How are you?
A real case study
I believe that your day goes the way the corners of your mouth turn. Our answer to the question: “How are you?” seems like such a small thing, but we must answer that question many times every day. In fact, your customer, your team members, your executives, and your colleagues ask you that question many times. So it isn't such a small thing after all; it is a significant part of our daily conversations. When someone asks, “How are you?” what do you say? Your answer is usually no more than a few words long; yet, that short response tells a lot about you and your attitude. In fact, your response can literally shape your attitude. This paper is based on the observations of the author while managing several projects in Europe, and in particular, the lessons learned from a project that lasted more than eighteen months and involved different people, cultures, and organizations.
At the age of thirty-three, I was a project manager at Hewlett-Packard (HP) in Madrid, Spain working on a project far from my city of residence. The customer was “Eusko Jaurlaritza” (EJ), located in the North of Spain and it was an IT infrastructure and software project. My team was composed of six team members plus a subcontractor with ten more people. When one of the managers at HP asked me about the project I was managing, I always answered: “Oh my God, I am so frustrated because of the lack of support from my organization for this particular project. I am also frustrated with my customer, who is very demanding, stressing me out, and not cooperating at all. My internal project sponsor never answers my meeting requests and sometimes he moves forward without communicating with me. I also experienced some changes in the initial project requirements. I am depressed.
All those answers were negative, but I wasn't aware of it, nor was I aware that my team was listening to my answers too. They observed my negative attitude. I generated a lot of frustration and lack of motivation in my team and I didn't realize it.
I was very lucky though. One weekend, I met with a manager from another organization and I had the opportunity to have a cup of coffee with him at a local restaurant. I told him about my project situation and he gave me great ideas and advice on how to move forward and improve my attitude. He said: “Alfonso, there is no project without issues or problems. It is like life, the point is that you need to deal with these problems, and don't forget that you work for an organization! You must ask them for their support. You must communicate to all project stakeholders and tell them how much you need them for achieving project success. I am sure you will have moments of low morale, but please focus on the great things in your life: your family is healthy, think about how you can achieve success,, and be positive. When somebody asks you about your project say, something like: ’It is okay, I have some issues to be managed but if I need help, I'll let you know., This answer is more positive and inspires optimism, energy, and enthusiasm. Many times there is a lack of energy in some project leaders in organizations.” That answer empowered me a lot. It was not easy to implement that advice right away, but I did it—step by step. Now, I apply this positive approach every day, because “every day is a good day!”
Undoubtedly, you will be able to choose between the positive and negative parts of your project. I suggest you choose the “positive” part—you cannot change the facts, but you can react positively to them. In my EJ (Eusko Jaurlaritza) project, my positive attitude worked well for me
I have observed that the responses to “how are you?” can be classified into three categories: negative, mediocre, and positive. Let's examine these three categories and some common responses to each one.
Pessimistic people usually give negative answers. (Exhibit 1) Some of these pessimistic answers are based on personal experience. I have heard the sentence, “A pessimistic guy is an optimistic one well informed. The negative reply to “how are you?” may include phrases like:
Exhibit 1 – How Are You Negative Responses
When a project management professional answers with “Don't ask,” I know I am in for trouble. That person is going to unleash a multitude of complaints and make me sorry for asking the question in the first place. And, I really pity those who take the “Thank God it is Friday” approach to life. Think of what they are saying: “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday” are bad days every week. For these people, four-fifths of their work week is lousy. The fifth day, Friday, is “bearable” only because they know they will have the next two days off. Is this a way to live work your projects and live your life? Are you beginning to see how these negative phrases can poison your attitude and turn off your project team and other project stakeholders?
