Project Management Institute

Handling unpleasant project tasks

by Gregory D. Githens, PMP

WHY CONSIDER UNPLEASANT TASKS? Project managers must frequently ask others to work in physically dangerous conditions, work overtime or with people they dislike, or to change product designs. Effective project managers master the twin challenges of accomplishing the work while preserving (even enhancing) personal relationships. Handling unpleasant tasks is a supreme test of leadership ability.

I believe that our changed organizational environment means that increasingly people will need to perform unpleasant work. Why? Modern organizations are shifting toward less specialization and more sharing of work. The new horizontal organization cannot tolerate the refrain of “that's not my job,” and individuals must leave their comfort zone to grow in the organization. The increased emphasis on leadership and doing things right means treating painful root causes of problems.

Here are some strategies and guidelines to help project managers improve their approach to communicating unpleasant project tasks. Applying these ideas will help people handle unpleasant tasks in a way that preserves dignity.

Influencing in All Directions. Influencing is a style of communicating and motivating others to accept and perform unpleasant tasks. It works in all directions: with superiors, subordinates, and peers.

In your role of project manager you may request a senior person or a peer to perform an unpleasant project task. They might be the only one available, or hold the needed technical expertise, or have the organizational position to make a commitment. For some executives, making a basic decision is unpleasant: it forces them to a commitment, for which they might be held accountable!

Effective influencers provide information that is relevant to the needs of the senior person or a peer.

Consider the manager of a product development process unable to get senior executives to commit support to their ISO-documented development process. For the manager the task of approaching senior executives was daunting, because he feared rejection and appearing incompetent. He zeroed in on the executives’ need to add value to the organization and to avoid repeating project disasters. Next, he related the proposed change as a solution to the executives’ needs. By “following actively” and specifically connecting the objectives of the development process with their objectives for the organization's performance, he was able to secure their support and sponsorship for an organizational change program.


Influencing is a core project management skill, particularly important when you don't have a formal position of authority Exhibit 1 provides a model for evaluating identifying behaviors promoting or retarding influence. The responses to an unpleasant task will vary whether you are in an ineffective, stressful “trapped” condition or a fully involved, organizationally effective “energized” state

Trapped. When we are “trapped” we worry only about ourselves. We undermine the success of our boss and oppose the efforts of our peers. We intimidate and micromanage our subordinates. We try to avoid unpleasant tasks. The role of the bearer of bad news only increases the isolation. Trapped managers regard unpleasant tasks as nuisances or threats, and respond with defensiveness, avoidance, or minimal effort.

Static. A manager in a static situation is cautious and mechanical. “Let it happen” is a frequent strategy We passively follow our leaders, protect our turf when dealing with peers, and direct our subordinates according to rigid rules and processes.

Energized. An empowered project manager has the authority, resources, information, and accountability to accomplish results, and does so in a way that maintains a big-picture, long-term perspective. Collaboration is the desired process. Build and exercise influence by actively leading; that is, helping the boss, peers, and subordinates to achieve their objectives.

Ten Guidelines for Improving Influence on Unpleasant Tasks. Following are 10 guidelines for increasing effectiveness in communicating about an unpleasant task. These are real-world guidelines based on observing and coaching dozens of experienced project managers.

Do your homework, particularly if the unpleasant task involves dates or cost. Probably the worst unpleasant task (or at least the most frequent) is when a project manager confronts an executive or customer with the data that a project due date is late, or unachievable. When you use good project scheduling practices and adjust estimates for quantitative and schedule risk, you can build a sound, irrefutable case for establishing a realistic completion date. Many executives or customers would rather get the bad news than be surprised.

Getting their attention is a prerequisite. A student of Samurai warriorship asked his Zen master the secret to learning the craft. “Attention!” commanded the master. Confused, the student repeated his question. “Attention! Attention!” replied the master again.

Getting your audience to tune in to your presence and message is a prerequisite to discussing an unpleasant task. If they know bad news is on the way, they will avoid a meeting. Be dogged in getting the right people included, and (at least temporarily) remove distractions.

Prepare for objections. Objections have great value. They are signals that attention and comprehension are under way. Plan for and welcome objections, which can include questions such as the following: Is there really a problem? Is it important? To whom? Are the skills available? Why do you think we are competent to handle the task? Is there a simpler solution? What's in it for me (WIIFM)? What are the inherent threats and punishments? What are the real requirements? Ideal outcomes? Minimum conditions? Will people “shoot the messenger”?

Talk to people in person. The medium of the communications is as important as the message. An impersonal note or message suggests that the sender does not care enough to become involved and desires emotional distance. An informal memo, newsletter, or email is an ineffective and possibly counterproductive way to announce a change or to motivate and direct people to accomplish an unpleasant task.

