The emotional life of projects
the neuroscience of emotions
Understanding how emotions drive human behavior has critical implications for how we manage and lead others. Neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin found from his and others’ brain research that the circuits in the brain that control and regulate emotions overlap with those involved in functions we think of as purely cognitive, such as reason, judgment, and planning. More revealing is the fact that virtually all regions of the brain play some role in or are affected by emotions.
This paper will explore what the latest neuroscience research is revealing about the role emotions play in how we make decisions, solve problems, and collaborate with others. It will present Dr. Davidson's six emotional styles that, together, reflect our personality and how we respond to experiences in our projects. These six dimensions are: Resilience, Outlook, Social Intuition, Self Awareness, Sensitivity to Context, and Attention (Davidson, 2012).
Projects are increasingly becoming the primary mechanisms by which organizations execute their strategic plans and implement change. As a result, more organizations see the role of a project manager, first and foremost, as a change agent.
Given the current economic realities, project managers are facing greater pressure to do more with less while balancing competing and often conflicting priorities. Increasingly, as change agents, project managers are experiencing high levels of stress due to the constant pressure to deliver successful projects despite internal organizational conflicts and politics, competing and constantly changing priorities, shrinking resources, and aggressive timelines.
In this rapidly evolving landscape, project managers are expected to use their leadership skills to address a variety of new leadership challenges. They not only need to develop their own capacity to cope with these challenges themselves, but also help their project teams and stakeholder community handle these same challenges.
Understanding emotions is the most important foundation for all soft skills development for project managers who lead high-stake, high-pressure, and high-visibility projects.
Emotional Triggers in the Context of Projects
Project success depends on the collaboration of a diverse group of individuals from various functions of an organization that may represent conflicting priorities, interests, and agendas. The main role of a project manager is to bring this diverse community of stakeholders together to work through these conflicts and make decisions on plans, requirements, priorities, dependencies, and deadlines.
As a result of these challenges, project managers must develop emotional intelligence to handle a variety of leadership situations. Some of these challenges involve facilitating difficult conversations about uncomfortable or taboo issues, asking the stakeholder community to do what it does or doesn't want to do; anticipating and working through the resistance to change, and often disappointing stakeholders gently and tactfully.
These challenges are often extremely stressful for both the project manager and the other parties involved, as these situations can be become confrontational and may trigger intense emotional threat responses such as fear, anxiety, and frustration.
The SCARF Model, developed by the Neuroscience of Leadership community and Dr. David Rock (Rock, 2008), provides a framework for understanding these social threats. According to the model, five domains of social experience are treated by our brain in the same way as primary survival issues, triggering either toward or away responses. These five social domains: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness, will be examined in the next section to see how they trigger emotional threat or reward responses.
Status is about an individual's sense of importance in the social pecking order. Whether it is about experience, seniority, or expertise, our brains constantly monitor and compare our status relative to others and send signals of threat or reward based on their assessment of changes in their ranking. An increase in status brings out a reward response, whereas a decrease in status triggers a threat response.
Tight project timelines put pressure on the team members to begin collaborating with each other without the benefits of first establishing relationships and trust. There is often an initial period of time in which team members are highly sensitive to status threat as they evaluate their status compared with others and establish their ranking within the new project team. Individuals come to projects with the expectations that their status will be preserved or increased. Their expectation is that the leader will create an environment of safety. This need for safety is stronger in the initial period of the project life cycle because trust has not been established yet. The project manager's highest priority is to establish safety first in projects.
Certainty is about the extent to which a person can predict the future. The brain likes to predict outcomes. A sense of uncertainty about the future triggers a strong threat or “alert” response in our limbic system.
By its temporary nature, the work in projects involves considerable uncertainty and ambiguity. Unlike permanent organizations, there can be uncertainty about the project's goals, resources, and outcomes. There can even be uncertainty about the processes that will be used to perform the work of the project. Organizations expect project leaders to provide certainty about the future. As a result, leaders run the risk of satisfying their teams’ and sponsors’ need for certainty by setting wrong or unrealistic expectations. This is often caused by fear and anxiety. Emotionally aware project leaders resist this temptation. Instead, they exercise leadership by setting the right expectation with clarity of intent rather than certainty of outcome.
