Avoiding Road Rage: Ensuring a Smooth Project Ride

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Author: Tracy Contrino, Director of Project Management, Ingenuiti

One recent unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon, I was running errands alongside two-thirds of the American populace.  Having finished the current errand, I reached for the seat belt, confirmed I heard the familiar “click”, and was off to complete my final run for the day.  Truthfully,  I was tired and moderately cranky, due to the fact that this gorgeous day was lost to me as I drove from one corporate megastore to the next.

Traffic is more congested than normal for a weekend, again, probably due to the lovely weather.   I approach a highway requiring me to use an onramp with no merge, and after what seems like an eternity, I see an opportunity.  Accelerating, I pulled into the lane when a vehicle suddenly approached at high speed forcing me to make a split-second decision- floor it or move to the shoulder.  My anger grew (did I mention that I was already in a poor mood?).  I decided to floor it. My SUV used all its muscle to pull through and into the lane, requiring, I’d imagine, the speedy dude to slam on his brakes. He tailed me at a dangerously close distance, clearly intentional.  This continued for a good minute until finally he pulled into the faster lane, sped off, and mouthed obscenities through his window as he passed.   

Ahhh, good ol’ road rage.  It’s so common, and although it most often ends without incident, it can and does escalate. When we’re in this situation, sometimes it’s difficult to think clearly and it’s certainly easy to make bad decisions. And oddly enough, after my nerves settled, my mind wandered to work.  I was reminded of a particularly challenging project and client that’s caused me some heartburn as of late.  The similarities between this road rage incident and my project issues were, well, astounding.  With that another article idea was born:  applying strategies for successful conflict resolution to both road rage and project management. 

Stay Calm: Did that driver just flip me off?

Our clients are the most important thing in our business, but yes, clients may be irrational, demanding, and unwilling to negotiate. When someone seems unreasonable, keeping your thoughts calm is the first line of defense, and avoid putting your mind into a flight or fight response.  Take deep breaths, relax your muscles, and remind yourself that getting angry won’t solve anything. In fact, getting angry with your clients makes you look bad. 

Project managers are often the face of the company so it’s your job to ensure client success.  Does that mean escalation isn’t an option? Of course, it is, but ensure that you’ve done what you can to remain focused and offer concrete solutions to the clients. Make sure you have meticulous documentation.  Do your best to keep the project moving despite tensions.  The only thing you can control is your actions- whether behind the computer or behind the wheel, a steadfast manner wins every time. 

Plan Ahead: Don’t aggressively speed, change lanes, or flash your high beams

Road rage is more easily incited if you’re rushed, anxious, or angry.  It’s not always possible to leave for your destination early but certainly try to allow for extra time to account for unforeseen problems such as traffic, construction, or weather.   

Project managers are familiar with rushing and more often than not, when our clients ask for urgency, they back off once they realize that they too need to act with urgency.   Although project managers may breathe a sigh of relief in such situations, the effort required to book resources in preparation for a rushed project, which later fizzles to a more standard schedule, is also stressful.  

Planning is the definition of project management and a PM’s golden ticket is building a solid schedule.  It goes without saying (but I’m saying it) that a schedule gauges risk upfront and protects the PM should things get really ugly. Sometimes a well-designed schedule will encourage clients to add the additional time back in, helping you avoid the dance of perceived urgency altogether.  Keeping your clients educated, informed, and updated when projects are high-risk makes all the difference.  

Emotional Intelligence: Get this driver off my tail!

Successful project managers exhibit high emotional intelligence, can better control their emotions, and know how to empathize with others.  When we have challenging clients, it’s incumbent on a PM to focus on the big picture- your project’s success.   It’s easy to make a client’s cranky disposition personal.  Don’t.  You can not control, and likely have zero knowledge of, the day-to-day activities of your clients.  Do your best to listen, be objective, be empathetic, and don’t let someone else’s bad day get to you.  

Also, PMs who exhibit high emotional intelligence are more successful communicators during stressful, awkward, or challenging project situations.  We all know that clear communication with your clients is paramount. The messier the project, the better the communication skills need to be.  Communicating frequently and consistently will go a long way during a rough project because it will not only act as your record, but the client will undoubtedly appreciate it, even if the appreciation goes unstated.  

Whether driving a project via a Teams meeting or driving your vehicle home, control what you can control: remain calm, be courteous, and don’t inflame the situation by getting angry.   

Leadership: Oh? You wanna race…?!?

Every project manager is a leader. Effective leadership motivates team members, sets a positive tone, and fosters collaboration. In stressful situations, it’s critical to maintain a leadership style that keeps everyone motivated. Showing genuine appreciation for team efforts keeps morale high. Plus your team looks to you for direction.  Maintaining a professional level of courteous interactions when engaging with testy clients fosters respect from your team members and reduces tensions when stress is elevated.  

Believe it or not, the client looks to you as a leader too.  Bringing stability and calm to challenging situations helps reduce possibilities for poor communication.  There are always situations where a client’s outburst can’t be avoided, but as already mentioned, if you’ve planned well, stayed calm, and used thoughtful and empathetic language, your leadership will shine through.

Steering the project toward success: Anticipate the actions of other drivers

As project managers, we’ve all had our road rage-like projects.  It’s part of the job and it’s inevitable.  Although the experience can be exhausting and overwhelming, you play a big part in how the project will ultimately be fair.  Plan ahead and plan well, stay informed, remain calm when tense situations arise (use that emotional intelligence!), be mindful that a client’s bad day is likely not about you, and finally, focus on the task at hand and the overall success of your project:  That’s all you can control and that’s what’s expected of you.