The resonant project manager

Carla Fair-Wright, MCTS, CSQE, PMP

IT Project Manager, Chevron

In this article, we take a journey through one of the most challenging aspects of project management. As project managers, we are taught to focus on scope, schedule, and budget. However, studies have shown the main reasons for project failure are almost never purely technical. When we dig deeper into the common sources of project failure, we rarely find a shortfall in technical expertise, but rather a shortcoming in the project leadership's interpersonal, communication, and self-management behaviors.

Leadership is the key to project success, and the path to effective and sustainable leadership is through resonance. Resonance can be defined as the transfer of a positive emotional state from one person to another. Dissonance is the transference of a negative state. Cognitive research has shown that positive emotions increase productivity and boost the immune system. They generate more creative thinking and improve performance.

Project Leadership

The Attributes of a Successful Project Manager

The term soft skills is a holdover from the Tayloristic approach to management that has permeated organizations for close to 100 years. In this model, only technical, easily measurable skills and IQ are valued. While technical skills and intellect are important, the research is conclusive: Emotional intelligence competencies such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management are at the heart of leadership effectiveness—and business success (McKee & Bhaduri, 2013).

Hard skills are technical and specific abilities such as organizing and managing project staff, creating and maintaining the project budgets, developing work plans and schedules, defining project scope, tracking milestones and deliverable deadlines, and addressing and handling project risks and issues. These types of skills can be taught and are easy to quantify. Soft skills are subjective and difficult to define. Soft skills are relationship-based and focus on interactions with people such as conflict resolution, communication, listening, and motivating. As project managers, we spend most of our time on communication (Project Management Institute, 2013).

Importance of Soft Skills

Soft skills can be directly related to leadership style, and individuals often have a variation of leadership styles. While some leadership characteristics are natural, we can always fine-tune them. We can learn and adjust our leadership style in other ways to achieve the project goal.

 Hard Skills  Soft Skills
  • Project planning, budget. Metrics
  • Managing timelines, variance analysis
  • Managing project issues, critical path
  • Evaluation, risk management
  • Insight
  • Influence
  • Organization
  • Empathy
  • Communication

Project Landscape

Why Projects Fail

Projects fail for a number of reasons. Technical factors, human factors, or a combination of both can cause a project to fail.


Exhibit 1: Major causes of project failure (IT Cortex, 2008).

Project Challenges

Project failure can also be a result of unmanaged critical dependencies. The skill to identify dependencies in a complex, dynamic environment is learned through experience. The experienced project manager is able to manage the dependencies that can be identified, and is also able to respond quickly to dependencies that suddenly appear.

Project leadership often operates in an adversarial environment. Strategic projects typically have multiple stakeholders in various organizational levels. Whenever key stakeholders have strong interests, it is expected that the project manager will address their concerns—even over the concerns of other stakeholders. This leads to vague, incomplete, or conflicting expectations.

Sometimes the project team is not adequately able to deliver the needed tasks. This can be a result of poor selection, or the project team may not possess the knowledge and education necessary to successfully bring the project to completion.

These project challenges can be difficult to resolve. Often, the project manager is afraid of having “difficult” conversations about behaviors not aligned with the purpose and goals of the project. These conversations require certain soft skills:

  • Influencing without authority
  • Uncovering and resolving conflicts
  • Stakeholder management with a style that builds commitment

Business Case for Resonance

Dissonant leaders tend to operate more on the authoritative side of leadership. Despite intuitively knowing that good interpersonal skills, and treating project team members with dignity and respect, are the best ways to achieve results, the pressure of delivering the project on time and on budget compels many project managers to adopt an authoritarian style of leading.

The intention of a dissonant leader is often to remain objective and logical in decision making, but this approach is commonly viewed as uncaring and cold. Maintaining a distance emotionally from the project team can be beneficial when orders must be delivered and executed urgently. The price for the leader's social and emotional separation is frustration, stress, burnout, and project team disengagement.

