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Don’t Be a Project Manager Bull in a China Shop

career project management Sep 21, 2022
Don’t Be a Project Manager Bull in a China Shop

The expression “a bull in a china shop” is a metaphor for someone who breaks things, makes mistakes, or causes damage in situations that require careful thinking or behavior. Imagine a bull sauntering down the row of a china shop: he barely fits into the aisle, and with every step plates and dishes crash to the floor. Oblivious to the destruction left in his wake, he looks around to see what all the commotion is about, and as he does so, his swinging head takes out another row of china. Priceless, irreparable damage in the span of minutes. 

The last thing you want to do is cause irreparable harm to your projects and teams by doing and saying the wrong things, and worse yet, not even being aware of it. Having emotional intelligence prevents such a disastrous outcome. 

What is Emotional Intelligence? 

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. The term came to prominence in the 1990s by psychologist and author Daniel Goleman in his book, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ.”  

IQ (intelligence quotient) corresponds to the usage of the brain and its skills. On the other hand, EQ (emotional quotient) is being aware of one’s own feelings along with the feelings of others and then shaping how people react and engage with one another. It’s been said that IQ gets you through school, and EQ gets you through life. 

Emotional Intelligence helps you persevere during challenging times, build effective relationships, know how to respond to the snarky email you just received about your project, and most importantly, achieve real business results. 

The Five Components of Emotional Intelligence 

There are five components of Emotional Intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, internal motivation, and social skills. We’ll discuss each one below and provide an example of how each one can be applied in a project management role. 


What It Is

Self-awareness is the ability to be aware of how your emotions and actions impact others around you, for better or worse. This means that you must first be aware of what emotions you are feeling, be able to name them, and understand why you are feeling a certain way. Self-awareness also means that you know your strengths, weaknesses, and limitations, and what triggers will set you off. 

How to Apply 

Someone on your project team missed a deliverable date. As recently as two days prior, they said they were on track and would have no problem finishing by the end of the week. They didn’t, and that puts you in a bad spot. One thing that causes you to lose your cool (a trigger) is receiving, at best, bad information, and at worst, an outright lie! When the frustration and anger wells up inside, you decide to take a walk and cool down before talking to that person. 


What It Is 

Self-regulation is, at its core, the ability to count to 10. This means controlling initial impulses so that your emotional reaction is commensurate with the circumstances. It means that you think before you act and consider the consequences. Additionally, it allows you to tap into strengths and skills that can help resolve a problematic situation. 

How to Apply 

It’s the end of the day and you receive an email from a colleague blaming you for something that went wrong on their project. Worse yet, they cc’d your boss and your boss’s boss!  You had nothing to do with it, and actually, know that their mistake caused the problem! Your initial impulse is to fire off a blistering email that calls them out for the idiot that they are and puts them in their place. You start pounding on the keyboard, and copy their boss and their boss’s boss for good measure. Self-regulation kicks in and you decide to wait until the morning to respond. Morning comes and you decide to call them instead and talk about the email. It was a misunderstanding, and it is quickly followed up by an apologetic response from your colleague.  


What It Is 

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. While you may not have gone through exactly what they are going through, you can extrapolate from your own experiences how this would affect you and your performance if you were in a similar situation. And, it could also help you understand what type of response you wosuld appreciate. 

How to Apply 

One of the better performers on your team tells you they just received a message that their mother is in the hospital and that test results aren’t good. They’ll need to take off a couple of weeks to be with her while they work through details and figure out next steps. The timing couldn’t be worse as your project is entering a critical phase that relies on their skills. But, you know what you would appreciate if you were facing similar circumstances. You give them the time off, move resources and schedules around, and let them tend to the critical life-event they are facing. 

Internal Motivation 

What It Is 

Internal motivation is described as a fire that burns within and motivates you to be better and improve, regardless of what is happening on the outside. You are driven by a desire to grow, more so than titles, money, or fame. The people that heap titles, money, or fame on you are the same ones that can take it away. But, if you keep your own fire burning, you’ll be able to achieve success anytime, anywhere. 

How to Apply 

Your new manager doesn’t like you as much as your previous manager. They constantly nitpick about the smallest of things, many which are just a matter of personal preference. You perform well in the organization, have years of stellar performance reviews, and a great reputation. It seems as though this person just likes raining on your parade. It’s okay. You know when you’ve done a good job and when you haven’t. You stay motivated through this season of having a bad manager, knowing that brighter times are just around the corner. 

Social Skills 

What It Is 

We start learning social skills in Kindergarten, such as how to play well with others. By adulthood, it means you are able to work in teams, understand other people’s needs, listen attentively, and have all the other skills necessary for strong relationship-building and conflict management. See Six Soft Skills Every Project Manager Must Possess for examples of what this includes. 

How to Apply 

You are leading a discussion with your team about the next best steps forward for the project you are managing. One of the team members has not said a word through the entire meeting. They have been overpowered by their more vocal, yet less-experienced counterparts. You recognize that they have not had a chance to contribute and know their input will be valuable. You look for the first opportunity to open the floor to them and make sure they have a chance to speak their mind. 

Emotional Intelligence is a life-long pursuit that will pay off handsomely in your career as a project manager. Think about how much damage to relationships can be avoided by applying these principles. Plus, you won’t have to pay for all that broken, fine china! 



How to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence 

Try these three steps the next time you feel your temperature rise, or a situation with a colleague gets heated. 

  1. Tune Into Your Self-Awareness - Identify the emotions you are feeling at the time and why they are emerging. Did someone say something that pushed your buttons or hit you the wrong way? Is this person the reason for your frustration or are they just the straw that broke the camel’s back? Step out of the situation and look at it objectively. 
  2. Self-Regulate Your Response - Understand there is a gap between Action and Reaction. This person may have taken an Action that you deemed inappropriate. Are you going to provide a Reaction that is just as inappropriate and make the situation worse? Count to 10 (or much longer) before you say or write anything. Use the gap between Action and Reaction to choose your response. 
  3. Be Empathetic - Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. They may be just as frustrated as you or may just want to be heard. Take some time to listen to the person and see where they are coming from. You’ll undoubtedly find a lot more in common with them than you think and will come to a peaceful and equitable resolution. 


Emotional Intelligence 

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. It consists of five components: self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, self-motivation, and social skills. 

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