A project manager has to manage relationships up, down, and sideways. There are a number of choices to make for attitudes and behaviors. The most effective project managers handle unpleasant tasks by leading and empowering team members, collaborating for value-added wins with peers, and actively following bosses (supporting the boss's direction, but challenging the direction if there is a better way)

Exhibit 1. A project manager has to manage relationships up, down, and sideways. There are a number of choices to make for attitudes and behaviors. The most effective project managers handle unpleasant tasks by leading and empowering team members, collaborating for value-added wins with peers, and actively following bosses (supporting the boss's direction, but challenging the direction if there is a better way).

Technology is making the process much more difficult because communications are rapid but impersonal. In today's project environment we are increasingly seeing signs of the “virtual electronic sweatshop.” An e-mail message shouts: Submit this Immediately! At worst, recipients feel, “I'm just an instrument of someone else's work.”

Unpleasant projects are often threatening. They cause anger and resentment from individuals involved in the project. As uncomfortable as it might be for you, you need to personally get in front of people.

One of the most useful strategies I can offer is to plan for a period of venting anger and frustration, even if the group is directing it at you. Let people get mad and sound off. It's therapeutic!

There is an important role for formal, written communications in implementing unpleasant project tasks. Formal memos and other forms of formal documentation are often a good follow-up, because people are “in denial” and have a hard time hearing information that disturbs their security. The written form provides formality, reinforcing the need to regard the work seriously.

Ask for what you want. Asking for what we want is common sense, but it's underused as a communication strategy. You want something. They want something. Negotiating is one approach to a workable solution. Remember this nugget of wisdom from Gerald Weinberg: “To want is natural, to get is negotiable.”

Structuring the Choice: Adoption and Attitude

“Push back” is a popular phrase that means “don't passively follow orders when they don't make sense.” While some individuals deeply believe they are compelled to follow orders, most are just overworked or lazy thinkers. Effective modern project managers obtain project charters and make decisions within the charter's boundaries.

Many people perceive or assume a threat to employment security is present. Thus, they become passive in accepting assignments, rationalizing “they have accepted the lesser of two evils.” Often their level of commitment is, at best, grudging compliance.

The truth is we all have choices, and there is almost nothing that one person or group can compel another to do. The most important choice we make is our attitude. Each project participant can make the choice regarding their attitude in accepting and performing an unpleasant task. They can choose to perform an unpleasant task, retain their dignity, and even grow along the way.

You can facilitate the choice process. Innovation scholar Everett Rogers identified five basic criteria involved in choice, which you can use as a framework for choice and commitment:

img  Simplicity. The condition of simplicity exists when followers can see the issue as a straightforward, uncomplicated choice between two alternatives. Often we provide too much information. Eventually the “shades of gray” will emerge from the “black and white.” Every good salesperson knows when it's time to quit selling and be quiet.

img  Relative Advantage. The choice is perceived as better than the alternatives.

img  Observability. Benefits can be observed, and observed quickly Often benefits are too long-term and abstract.

img  Compatibility. The decision is compatible with existing values.

img  Trialability. Followers can make a small commitment before making a major commitment.

Choice and attitude underlie effectiveness. Attitude can change an unpleasant task to a learning opportunity. If we approach the communications with a philosophy of civility and authenticity, we can get difficult, unpleasant work done without being manipulative.

Separate constraints from preferences when formulating requirements. Some things are “must haves” and others are “nice to haves.” If you don't know whether a requirement is a constraint or preference, admit it and allow others to use that information in their design of the solution. A good project communicator structures the conversation to help the receiver make a choice. The sidebar provides key criteria for adopting an idea.

Authenticity is the basis for trust. Authenticity is knowing yourself and accepting your strengths and weaknesses. When we are authentic we tell the truth about ourselves to others. We expose our vulnerabilities. The Wizard in The Wizard of Oz is a perfect example of the fakery of an inauthentic person who has true power when he becomes an honest and caring person, rather than a manipulator.

People around you quickly perceive authenticity and are more open to trust. Trust is the grease of the relationship, and it comes from trustworthy people who have earned your trust.

To be trustworthy, you need to make a commitment to the truth. If you are hiding something, it will probably show (some people have an uncanny knack for seeing through you). Ignoring a question usually reinforces people's fears. A believable leader does not know everything. Don't be afraid to say “I don't know.”

While this guideline may be too “warm and fuzzy” for many I encourage you to observe others who are authentic. You will discover they are self-confident, non-neurotic, and effective. People are much more willing to place their trust in authentic people.

Avoid bribes and sugarcoating. Search out the underlying audience needs. Many managers mistakenly try to bribe (with money, recognition, or similar) to get others to adopt the desired decision.

“Sugarcoating” is trying to “smooth talk” people by telling them that an unpleasant task will really be fun. Sugarcoating is dishonest and inauthentic. While this may have worked for Tom Sawyer, it is seldom effective in the workplace, where workers have learned to be cynical about the intentions of others.