Those in the mediocre group are a step up from the negative bunch but they still have plenty of room for improvement. Here are some of the things they say:
- “I am okay”
- “Not too bad”
- “It could be worse”
- “Every day older and older”
- “I am fine”
Do you really want to spend a lot of time with someone who thinks that life is “not too bad?” Is this the type of person you want to do business with? When we use words like these, we also diminish our energy. Can you imagine someone saying, “it could be worse” with an upright posture and a lot of enthusiasm? Of course not! The “every day older and older” answer comes from a very unmotivated person; it makes no sense to have a team member with that attitude on your project team. These people sound like they haven't slept in two days. There is no getting around it. People who use mediocre words will develop a mediocre attitude and get mediocre project results, and I know you want to be a successful project manager and don't want that.
Passionate people have enthusiastic responses, and those responses transmit positive energy. (Exhibit 2) On many occasions as a project manager, I found very few optimistic people who routinely gave me positive answers. In fact, in the EJ project most of the project stakeholders were negative. They were surprised at my attitude change, because I started smiling every day and giving more positive answers to all of them. People who give positive answers communicate enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is contagious to many people. Answer your peers and colleagues with enthusiasm, using responses like:
Exhibit 2 – How Are You Enthusiastic Responses
Those who use positive words like these have a bounce in their step, and you feel a little better just by being around them. Be honest: How did you feel as you read the positive list? I don't know about you, but I am energized and excited by reviewing this list. These are the people I look forward to meeting today. These are the people who are more likely to get my business. Why not go back and re-read the negative and mediocre lists? Read them out loud. How do they make you feel? Depressed, for sure!
You see, if given the choice, I would rather be around people who are positive and full of life as opposed to those who are negative and listless. It is like the old saying that “everybody lights up a room—some when they walk into the room and some when they walk out.” You want to be the one who lights up a room when you walk in. As for me, when someone asks me “how are you?” I usually respond with “Very good, today is a good day.” This response projects a positive attitude to the other person and the more I say it, the better I feel.
Join the Positive Professionals
Well, you have had a chance to review some typical responses in each category—negative, mediocre, and positive. Which of these phrases do you use most often? Which responses do your team members and project stakeholders use?
If you find yourself in the negative or mediocre group, I suggest you immediately consider revising your responses and joining the ranks of the positive group. Here is why. When you are asked “how you are?” and you respond by saying, “horrible” or “not too bad,” your physiology is adversely affected—you tend to slouch your shoulders and head and assume a depressed posture.
How about your emotions? After stating that you are lousy, do you feel any better? Of course not! You feel even more down in the dumps, because negative words and thoughts generate negative feelings, and eventually, negative results. It is up to you to break the pattern. Even if real circumstances in your life are causing you to feel lousy— perhaps a promising business deal that fell through or your child's poor school grades—your gloomy attitude does nothing to improve the situation. To make matters worse, a mediocre or negative reply turns others off and they are dragged down just being around you and hearing your pessimism.
When I worked for a multinational company as a project manager, I started up a Project Management Office (PMO). The HP professional services organization was not very convinced of the urgency of creating a PMO, so I looked for some allies. Most of my project manager colleagues criticized the lack of support from executives, but never proposed that any action be taken. One of them thought like me and said: “something can be done in terms of our behavior in front of our executives.” My colleague was my first ally in the PMO implementation project effort. “Change is possible” and “Today is a good day” were our preferred sentences. We spent a lot of time talking to executives and project managers and promoting the advantages of creating and implementing a PMO in our organization.
Negative people are the ones who always dwell on the negative. Their sentences are contagious; they continuously spew their verbal poison. In contrast, positive people “promote personal and professional growth”; they are very supportive. Positive people lift your spirits and are a gift to all of us. Negative people will always try to drag you down to their level. They hammer away at you with all of the things you cannot do and all of the things that are impossible. They attack you with gloomy statements about the lousy economy, the problems in their lives, the problems soon to be in your life, and the terrible prospects for the future. If you are ‘lucky,’ they might even throw in a few words about their aches and pains.