The resonant project manager develops a sense of purpose by pursuing goals that align with his or her personal values and advance the collective good (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002). Resonant leadership supports higher team productivity, leading to greater profitability and sustainability for the business. Resonance flows from our ability to use our own minds and bodies to master skills of self-awareness, awareness of others, empathy, and emotional intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to monitor one's own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one's thinking and actions. One for Wellness Consulting is a company specializing in emotional intelligence training owned and operated by Sue Andreychuk. According to Andreychuk, emotional intelligence accounts for 70% of all career achievements. The other 30% is a result of cognitive ability. Emotional intelligence includes 15 core competencies, six of which are significantly relevant to project managers:

  • Problem solving: The ability to identify and define problems and generate and implement potentially effective solutions
  • Empathy: The ability to understand others’ viewpoints and be a team player
  • Assertiveness: Being able to express feelings, beliefs, and thoughts and defend one's rights in a non-destructive way
  • Impulse control: The ability to resist or deny an impulse, drive, or temptation to act
  • Interpersonal relationships: Being able to establish mutually satisfying relationships to help build effective communication throughout a workplace
  • Stress tolerance: The ability to withstand adverse events and stressful situations without falling apart

True leaders use their emotional intelligence actively to “inspire, listen and offer constructive feedback,” she says (Andreychuk, 2011).

What Is Stress?

Project management is inherently stressful due to the nature of matrix management, complex problem solving, project unpredictability, and trends such as virtual teams and the implicit expectation of a 24/7 work cycle. Stress is an uncomfortable feeling; it occurs when one starts to experience fear, anxiety, or apprehension because of a perceived threat. But stress is not bad. In fact, increasing stress can actual increase performance. The onset of stress entices the brain into growing new cells responsible for improved memory.

One finding with respect to stress is the Yerkes-Dodson law (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908). It predicts an inverted U-shaped function between performance and burnout. In Exhibit 2, we see maximum performance results are reached when individuals are stressed to an optimum level. It is when we go beyond this level that stress becomes problematic and addressing it is necessary to reduce the consequences such as poor decision making, “task shedding” (the dropping of key tasks), and reduced attention span, as well as emotional behavior such as withdrawing from the project team. It is long-term exposure to stress that causes a response identified by Hans Selye in 1950 as general adaptation syndrome (GAS).


Exhibit 2: Yerkes–Dodson human performance curve under stress.

Selye found that we cope with stress in three distinct phases:

  • Phase 1: The alarm phase, where our body reacts to the stressor.
  • Phase 2: The resistance phase, where we adapt to, and cope with, the stressor. If the stress continues, the body's resistance will gradually break down and our physical and emotional resources become depleted.
  • Phase 3: Eventually, we begin to feel “worn down” and can no longer function normally. This is the exhaustion phase.

Stress increases the electrical activity in the right prefrontal cortex and releases hormones that activate the fight-or-flight response (Selye, 1973). As a result of this chronic cycle of stress, we become increasingly disheartened. We may act in unhealthy ways. In the case of the project manager, a common behavior is to drive his or her team too hard. As result, the project team responds with fear, frustration, and lack of trust. Some project managers may be not be aware of the change in their relationship with the project team, while others burn out and quit.

Leadership Stress

Leadership is stressful, and researchers have clearly articulated the impact of stress on the human body. According to statistics on, project management and executive management are among the most stressful jobs (2014). That is because of another type of stress called power stress. Power stress is caused by the emotional demand of influencing others and the increased responsibility of the position (McClelland, 1982).

Power stress is part of the experience that results from the exercise of influence and the sense of responsibility felt in leadership positions. In addition, leadership effectiveness requires the regular exercise of self-control: placing the good of the organization above personal impulses and needs. Whether or not influence is exercised at the same time, the exercise of self-control in itself is stressful.

According to Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, authors of Resonant Leadership, the “sacrifice syndrome” can occur over time because of a number of factors, including pressure to get results, heavy responsibilities, the perpetual need to influence people, and loneliness (2005).

Here are some behaviors that might be warning signs for slipping into the sacrifice syndrome:

  • Working harder with fewer results
  • Getting home later and leaving earlier
  • Feeling tired even after sleeping
  • Drinking excessive amounts of coffee
  • Rarely talking about problems with significant other
  • Not caring about eating habits
  • Never enjoying quiet time
  • Little exercising, smiling, or laughing
  • Feeling numb or reacting to situations with inappropriately strong emotions
  • Thinking about ways to escape
  • Finding no time for hobbies
  • Rarely relaxing or only with alcohol
  • Rarely having long conversations with a trusted friend

When project managers face power stress over a prolonged period and without finding a way to address the downside, they risk becoming trapped in the sacrifice syndrome, a vicious cycle leading to mental and physical distress, and sometimes even burnout. Emotions are literally contagious, and when leaders are in the grip of the sacrifice syndrome, the dissonance they create will spread to those around them. Given the demands and pressures of leadership, it is only through balancing stress with renewal that resonant leadership can be sustained.

