Emotional project management


Proceedings of the PMI Research Conference
11-14 July 2004 – London, UK

1. Emotions as a Dimension of the Communications of Social Systems

Projects are temporary organizations for the performance of relatively unique business processes of large scope. The perception of projects as temporary organizations makes it possible to view projects also as social systems. According to Luhmann (1964), organizations--such as companies, divisions, profit centers, as well as projects and programs--can be viewed as social systems (see Exhibit 1). Therefore, the specific characteristics of social systems--such as social complexity, dynamics, and self-reference--apply to projects as well.

Social systems

Exhibit 1: Social systems

Social systems have clear boundaries to differentiate them from their environment. For Luhmann, the benefit of establishing social boundaries is to create systems which are less complex than their environments.” (Kasper, 1990, p. 156). Anything can be called a system when it is possible to distinguish between inside and outside. The inside-outside difference signifies that an order is established which does not expand in an arbitrary fashion, but “sets boundaries through its inner structure and through the characteristics of its relationships” (Luhmann 1964, p. 24).

The elements of social systems are communications. Communications have a rational, a structural, and an emotional dimension. The rational objective to communicate certain content is influenced by the structure of a communication situation (time, sitting order, infrastructure, roles, etc.) as well as by the emotions of, and between, the role players in a communication situation.

Emotions are intensive feelings that individuals, teams, or organizations might have. Emotions have a clear beginning and end. They relate to someone or something. Types of emotions according to the theory of basic emotions by Plutchik (1980) are shown in Exhibit 2.

Basic emotions by Plutchik

Exhibit 2: Basic emotions by Plutchik

2. There are Emotions in Projects!

In projects, there are emotions, such as anger, fear, joy, sadness and surprise. Emotions in projects can be caused structurally or they can be specifically induced.

In the different sub-processes of project management (see Exhibit 3) there are different reasons for emotions. The uncertainty of the members of the project organization in the project start process is, for example, a structurally caused emotion. This uncertainty is present in every project during the start process. In the project controlling process, the project team can, for instance, be happy about a successful project presentation, or vexed by bad feedback.

Project management process

Exhibit 3: Project management process

It is a project management function to analyze emotions if they occur, and to plan and carry out strategies and activities to deal with them. Consciously dealing with emotions is a success factor in projects.

2.1 Managing Emotions in the Project Start Process

Typical positive emotions of individuals which one can expect in the project start process are the joy of a new, interesting assignment; meeting new people (or a known person in a new role); or working on a new project team (with members of different cultural backgrounds).

Typical negative emotions of a project team member in the project start process are the fear of the new and of being over-challenged by the work, or by the assigned responsibility (such as in the case of an “empowered“ project organization). Being over-challenged on a project leads to low motivation--as does under-challenge. The high motivation of project team members can be assured through the distribution of tasks and responsibilities according to competencies of the persons (see Exhibit 4).

Motivation of project team members according to the challenge of work

Exhibit 4: Motivation of project team members according to the challenge of work

Activities for managing positive and negative emotions in the project start process are, for example:

  • the comprehensive communication of the project objectives, the project organization, the project environment relationships, etc., for a realistic development of the project team's expectations,
  • the communication of the project's contribution to the fulfilment of the strategic objectives of the project-performing organizations to ensure the motivation of the project team members, in order to create a project mission,
  • the adequate assignments of tasks and responsibilities to individuals to assure the motivation of the project team members,
  • the performance of an explicit team-building process for the integration of team members with different cultural background and for the agreement of organizational rules, and
  • the joint creation of project plans, such as the work breakdown structure, the project environment analysis, etc., in the project team to ensure acceptance by project team members.

2.2 Managing emotions in the project controlling process

Typical positive emotions which one can expect in the project controlling process are the joy created by reaching intermediate project results, good feedback, and creative problem solving. Typical negative emotions in the project controlling process are the fear created by unclear project status, unjustified feedback, the use of inadequate controlling methods, and too much competition within the project team.