After listening to negative people, you feel listless and drained. At times, I've identified some of these people as “dream killers.” I would say that they are “energy vampires” because they suck all the positive energy out of you. Have you ever been with a negative person and felt as if that individual were physically taking energy from you? I think we have all had that experience many times. One thing is certain: spend time with negative people and their negative messages will wear you down. On the other hand, how do you feel when you are around people who are positive, enthusiastic, and supportive? You are energized and inspired! There is something truly amazing about positive people. They seem to have a positive energy that lights up a room. When you are around them, you start to pick up their attitude and you feel as if you have the added strength to vigorously pursue your own goals.
When I think about positive people, my friend Randy immediately comes to mind. Whenever I speak with Randy, I feel like I can conquer the world. Randy is simply the most positive person you could ever meet. I like to think of myself as a very positive person. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most positive, I would probably give myself an 8.5. I would have to give Randy a 14! He is just off the charts! He is always positive, enthusiastic, and gives a tremendous lift to everyone who crosses his path. His attitude inspires people to greatness. Can you see how your attitude might improve if you had a friend like Randy in your life? Our mind tends to dwell on whatever is repeated over and over; unfortunately, the mind does not distinguish between messages that are good for us and those that are harmful. If we hear something often enough, we will tend to believe it and act upon it. Just as a song repeated many times will get us thinking about that song, so too will repeated thoughts about success get us thinking about success.
So, if we make sure to fill our minds with positive messages, we are going to be more positive and move forward to achieving our goals. The more positive the reinforcement, the better it will be. And where can we get this positive reinforcement? Well, one way is to read motivational books and we can listen to motivational tapes and spend lots of time with positive people. I believe that human beings are like sponges: we “soak up” whatever people around us are saying. So, if we spend time with someone who is negative, we soak up the negative and it affects our attitude; of course, the reverse is also true. When we hang around positive people, we soak up the positive. We feel better and perform better.
Analyze Your People
It is essential that you assess your friendships and professional colleagues from time to time, even those you have maintained for many years. Trust me—this is not a minor issue. Those who occupy your time have a significant impact on your most priceless possession—your mind. Are you surrounding yourself with negative friends and colleagues and spending a lot of time with them in your leisure hours? If so, I am going to ask you to think about spending much less time with these people or even no time at all with them. Sounds harsh, doesn't it? After all, I am suggesting that you limit or eliminate your involvement with some long-standing friends. You may think I am cold or uncaring. You may also think we should try to help our negative friends and colleagues instead of dumping them. Nevertheless, I have found that, in most cases, hanging around these negative friends or colleagues does not help them and it doesn't help you, either. Everyone gets dragged down because most negative people don't want to change. They just want someone to listen to their tales of woe.
If you have a strong urge to spend time with negative people, ask yourself: “Why am I choosing to be with these people? Consciously or unconsciously, you may be choosing to hold yourself back, to be less than you are capable of becoming. By the way, I think it is wonderful to try helping someone overcome his or her negativity, but if you have been trying for several years and not getting anywhere, it may be time to move on. Let me clarify one important thing. I am not making a judgment here that negative people are any less worthy than other people. I am simply saying that there are consequences to spending time with negative people. What are the consequences? You will be less happy and less successful than you could be.
One of the things that's worked well for me in projects I've managed is when the discussion moves to a negative subject: resist the temptation to accuse the other person of being negative, which will usually make things even worse. Instead, gently shift the conversation to a more positive topic. Remember that I am not asking you to disown your relatives or refuse to attend family functions; this is about limiting your contact with negative relatives so you aren't dragged down to their level.
Do You Work with Positive People?
Every organization has some negative people working for it and every project has some negative people working on it. At times you have to interact and work alongside these people, but do not go out of your way to spend time with these prophets of gloom and doom. For example, if you frequently have lunch with negative people at work, stop having lunch with them. All they are doing is filling your mind with negativity. You cannot perform at your best if you allow these people to dump their negative garbage into your mind. There is no need to be nasty or to tell them off. You should be able to find a diplomatic way of distancing yourself from this “poisonous” group. Instead, take charge! Be proactive! Make a point of eating at your desk, taking a client out to lunch, or sitting at a different table in the cafeteria.
