Anger in Projects

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PM Articles by Project Times. 

Published on: Mar 19, 2020

Fear, including anxiety, and anger are realities. They are normal. They appear in all situations, including projects.

There is a challenge – to not suppress or ignore these emotions AND to not to act out in emotionally driven behavior. Finding the place between suppression and acting out takes wisdom and skillful effort.

What are the causes of fear and anger? How can we minimize the causes? What are the side effects of being driven by them? How can the power of these emotions be channeled for productive use?

The answers to those questions require mindful introspection. It requires a process among the people involved to explore and resolve, or at least understand, the dynamics of people working together. Emotional and social intelligences along the willingness to forgive and work on oneself are used to avoid the lashing out, withdrawal, blaming, irrational expectations and the other side effects of reacting to emotions.

Causes: Uncertainty and Lack of Control

A predominant cause of fear in projects is lack of control. Uncertainty makes people feel that because they cannot predict the future they are at risk. For example, not knowing if one is safe blossoms into worry about negative outcomes. Thinking that one might not get one’s way creates anxiety that can transform itself into overly aggressive behavior.

Uncertainty and the lack of control it elicits leave many people feeling uneasy and helpless. Uneasiness and helplessness are experienced physically as unpleasant sensations in the belly, chest or throat. Thoughts and worries run rampant. We label the sensations and thoughts as the emotion fear. Similarly, we label the burning in our chest or gut and accompanying thoughts as anger.

Relationship Between Fear and Anger

Fear and anger are closely related to one another. They are both unpleasant and, may range from subtle anxiety and annoyance to terror and rage. Fear and anger occur during stressful or otherwise challenging events. People who evoke fear or anger are seen as hostile. Hostility elicits anger and conflict.

Anger can be a symptom of fear. Fear is perceived as weakness, anger as strength. When one is feeling fearful and weak, anger comes up to create a sense of strength. It is the fight part of the fight or flight response to threats. Fear is transformed into anger and directed at the someone (including oneself) or something perceived as the cause. Anger becomes a means for regaining control and a mask for the “weakness” of fear. For example, when in conflict, say, over a design alternative or a plan, the other party becomes the target of anger because there is uncertainty and the fear of a negative outcome.

Anger can be directed at an inanimate object, like a computer. This happens because one cannot control the device’s operation. Frustration arises. There is worry about not being able to get required work done on time.

A project manager might become angry at an administrative department or vendor responsible for a delay. The anger arises out of the lack of control over that department’s response or the vendor’s delivery. There is the fear that the delay will result in schedule slippage and the slippage will be blamed on the project manager.

It doesn’t matter that neither the department head nor the vendor has control. It doesn’t matter that they would like to avoid angering their client or that they have no control themselves. Nor does it matter that they are as fearful as the project manager. Fear and anger are emotions and emotions are not rational. When rationality is brought into play, the emotions can be managed effectively, without suppressing them.

What’s Wrong with Fear or Anger?

There is nothing wrong with anger or fear. Fear is a signal that triggers heightened awareness. Anger brings up lots of energy and clears the way for action. However, being driven by either of them is counterproductive.

Freezing in fear or avoiding conflict is unproductive.

In the moment, acting out in anger, might feel better than experiencing fear. However, reactively acting out in anger is unproductive and destructive. It does not lead to a positive outcome. Breaking the computer or yelling at the department head is not likely to put one in control or make things more certain. In fact, it is likely that acting out in anger will make things worse. Uncertainty increases because it is impossible to know how the other party will react to being the target of anger. A punched-out computer screen will not improve productivity. Not only that, it will only feel good for a moment. Then, there will be embarrassment, guilt and remorse followed by an expense to replace the computer.


Neither Suppression nor Acting Out

Suppressing fear or anger is as unskillful as reactively acting out. The middle ground between acting out and suppression is recognition, acceptance and transformation.


First, recognize the “afflictive” emotion (fear or anger afflicts one as unpleasant, painful sensations and often lead to behavior that afflicts others) as soon as possible.

This is an aspect of emotional intelligence – awareness of one’s own emotions early in the emotion’s life. Emotions grab hold in tenths of a second and then increase in intensity, taking over the mind with the need to somehow relieve the pain, or, if the emotion is a pleasant one, to keep it going. The earlier one recognizes the symptoms of an emotion the easier it is to moderate behavior.

Part of the recognition is to be aware that the emotion is not you. Saying “I am angry” or “I am afraid” sends the wrong message. It is more effective to say, “I am feeling anger.” That reinforces the reality that the emotion is a feeling and that, like all feelings, it is a temporary complex of thoughts and physical sensations.

Step back from the feeling, observe it and do not be identified with it.

Acceptance and Transformation

Once the emotion is recognized, it can be accepted. One accepts that there is anger instead of denying or suppressing it. Acceptance enables transformation.

Let’s be clear, acceptance a situation does not mean perpetuating it. No one can change existing conditions. However, one can, to a degree, influence the future. Acceptance creates the solid platform needed for effective behavior. It enables transformation.

Transformation takes the emotion’s energy and uses it to fuel skillful behavior. The emotion represents energy. Energy is neither good nor bad, it is just energy. How it is used is critical.

For example, let’s look at the situation of the vendor that realizes that there will be a delay in its delivery of a necessary product. The delay will have a ripple effect in the project. The vendor rep experiences anxiety. She fears that the project manager, who has a history of volatile behavior, will freak out. She recognizes her anxiety and can let it cause her to hold back on the truth or use it as a signal that she’d better be careful to craft a communication that while it gives the PM the truth earlier rather than later, also helps to avoid an outburst.

As for the project manager. If he recognizes and is motivated, he can catch his anger before he starts yelling at the vendor rep and instead channels his energy into assessing the impact and changing the plan to minimize disruption. He must recognize his anxiety and be candid with his stakeholders. If he is emotionally intelligent and empathetic, he will realize that the vendor rep is anxious.

The bottom line is that it is skillful to manage fear and anger without suppressing them. Doing so requires the cultivation of mindful awareness to enable recognition, acceptance and transformation.