Recognize and address threats to security and well being. Many, many tasks are hazardous. The hazards might involve threats to personal safety, to security, or to ego. Threats to safety and well being can command all our attention. First, address the factors that would lead to dissatisfaction. Search for solutions that provide protection from these threats. Psychologist Frederick Herzberg called these dissatisfiers “hygiene factors” and teaches us that we must remove these dissatisfiers before we can apply positive incentives.

Often, there is no way you can offer a motivator for performing an unpleasant task and the best you can do is help make the task short, clean, and non-recurring. First, identify what the audience wants to avoid and preserve and focus efforts on minimizing the threat. After you have removed the threat, your audience may perceive a recognition program or a bonus as a positive reward and thus a motivator.

Take the first step to lead the way. When starting work on an unpleasant task one of the best lessons is for the leader to participate in the solution. Specifically, be the first to step forward and deal with the problem. Followers look at actions more than words.

Telling and selling has limited impact. Remember Robert F. Mager's observation: “Exhortation is used more and accomplishes less than almost any behavior-changing tool known to man.”

Develop (and share) empathy. Empathy is the ability or capacity to participate in another's feelings or ideas. It is a mutual understanding derived from shared experiences. Empathy underlies trust. People who have mutual empathy are more likely to accomplish the needed work and preserve good interpersonal relationships. Vulnerability and authenticity keep people participating in the communication process. Don't withhold information about your feelings. People want to know your reactions.

With the unique nature of the project setting, empathy is crucial. Since tasks are unique and temporary, you only get one opportunity to build the necessary empathy. You probably won't achieve a deep level of trust with strangers, but it is possible to cooperate and avoid manipulation.

Stephen Covey's principle, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood” is valuable advice when communicating about an unpleasant task.

Implementation: Consensus is Particularly Important. Why do we spend endless hours discussing problems and finding solutions, only to discover the group and its individuals have not taken action? One answer is that we are more skilled in analysis than synthesis (implementation). Consensus-building is a robust technique for assuring implementation.

Consensus is one of the most misunderstood terms used in today's organizations. It does not mean that everyone agrees on a decision, it means that people agree to support the decision, even though they do not agree with the decision. Every member of the group must visibly signal their agreement to support the implementation. This definition has a key corollary: The group defines its membership so that each member of the group knows who is in and who is out of the implementation group. The worst result of no consensus is muddling, non-participation, and inertia. The best result of no consensus is the accomplishment of the work via luck. It's incredible how much people rely on luck!

For consensus to work in a project environment, there needs to be a way to recognize the 100 percent agreement of project participants. The signs can range from verbal statements to physical signals.

This style of consensus recognition worked well for me while facilitating a project planning session for an international bank. Members of the group did not want to participate in planning their project, feeling more comfortable with doing their pieces of the development work. Vocal members of the group insisted that because a requirements document existed they didn't need to revisit the analysis. They insisted they understood the work. As a test, I wrote this question on a white board: “We all fully understand the system requirements.” I then defined consensus and asked them to signal with a thumbs-up gesture if they agreed.

Every group member, except for one, signaled they agreed (they understood the requirements). The one member who did not agree received considerable verbal abuse from her peers. After the group explored (and debated) her concerns, I wrote a new question and tested for consensus: “We will spend 15 minutes testing for understanding of requirements.” Two days later the group was still evaluating and testing for requirements. In their hurry to avoid the distasteful requirements task, they had sidestepped an important part of the project. The truthfulness and courage of the lone dissenter helped the organization move the project forward into the necessary area of gaining a firm understanding of requirements (albeit painful and unpleasant). The organization was able to avoid considerable waste in its project by recognizing the absence of critical information on project requirements.

Although participants initially thought the return to requirements exploration was a waste of time, the benefits of doing so were quickly identifiable to the open-minded individuals in the group.

Be forewarned that consensus-building is time consuming and sometimes painful, because it forces members of the group to expose and examine their assumptions, biases, and fears. It is effective because it assures that people will align their actions with their decisions. It is a basic discipline that surfaces and removes obstacles to full implementation.

GET THEIR ATTENTION, shape their attitude, and secure their commitment. Commonsense principles? Maybe. But why do a surprising number of experienced, highly placed managers use very amateurish strategies for communicating about unpleasant work? Often their egos and insecurities get in the way of basic civility; Other times they use poor tactics such as cajoling, bribing, and threats. Through managing the communication process—attention, attitude, and commitment—we can select and apply appropriate influencing strategies that get the job done and preserve civility. ∎

Greg Githens has over 20 years of project and program management experience in project development environments. He consults in organizational change and project innovation. If you'd like a reading list and additional information on this topic, contact him at

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network • December 1997



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