Managing the Cycle of Sacrifice and Renewal

Becoming Resonant

In the fast-paced business environment of today, stress is ever-present and relentless. The human body needs time to rest and assimilate the stress hormones and physiological responses. For this reason, project managers need to intentionally manage themselves to address the stress and create ways of renewing themselves.

Power stress arouses the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which initiates the classic fight-or-flight physical response. Arousal of the SNS results in increased secretion of multiple neurotransmitters including epinephrine and norepinephrine, which are associated with activation of the body through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic-adrenal-medullary axis. Individuals experience an increase in systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Blood flow is redirected to the large muscle groups (Boenisch & Haney, 2004).

Renewal occurs as different parts of the limbic brain are activated to offset those parts aroused under stress. Activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) increases; activity in the SNS subsides. The PSNS activates a set of hormones that lower blood pressure and strengthen the immune system.

Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion

True renewal relies on three key concepts: mindfulness, hope, and compassion. Mindfulness is living in a state of full, conscious awareness of one's whole self and other people. Hope, the second element, allows us to believe we can obtain our vision of the future. The third element is compassion. When we experience compassion, we are able to understand another's wants and needs.


Mindfulness is the first critical step in renewal. Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment—and accepting it without judgment. By doing this, you develop the capacity to be fully aware of all you experience inside yourself. It also allows you to see signs of power stress before it happens. Mindfulness enables you to make choices about how you respond to people and situations.

Cultivating the habit of mindfulness and attending to yourself and others is a way of opening the narrow vision that comes with the sacrifice syndrome. Mindfulness can help you understand your emotions and their impact on other people. In a mindful state, we ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Am I managing the stress of my current situation?
  • Am I acting in concert with my beliefs and values?
  • Am I the project leader I aspire to be?
  • How are my key team members feeling these days?

There are key questions that help you to monitor and maintain your inner balance and values, and tune in to subtle messages from the people you lead. By practicing mindfulness, you establish trust and build an environment of proactive feedback and authentic relationships.

Part of managing the cycle of sacrifice and renewal is being able to articulate and believe in a hopeful, yet realistic vision of the future. Such an optimistic outlook, coupled with belief that we can, indeed, impact our environment and seek our goals, is a powerful driver of renewal.


“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.” –Thich Nhat Hanh

Hope, like other positive emotions, activates the neuro circuit and has a positive impact on our brains and hormones. Having hope affects our perceptions of the events around us and can prime other positive emotions and thoughts in ourselves and others. Better problem-solving abilities have been found in people who are hopeful when compared with low-hope peers, and those who are hopeful have a tendency to be cognitively flexible and able to mentally explore novel situations (Breznitz, 1986).

Having hope is to imagine a positive outcome. This attitude of hope is contagious: Project managers who believe in the future will inspire their teams to do the same, thus creating a resonant environment. This is especially important in times of crisis. The way in which a hopeful person handles disappointment differs from the way of those who are not. Even if the present is unpleasant, the thought of a positive future can be stress-buffering and can reduce the impact of negative events or disappointment.

Mindfulness and hope are two of the three methods to engage physiological and psychological renewal. The third element of renewal is compassion. Boyatzis and McKee (2005) claim compassion “involves caring, curiosity, respect and real empathy” toward others, which is echoed by the Dalai Lama, who defines it as “a mental attitude, associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility and respect” (Bstan-’dzin-rgya-mtsho & Cutler, 1998).


Most project managers have been conditioned to put the project first—to lead with their heads, not their hearts. The popular perception of a strong project manager is someone who's objective, tough, strong, decisive, and results-driven: “The reality is powerful leaders, amongst their other traits, have the conviction, confidence and courage to cultivate connectivity and compassion,” says Bill Cropper, the director of The Change Forum (Cropper, 2009). As project managers, we have to understand the needs and dreams of those around us. We should also respect them and their perception of reality.