Do whatever you have to do to make lunch a positive experience. Make no mistake about it—Positive people are welcomed in any organization and in any project, and negative people are hurting their chances for advancement. The problem with negative workers has gotten so bad that I recently received a brochure in the mail announcing a full-day seminar entitled, “How to Legally Fire Employees with Attitude Problems.” The business community is waking up to the fact that when it comes to productivity in the workplace, attitude is everything.
Choose Your Friends and Allies
“Tell me who you hang out with and I'll tell you who you are.” If you are serious about getting a raise or a promotion at work, succeeding in your own business, or improving yourself as a human being, then you have to start associating with people who can take you to the next level. As you increase your associations with positive people, you will feel better about yourself and have renewed energy to achieve your goals. You will become a more positive, upbeat person, the kind of person others love to be around. I used to think it was important to associate myself with positive people and to limit my involvement with negative people. Now, I believe it is essential if you want to be a high achiever and a happy individual. So, surround yourself with positive people, because they will lift you up the ladder of success.
Practice a New Approach
If all of these negative consequences flow from your words, why do you continue saying them? More than likely, it is because you have not recognized that you have a choice in the matter. Instead, you are following a habit that you developed many years ago, a habit that no longer serves you well. In the end, your own words are a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you say “everything is terrible,” your mind is attracted to those people and circumstances that will cause that statement to be true. If, on the other hand, you repeatedly state that your life is wonderful, your mind will begin to move you in a positive direction. For instance, just consider what happens when you respond that you are “excellent or terrific.” As you say these words, your physiology begins to correspond with your optimistic language. Your posture is more upright. Other people are attracted to your energy and vitality. Your business and personal relationships improve. Will all of life's problems magically disappear? No, but you have set in motion a very important principle: we get what we expect in life.
I can tell you from first-hand experience that this is one of those little things in life that makes a big difference. About 15 years ago, when someone asked me “how are you?” I said something like, “okay” with very little energy. What was I doing? I was programming myself to have “okay” relationships with people. I was programming myself to have “okay” success. I was programming myself to have an “okay” attitude and “okay” life. But, then, through an experiment, I learned that I didn't have to settle for an “okay” life. I picked up my response a few notches and began to say “terrific” and I said it with energy. Sure, at first it was a little uncomfortable. Some people looked at me like I was a little strange. But after about a week, it started to come naturally. I was amazed at how much better I felt and how people were much more interested in talking with me. Believe me, this is not rocket science. You don't need talent, money, or good looks to have a great attitude. You just need to get in the habit of using a high-energy, positive response, and you will get the same exciting results I got.
What Happens if I Feel that Today is not a Good Day?
Whenever I do a presentation or a seminar, I say “Today is a good day.” Many people are surprised in the beginning. Sometimes, at the end of the event, some people come up to me and ask, “What if today is not a good day?”
I don't want to lie to my customers and colleagues by telling them everything is wonderful when it is not. Now don't get me wrong: I put the highest value on integrity and telling the truth. Yet, I don't think this is a matter of telling the truth. Let me explain. Assume for a moment that Rose feels tired. When someone at work asks her “How are you?” she wants to be perfectly honest, so she says, “I am tired.” Here is what will happen. Rose will reinforce the belief that she is tired and will feel even more fatigued. She will probably slouch her shoulders, let out a sigh, and she will have a lousy, unproductive day at work.