Activities for managing the positive and negative emotions in the project controlling process are, for example:

  • the performance of project controlling as a creative communications process, to promote evolution in the project,
  • the assurance of project information needed to communicate the “Big Project Picture“ for all members of the project organization,
  • the use of adequate methods for project controlling for assuring understandable feedback, for example, by use of traffic-light colors in a Project Score Card,
  • the interpretation of the use of the promotion of constructive conflict in the project team for quality assurance in the project.

2.3 Managing Emotions during the Resolution of a Project Crisis

In the process of resolving a project crisis, it is important to let negative emotions, namely insecurity and fear, develop in the project team as well as in the project owner team. A common project crisis reality must exist in order to create the basis for a common identity change in the project.

It might, therefore, be necessary for the project manager to create a certain shock in the project. Such actions, such as a detailed analysis of the cause of the crisis and a demonstration of the potential damage, are unpopular. But they are functional because the necessary negative emotions are released.

2.4 Managing emotions in the project close-down process

During the project close-down process, positive emotions should prevail. But the joy of having reached the project objectives can also stand face-to-face with sadness due to the pending separation from the other project team members uncertainty about one's own career future. And--eventually-- a “Burn-out Syndrome” when the pressure of the project work is gone.

A”„Burn-out Syndrome“ can be defined as a state of emotional exhaustion which leads to a reduction in productivity. A burn-out is associated with a feeling of emptiness, and is caused by distress such as time pressure, uncertainty of success, lack of support, problems with interactions, etc.

An example of burn-out syndrome of a project team is described in the case study, “Burn-out Syndrome in the project team in the project close-down process of the pm days`02.”

CASE STUDY: “Burn-out Syndrome” of the project team in the project close-down process of the pm days`02

pm days: General Objectives

  • Performance of a professional event, organized by the “Project Management Experts“ of the ROLAND GAREIS CONSULTING (RGC) and PROJEKT MANAGEMENT GROUP (PMG)
  • Usage of the event “pm days“ as an instrument to control “energy“ (motivation, commitment, management interest) in the RGC and PMG (e.g., completion of a marketing brochure to distribute at the pm days)
  • History of the pm days since 1983: “High-life” through interesting and innovative content, international participants, promotion of networking and of fun, good image and growth

Situation before and during the pm days`02

  • Situation before the pm days`02:
    Missing project documentation, not enough project team meetings, the repetitive character of the event project (but with partially new people); several parallel activities with access to the same resources
  • Situation during the pm days`02:
    Appearance of shortcomings (such as projectors not functioning, wrong presentations on laptops); ad hoc actions, critique from the project owner,…

Emotions and Emotional Management during the pm days`02

  • Emotions during the pm days`02:
    Surprise that not everything functioned correctly; insecurity on the part of the project team and the project owner; fear that the quality of the event would be bad; the project manager feeling unjustly criticised; anger at and frustration by the project owner, whose resources were handled imprudently (additional stress, additional need for coordination); structural weaknesses being taken personally; a common sense of achievement for the project team not coming to pass
  • Emotional management during the pm days`02:
    Only ad hoc activities being possible (adjusted settings for the projector, acquisition of replacement equipment, etc); integration activities for the project team in the framework of the pm days; Clubbing working only partially; no time to work through the problems thoroughly

Emotions and Emotional Management after the pm days´02

  • Emotions after the pm days'02: insecurity about whether the weaknesses of the pm days`02 were apparent to the participants or not; break-out of a “burn-out“ in the project team during the reflection session on the evening after the practice conference (physical breakdown of several team members, common feeling of sadness and weakness, the immediate trigger an unjustified criticism from the project owner to a project team member during the reflection); little motivation for the performance of the expert seminar the following day after the practice conference; “back in the office“: all project team members and the project owner being tired, distanced, slow,…;individual team members considering changing jobs!
  • Emotional management after the pm days`02: short-term closing of ranks to ensure a professional performance of the expert seminars; the situation being made a subject of discussion both in individual discussions and in a team meeting the following week; analysis of the problem (see “Situation before and during the pm days`02“); the Christmas holidays being used for rest and regeneration; planning of actions to improve in the future (planning of schedules, application of project management, etc.); introduction of a “mood barometer” at staff meetings