Autonomy is about choice. It is the perception of exerting personal influence and control over our environment. The more choices we have the more in control of our environment we feel and, as a result, the more autonomy we experience. The perception of being able to control the course of events, exercise choice, and drive decisions all lead to an increased sense of autonomy. On the other hand, a lack of control over our working environment and inability to influence outcomes generate a threat response.
Project work provides a high degree of autonomy as to how individuals accomplish their work. When the project meets its objectives, a sense of accomplishment leads to a sense of being a force of change, and in control of one's environment; however, given the limited timelines, individuals in projects can experience a decrease in autonomy because of schedule pressures. They may also experience a decrease in autonomy when their tasks depend on the cooperation of other individuals.
Individuals in projects are often expected to change roles in mid-course of the project. In information technology projects, for example, individuals are expected to take on different roles at different phases of the project, such as testing, training, and providing support to other users during the end of the project. The roles in projects can be in constant flux, which can cause stress.
Relatedness is about an individual's perceived sense of belonging, and how that person determines whether someone is on the team or not (i.e., friend or foe). We want to be part of a team, group, or even tribe. Quality social connection is important to trust and collaboration. When team members are able to relate to one another — striving toward the same goals, being on the same page — trust can develop, setting a foundation for a collaborative, inclusive, and safe environment.
The normal relationship-building, social interactions, such as building trust and rapport, take time, which is a luxury that projects do not have. From day one, project teams are expected to make decisions and cooperate on the work of the project. Meyerson, Weick, and Kramer (1996) developed the concept of “swift trust” as a type of trust that develops in teams with limited time to build relationships and whose members import expectations of trust from other settings with which they are familiar. Swift trust is based on clear role divisions among members who have well-defined specialties. In the absence of social phenomena, such as swift trust, which accelerates the social processes that build and strengthen relationships between individuals in projects, project teams can feel disconnected from each other, which may lead to inappropriate emotional responses in various project situations.
Fairness is equally important to the brain. An exchange that the brain perceives as unfair triggers primary threat and reward mechanisms. Unfairness triggers intense brain reactions and is provoked easily.
Projects may require individuals to take on roles that are different from their normal role in the permanent organization. If the learning curve is too steep, for example, or if the resulting workload is too demanding, individuals can feel a sense of unfairness if they have no choice. Another phenomenon that occurs in projects is that some members may not “pull their own weight,” which creates an unfair burden on the other members of the project. Yet another unfair situation occurs when individuals feel they are not recognized or rewarded equally for the success of the project or are unfairly blamed for its failure. All these situations provoke emotional responses that can disrupt productivity. Effective leadership practices foster a sense of fairness, equity, and burden-sharing for both the positive and negative outcomes of the project.
With this understanding of the social factors that trigger emotional responses in projects, we will now explore the role of emotions in decision making.
Emotions and Decisions
Increasingly, project leaders are facing complex problems for which there are no easy solutions. When we think about the types of problems that leaders are asked to solve today, they generally fall under two major categories: analytical problems and insight problems. To solve an analytical problem, you follow a set of established instructions down a single pathway to one conclusion. Insight problems, on the other hand, have no step-by-step path to a solution.
David Brooks, columnist at the New York Times and author of The Social Animal, tells the story about soldiers in Iraq who could look down a street and somehow detect whether there was a landmine in the street (Ted Talks, 2011). They couldn't say how they did it, but they would feel cold. They were more often right than wrong.
Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow tells a similar story. He writes about how psychologist Gary Klein tells the story of a team of firefighters that entered a house in which the kitchen was on fire. Shortly after they started hosing down the kitchen, the commander found himself abruptly ordering his team to immediately leave the building without knowing why. As soon as the firefighters left, the floor collapsed. The commander realized after the event that the fire had been unusually quiet and that his ears had been unusually hot. These two impressions led him to know that something was wrong. He was right. The heart of the fire had not been in the kitchen but in the basement underneath where the firefighters had stood (Kahneman, 2011).
While our rational brain is efficient at solving analytical problems, it is our unconscious brain that has the capabilities to deal with complex problems. This is due to the limited capacity of our pre-frontal cortex. While our pre-frontal cortex can only deal with a finite number of variables at a given time, the vast processing power of our subconscious can deal with far more complex problems.
Our brain has been trained over millions of years to respond automatically and unconsciously to stimuli when we are operating under stressful conditions (Gordon, 2000). According to Dr. Evian Gordon, the brain operates on the principle of minimizing danger and maximizing reward. This principle suggests that, from moment to moment, our brain is scanning our physical and social environments for cues of danger and reward. This overarching organizing principle has ensured our species’ survival and adaptation to a hostile environment through millions of years of evolution.
Although we no longer live in an environment that is rife with physical danger, we are still subjected to social and emotional stresses in the workplace, whether it is in the form of intimidation, bullying, or simply being excluded from a group. Unfortunately, our biology has not kept up with the pace of the rapid changes in the workplace. The brain, as designed, still responds to these workplace social threats as if they are physical threats. The constant arousal of our limbic system, although necessary to keeping us alive when our living conditions were dangerous, is not adaptive in our current environment.
Our emotional response to stimuli is dependent on the integration of two types of systems; one is fast and one is slow (Lieberman, 2003). The fast limbic system is characterized by quick reactions when time and safety are of the essence. It responds rapidly to stimuli with flight, fight, or fear. The slow system depends on the deliberate, high, cognitive functions of the pre-frontal cortex and its ability to exert top-down control.
Our reflective brain regions must control the reflexive parts of our brain, those responsible for our survival.
The implication for leaders is to develop the capacity to identify which type of thinking is best suited for a particular problem. This is a critical skill for today's complex business environment. Knowing which thinking process to use is important, as using the wrong type of thinking can lead to ineffective decisions or solutions. When leaders are faced with complex decisions, there is often the tendency to delay decisions until they have more or complete information. Often, having more information is not helpful at all. In other circumstances, having too much information can feel overwhelming, leading to “analysis paralysis.” The consequences of applying the wrong type of thinking to a problem can lead to a loss of opportunity or exposure to unnecessary risks. Jonah Lehrer in his book How We Decide calls this “Choking.” He explains that this is triggered by a specific mental mistake he calls “thinking too much” (Lehrer, 2009).
To appreciate the importance of emotions in decision making, it is helpful to understand how the brain responds under stress.
Stress and Emotions
Under stress, our brain can malfunction as chemicals are unleashed in our body impairing communication between brain cells and preventing them from controlling thought and behavior. In this section, we examine three limitations: the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) performance during arousal states, the quality of attention and how it shapes perception, and how memory facilitates learning and habit formation (hardwiring).
Stress and Performance
Optimum conditions for effective decision making require that our brain's higher cognitive processes are activated and in control. When we are involved in stressful situations, we rely on the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) when making decisions. The PFC is the part of the brain responsible for understanding, decision making, recalling, memorizing, and inhibiting.
Yale professor, Dr. Amy Arnsten, likes to compare the PFC to the character Goldilocks (Arnsten, 2009). It needs to have everything just right in its environment in order to function optimally. Dr. Arnsten uses the concept of the classic inverted-U to show the relationship between performance and arousal. Being aroused to a certain level is important for performance so we can be motivated and interested in succeeding. This requires the right levels of two neurochemicals being released in the brain in stressful situations. Norepinephrine strengthens the relevant connections between cells and dopamine blocks the irrelevant ones. With optimum levels of these two neurochemicals, we have the capacity to be focused, organized, and responsible. With too little or too much of either of these neurochemicals, we are distracted, disorganized, forgetful, and disinherited.