Let's get back to the person who asked Rose the question (and who probably regrets it now). That person also feels worse. After all, when someone tells you how tired he or she is, do you feel uplifted? No way. Just the suggestion of the word “tired” gets you to start yawning. So, Rose has brought herself down, as well as her coworker. Okay, Rose goes home after her gruelling day, and now she is exhausted. So she plops into her favorite chair and opens the newspaper to look at the winning lottery numbers. As she pulls her own ticket out of her wallet, she discovers that she is holding the winning ticket. She just won US$10 million! What do you think Rose would do? Remember, she was very tired. You and I both know that Rose would leap out of her chair, be jumping up and down, screaming and waving her arms in the air. You would think she was leading an aerobics class. Naturally, she would run to pick up the phone to call her family and friends. She would be a bundle of energy and would probably stay up all night celebrating and planning what to do with the money.
But, wait a second. Ten seconds ago, Rose was exhausted. Now, she has the energy of a 15-year-old cheerleader who has just been told she made the cheerleading squad. What happened in those 10 seconds to change someone from being utterly exhausted to wildly exuberant? Did she get a shot of vitamin B12? Did anyone throw a bucket of ice water in her face? No. Her transformation was entirely psychological.
Now, I am not trying to diminish what Rose was feeling. Her fatigue was very real, but it was not as much physical as psychological. So, was Rose telling the truth when she said she was tired? It really has very little to do with the truth. It is a matter of what Rose wants to focus on. She could concentrate on feeling tired. That was one option. On the other hand, she could have thought about the many blessings in her life and felt very fortunate and energized. How we feel is very often a subjective matter. When we tell ourselves that we are tired, we feel tired. When we tell ourselves that “today is a good day” we feel energized. We become what we think about.
I experienced that type of team member and executive behavior when managing projects. There were people who always felt tired, without any positive objective to achieve, and without any desire to enjoy the life. I had to spend some time with those people during the EJ project trying to understand them, listening to their problems and issues, discovering their motivation factors, and that time spent was really worthwhile for me. The result was positive and it affected the project results in a positive way too.
Use Your Passion to Answer
Try this experiment. When anyone asks how you are, respond with energy and enthusiasm that you are great or that “Today is a good day!” Say it with a smile and a sparkle in your eye. It does not matter whether or not you completely and totally feel terrific at that moment. Simply apply the “act-as-if” principle. In other words, if you want to be more positive, act-as-if you already are and, pretty soon, you will find that you have, in fact, become more positive.
Do not worry if you feel a little uncomfortable saying these words in the beginning. Stick with it and eventually you will grow into it. You will quickly notice that you feel better, that others want to be around you, and that positive results will come your way. In the EJ (“Eusko Jaurlaritza”) project, I had a negative attitude in the beginning. The customer pressure, as well as the internal HP pressure because of the strategic importance of the project, affected me. However, I was able to change my attitude with all my project stakeholders and I used my enthusiasm to lead people toward project success.
I had many issues and problems during the whole project life cycle but I chose the positive way of dealing with them. That attitude changed the people behavior little by little, and the customer finally appreciated my passion, persistence, and patience. That was an interesting lesson learned: “Change your attitude for your project success.” Then ask, “How are you?” Today is a good day!
- When someone asks: How are you? What do you say? Your answer is usually no more than a few words. And, yet, that short response tells a lot about you and your attitude. In fact, your response can literally shape your attitude
- As for me, when someone asks me how are you? I usually respond with, “Very good, today is a good day.” It projects a positive attitude to the other person and the more I say it, the better I feel.
- If you find yourself in the negative or mediocre group, I suggest you immediately consider changing your response and joining the ranks of the positive group.
- You don't need talent, money, or good looks to have a great attitude. You just need to get in the habit of using a high-energy, positive response, and you will get exciting results.
- How we feel is very often a subjective matter. When we tell ourselves that we are tired, we feel tired. When we tell ourselves that we feel terrific, we feel energized. We become what we think about.
- Do not worry if you feel a little uncomfortable saying these words in the beginning. Stick with it and eventually you will grow into it. You will quickly notice that you feel better, that others want to be around you, and that positive results will come your way. Then ask, “How are you?” Today is a good day!
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© 2012, Alfonso Bucero, MSc, PMP, PMI Fellow
Originally published as a part of 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Marseilles - France