Business Case for Compassion

  • Reduces stress and improves a leader's overall effectiveness
  • Opens the gate to an array of other positive feelings like optimism and hope
  • Tunes up our empathy, which in turn promotes more constructive, connective relationships
  • Counters the physiological effects of leader stress by calming bodily reactions
  • Acts as an insulator to combat the harmful impacts of toxic emotions on body and mind
  • Is one of the keys to maintaining emotional balance and managing disruptive moods
  • Helps build up reserves of resilience—the bounce-back emotion to handle setbacks
  • Builds up well-being and has the capacity to renew or sustain the energy level of leaders

Compassion is comprised of a three-part process that includes noticing, feeling, and responding (acting). Noticing is required to become aware of another's emotional state by being open and attentive (Frost, Dutton, Maitlis, Lilius, Kanov, & Worline, 2006, p. 847). The second step is feeling. With feeling comes empathy. Empathy enables us to connect with others and understand what moves them. When we feel empathy, we take on the perspective of the suffering person. We try and see the situation through his or her eyes. Responding is the last step and involves an action toward easing other's pain or supporting.


“Globalization is not an economic event; it's a psychological phenomenon,” Drucker wrote in Managing in the Next Society (2002). The rapid growth of technology and the globalization of business strategy have created the need for a new type of project manager. This new breed of project manager understands success is more than managing resources. The qualities traditionally associated with leadership—such as intelligence, toughness, determination, and vision—once required for success, are rendered insufficient. Leaders must understand the role of emotions and how the communication of these emotions can create resonance or dissonance. Resonant project managers manage their emotions, knowing the powerful impact it can have on performance by influencing the mood of the project team and stakeholders.

Seeing ourselves as others see us and being honest with ourselves begins the path toward resonance. With mindfulness, we learn to reflect and listen to ourselves, our environment, and others. (McKee, Boyatzis, & Johnston, 2008). The emotion of hope renews our spirit and inspires others. Through compassion, we kindle physiological and psychological renewal and create lasting personal bonds and meaningful relationships.

The journey to renewal is available to any project manager willing to embark upon it. But personal change of this order is not easy. Many people respond to the pressure inherent in leadership by working harder and doing more of the same. The real solution lies in renewal, which is a function of our individual capacity for mindfulness, hope, and compassion.


Andreychuk, S. (2011). True leaders make major use of their ‘emotional intelligence’. [PDF Document]. Retrieved from

Boenisch, E., & Haney, C. M. (2004). The stress owner's manual. San Luis Obispo, CA: Impact Publishers.

Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2005). Resonant leadership: Renewing yourself and connecting with others through mindfulness, hope and compassion. Boston: HBR Press.

Breznitz, S. (1986). The effect of hope on coping with stress. In M. H. Appley & R. Trumbull (Eds.), Dynamics of stress: Physiological, psychological, and social perspectives (pp. 295–306). New York: Plenum Press.

Cropper, B. (2009). Compassionate leadership: The change forum. [Word Document]. Retrieved from

Bstan-’dzin-rgya-mtsho, & Cutler H. (1998). The art of happiness: A handbook for living. New York: Riverhead.

Frost, P., Dutton, J., Maitlis, S., Lilius, J., Kanov, J., & Worline, M. (2006). Seeing organizations differently: Three lenses on compassion. In S. R. Clegg, C. Hardy, T. B. Lawrence, & W. R. Nord (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Organization Studies (2nd ed.) (pp. 843–866). Thousand Oaks, CA.

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2002). Primal leadership: Realizing the power of emotional intelligence. Boston, MA: HBR Press.

IT Cortex. (2008, April 1). Major causes of project failure. Retrieved from

McClelland, D. C. (1982). The need for power, sympathetic activation, and illness. Motivation and Emotion, 6, 31–41.

McKee, A., & Bhaduri, A. (2013). Resonant leadership for results. Retrieved from

McKee, A., Boyatzis, R., & Johnston, F. (2008). Becoming a resonant leader: Develop your emotional intelligence, renew your relationships, sustain your effectiveness. Boston: HBR Press.

Project Management Institute. (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author. (2014). Most stressful jobs. Retrieved from

Selye, H. (1973). The evolution of the stress concept: The originator of the concept traces its development from the discovery in 1936 of the alarm reaction to modern therapeutic applications of syntoxic and catatoxic hormones. American Scientist, 61(6), 692–699.

Yerkes, R. M. & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459-482.

© 2015, Carla Fair-Wright
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – London, UK



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