3. Emotionalizing in Projects

Emotions are not only caused structurally, but can also be specifically induced. The specific use of emotions in projects, “emotionalising'“ is the “art” to directing energy in projects. Methods for “emotionalising“ in projects are, for example:

  • the telling of a secret by each project team member during the project start workshop to build trust within the team,
  • the performance of “project events,” in which results have to be presented, to create periodic pressure in the project,
  • the identification and discussion of “taboos” in the project team in order to avoid fear or uncertainty,
  • the reflection of the cooperation process in the project team to reduce tension and solve conflicts,
  • the use of associative methods, such as pictures, parables, metaphors, etc., to create surprises in the project team,
  • the development of competitive situations in the project team in order to improve the quality of the project work, and to create joy on constructive conflicts.

4. Emotional Competence as part of the Social Competence

In projects, social competencies are required for the cooperation in the different team structures (project team, sub-teams and project owner team). The organization of team meetings and workshops, the achievement of agreements in the team, etc., require social competencies such as knowledge and experience in presentation and moderation techniques, negotiation techniques, feedback and reflection methods, taking minutes, etc. In regular project communications, no “emotions” occur. The existence of emotions defines specific communication situations.

To manage emotions in projects, in addition to the traditional social competencies “emotional competencies” are required, not only by project managers but also by the members of the project owner team and by project team members.

The “emotionally competent” project manager is aware of the meaning of emotions in the communication in projects. The “emotional competence” of the project managers is characterized by

  • an emotional self-consciousness, meaning a consciousness that emotions can influence the success of the project,
  • an understanding of one's own emotional position, meaning an understanding of one's own feelings and thoughts in a particular project situation,
  • the ability to perceive the emotions of others and to analyze them, and
  • the ability to plan and implement appropriated activities to manage emotions.

5. Current Status of the Research on “Emotional Project Management”

First, hypotheses, models, and case studies regarding emotional project management were developed in 2003 and presented during the conference “pm days ‘03: Projects & Emotions” on October 31st 2003 in Vienna. Since then a Ph.D. thesis and a master's thesis on “Emotions in Projects” were started. It is the objectives of these theses to develop models and methods for the management of emotions in projects, and for the measurement and development of emotional competencies of project managers.

The research methods applied to the development of models and methods regarding “Emotional Project Management” are literature analysis, documentation analysis, and interviews in project-oriented organizations; the development of case studies for the application of the developed models and methods; interviews for the further interpretation of the working theses; and communication of the research results in publications and conferences (at the PMI Research Conference ‘04, the Austrian pm days ‘04, etc.).

It is the objective of this research to broaden the PM body of knowledge, to include the management of emotions in projects as a required social competence of project managers, to contribute to the creation of an awareness of the “emotional competence” of project managers, and to provide methods for the measurement and development of “emotional competencies” of project managers.

Kasper, H. (1990) Handhabung des neuen in organisierten sozialsystemen, Wien: Springer.

Luhmann, N. (1964) Funktionen und folgen formaler organisation, Berlin: Duncker und Humblot.

Plutchik, R. (1980). A general psychoevolutionary theory of emotion. In R. Plutchik & H. Kellerman (Eds.), Emotion: Theory, research, and experience: Vol. 1. Theories of emotion (pp. 3-33). New York: Academic.


Roland Gareis

PROJEKTMANAGEMENT GROUP, University for Economics and Business Administration, Vienna, Austria;

Franz Klein Gasse 1,

A-1190 Vienna, Austria

Tel.: 0043/1/4277-29401;

Fax: 0043/1/3687510

[email protected]

Biography of Roland Gareis

Education and University Career

  • Graduation from the University of Economics and Business Administration,
  • Vienna
  • Habilitation at the University of Technology, Vienna, Department of Construction Industry
  • Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta
  • Visiting professor at the ETH, Zurich, at the Georgia State University, Atlanta and at the University of Quebec, Montreal

Current Positions

  • Professor of Project Management at the University of Economics and Business
  • Administration, Vienna
  • Director of the post-graduate program “International Project Management”



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