Given the complexity of decision making as a mental exercise, the relationship between arousal and performance becomes inverse; performance declines as arousal increases. Our ability to think is impaired, our memory performance is limited, and our capacity to inhibit unwanted behaviors is diminished. The net effect is that we perform poorly when it matters the most.
Attention is critical for memory and learning. It is impossible to learn from your experience without attention. Since it operates mostly below the level of consciousness, one of the challenging aspects of observing our own mental experience is paying attention to our attention. In other words: thinking about our own thinking.
The quality of decisions during intense emotional situations is directly impacted by the quality of attention paid to relevant information, and therefore determines the quality of learning from the experience. Attention, in these situations, becomes critical to picking up cues and being able to interpret them so we can determine the right response.
A key component of attention is the ability to focus on relevant stimuli, while at the same time inhibiting irrelevant distracters elsewhere in the environment. This capacity to inhibit irrelevant stimuli is extremely sensitive to our arousal state. As we experience high levels of stress or lack of energy, this capacity to inhibit is severely impaired.
In intense project decision situations, it takes a tremendous amount of effort to remain focused and pay attention, because the conversations tend to take unpredictable turns and present novel perspectives that may or may not be relevant to the objective of the situation. This is made more challenging because our working memory capacity limits how much information it can attend to at any given time.
Successful negotiations and interventions require the capacity to focus our attention on the desired goals that arise from the conversation. It is critical that we hold information about our goals in our working memory, without the intrusion by other irrelevant information.
Our attention is susceptible to distractions, because the brain is always in a “ready” state to process stimuli and decide if and how to respond. When a conversation turns into a confrontation, there are many social threats that trigger highly charged, emotional responses that can distract our attention. A passing reference to something unsettling or a change in tone of voice can capture our attention and derail our focus, causing us to miss other important cues or forget our goal in holding the conversation in the first place.
In addition to external stimuli, worrying about our performance before or during such situations can use up valuable working memory resources that we desperately need to focus on our goals during intense negotiations and interventions.
Memory and Habit Formation (Hardwiring)
Without proper training and mentoring, project managers can acquire ineffective habits in how they deal with intense emotional situations such as conflict.
The basis for learning and memory is a concept attributed to Donald Hebb that proposes that “Cells that fire together, wire together.” The basis for this concept is that repeated activity between cells over an extended period of time leaves an imprint that changes the structure of cells after activity is over. The effect is a strengthening of the synaptic connection between neurons. This is a form of hardwiring. This hardwiring, however, cannot happen without a key factor: attention. Hardwiring is possible only when attention is paid to a stimulus.
Attention is dependent on our capacity to inhibit irrelevant stimuli. This capacity is vulnerable to our arousal state. The more aroused we are, such as in the case of high stress, the more our capacity to inhibit irrelevant stimuli diminishes or becomes completely impaired. Our attention is also vulnerable to distraction due to its inability to pay attention over a long period of time. After a certain period of attention, the brain will impose its own downtime.
Another key factor to attention is our capacity to tie our attention to our goals. Project managers are expected to cope with emotionally charged social conflict situations in the workplace. During these situations, project managers must be able to understand, make decisions, recall and memorize all, at the same time they are experiencing highly-charged emotional states. Attention, in these situations, becomes critical to picking up cues and being able to interpret them so the leader can choose the right response or intervention. Over time and with repeated practice, project managers develop this capacity to stay focused on the goal of resolving the conflict and avoid getting derailed by the drama of the conflict.
With this understanding of the impact of stress on decision making, we now explore a model for understanding how individuals respond to emotional experiences in projects.
Historically, project managers relied on two popular models to understand human behavior and personality in social interactions within the context of projects: the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment and DISC model.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment is a psychometric questionnaire designed to measure psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions.
The DISC model originated in the 1920s. It measures behavioral style in four categories: “D” for Dominance, “I” for Influence, “S” for Steadiness or Stability, and “C” for Compliant.
The main issue with these models is that they lock the individual into a personality type or a behavior profile that causes others to judge them based on their type or profile. Individuals in the workplace, and especially in a project environment, rarely behave consistently according to some fixed personality type or fixed behavior profile.
An alternative model, that is more suitable for understanding human behavior in the context of project situations, is Dr. Richard Davidson's Six Emotional Styles theory. Its main advantage is that it is situational and does not depend on or reflect on an individual's “fixed” personality or behavior profile.
Dr. Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a leading neuroscientist and researcher on emotions, identified six emotional styles that guide and often determine our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. The six dimensions of the emotional style theory are:
- Resilience: How rapidly or slowly do you recover from adversity?
- Outlook: How long does positive emotion persist following a joyful event?
- Social Intuition: How accurate are you in detecting the nonverbal social cues of others?
- Context: Do you regulate your emotion in a context-sensitive fashion?
- Self-Awareness: How aware are you of your own bodily signals that constitute emotion?
- Attention: How focused or scattered is your attention?
In this section, we will briefly explore each of the six dimensions of emotional styles:
This dimension determines how quickly or slowly we recover from negative emotions. Some individuals can hold onto anger or grudges for a long period of time, whereas others may forget and move on after only a short period of time. Recovering quickly from setbacks is important because projects present many unpredictable situations that are beyond our individual control. Disappointments happen often in projects and the capacity to move on quickly is a crucial skill that project managers must develop to be able to focus on the tasks at hand and not remain stuck in the past. Understanding the resilience dimension will help project managers detect which project member or stakeholder recovers quickly from negative emotions and puts them behind them, and which ones tend to dwell on them for a long period of time. An individual can fall at either extreme or anywhere in between. Knowing this will help project managers develop appropriate responses when this dimension affects the project team.
Outlook is about a person's tendency toward optimism or pessimism. A project team member or stakeholder may be cynical and pessimistic, struggling to see anything positive. Another individual may maintain a high level of energy and engagement in the face of negative emotions. The outlook dimension is also about the capacity to sustain positive emotion over time. The outlook dimension complements the resilience dimension — how quickly you recover from adversity.
Sensitivity to Context
Sensitivity to context is about the degree to which we modulate our behavior and emotional responses, depending on the person we are interacting with or the setting we are in. Individuals can be somewhere from tuned out to tuned in on the sensitivity to context dimension. Being at one end of the spectrum, we are tuned in to our social context. If we are at the other end, we are tuned out. A classic example of being “tuned out” to our context is an individual who tells an off-color joke that embarrasses everyone.
Social intuition is about our sensitivity to social signals and our ability to pick up social cues. Some project managers are experts at reading other people's body language and tone of voice. They can pick up on the subtle differences that indicate a person's emotional state and determine how to proceed, given the situation. This capacity helps us understand and empathize with other people's emotional states.
Self-awareness is about the degree to which we are aware of the emotional signals that our body gives us. It is about the level of awareness we have of our own thoughts and feelings. In one extreme, an individual can have difficulty feeling or knowing his or her feelings — they are self-opaque. In the other extreme, an individual can have an extremely crippling awareness of his or her every thought and feeling – he or she experiences panic and anxiety. The more aware we are of our own emotions, the better we can manage them.
Attention is about the ability to focus and resist distractions. In the high-stress world of projects, the opportunity for distractions is tremendous. Emotional signals are everywhere and can be overwhelming. They can interfere with our ability to focus and to finish what we started. A focused individual can remain engaged in the task at hand regardless of emotional distractions. An unfocused individual is easily distracted with emotional impulses that interrupt his or her focus on the task at hand. The capacity to tune out distractions and stay focused on the task at hand is a crucial skill for project managers.
In the context of projects, these six emotional styles play a crucial role in how we make decisions, solve problems, collaborate with others, and facilitate change. The emotional styles theory gives us a rich vocabulary to describe our emotional propensities based on a set of six dimensions. An individual's emotional style is determined by where they are on each of the six dimensions. There is no ideal or optimal emotional style; there are, however, points on the spectrum, which aren't helpful or appropriate in specific circumstances.
“Each of us is a color-wheel combination of the resilience, outlook, social intuition, self-awareness, context and attention dimensions of emotional style,” Dr. Davidson writes in his book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, “a unique blend that describes how you perceive the world and react to it, how you engage with others and how you navigate the obstacle course of life.”
The other insight coming out of brain research is the role of the pre-frontal cortex in regulating emotions. Historically, neuroscientists believed that the amygdala is the brain's center of emotions, and the pre-frontal cortex is associated with thinking, reason, and problem solving. These brain regions were thought to be separate entities. Dr. Davidson's pioneering research found that these brain components are highly interconnected.
With this understanding of emotional styles, we now explore briefly what latest research is suggesting for how we can improve our capacity for emotional regulation.
A powerful and encouraging message that emerged from Dr. Davidson's research and has been confirmed by other scientists is that our brain and emotional style can change in response to experience and conscious effort through training to improve our leadership skills. Although we have the capacity to change our emotional styles, it takes hard work. We have to actively become aware of our emotions and how we manage them.
Studies by Dr. Matt Lieberman suggest that there is a single braking system that regulates all kinds of emotional responses when it is active (Lieberman, 2009). The brain relies on this system for cognitive, motor, and affective self-control. According to Lieberman, when our brain exerts self control in one domain, we may unintentionally cause self-control in other domains.
This system may have been highly useful for the survival of the human species. A freeze response, when we are facing danger, can be achieved in a timely fashion by a single system that can exert total control over all mental, emotional, or physical functions (Lieberman, 2003).
While self-control touches every aspect of leadership, it is absolutely essential when handling situations that involve intense emotional arousal. Three tools for cognitive change can be used by project managers, depending on the intensity of the situation: Labeling, Reappraisal, and Distancing.
- Labeling: assigning words to our mental and emotional state
- Reappraisal: changing our mental or emotional state, such as considering a negative outcome a “blessing in disguise”
- Distancing: one distancing strategy is to look at a situation from a third-person perspective
Research by Dr. Lieberman found that putting feelings into words dampens their emotional intensity (Lieberman, 2011). In his research, labeling, reappraisal, and distancing showed activity in a brain region located behind the forehead and eyes, called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This region is associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences and processing emotions. Activating this region was correlated with seeing a reduced response in the amygdala.
These are just a few of the tools that the latest neuroscience research is now confirming as useful and proven brain-based methods for regulating our emotions. Additionally, more focus is being placed on researching how mindfulness meditation can improve emotional regulation and reduce stress. A recent study of subjects participating in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program showed measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress (Holzel, Lazar, et al., 2011). This is great news for leaders who are interested in scientifically proven tools that can help them improve their resilience, agility, and stamina.
When we reflect on the brain insights we have learned so far, such as the “minimize danger/maximize reward” principle, it is clear that most of the work on leadership development should not emphasize acquiring more leadership skills. Rather, much of the work should be on learning how to overcome our brain's automatic responses to social threats, real or perceived, that have been shaped by millions of years of evolution and adaptation to our changing environment.
Learning about the brain gives us a language that helps us to understand our mental experiences as they happen, especially when we are in emotionally intense situations. This understanding can help us see how and why we perceive things as we do, what triggers our stress, and how we respond to it.
Learning about the brain's functioning, and especially about our own brain, will widen our self-awareness. As a result, we can become much calmer during intense situations. We can observe where we sit on the Inverted-U and calm ourselves, if we are going over the edge. We can nudge ourselves in one direction or the other on the emotional styles dimensions. This awareness will serve as a form of mindfulness that enables us to see a wide range of options for how we respond to various situations, and choose the right responses; it can help us choose between a response that will take us closer to our goals or one that will lead us astray.
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©2012, Samad Aidane
Originally published as a part of the 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, BC