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Stress and Coping: a Study of Project Managers in a Large Ict Organization

January 2, 2007

By Richmond, Arin; Skitmore, Martin

ABSTRACT

Information technology (IT) project managers face a multitude of stressors in their workplaces. This has implications not only for the individual practitioners but also for their employers and society. Exactly what stressors are faced by IT project managers and how they cope with them has received little attention in the literature. In addressing this situation, this paper reports on an exploratory study aimed at identifying the sources of stress, coping strategies, and outcomes that are relevant to IT project managers in a large Queensland-based ICT organization. A critical incident analysis method was used involving interviews with a sample of 12 project managers, resulting in the identification of 50 stressor, coping, and outcome incident chains. These were then coded into categories for frequency analysis.

Keywords: stress; stressors; coping; outcomes; information technology

2006 by the Project Management Institute

Vol. 37, No. 5, 5-16, ISSN 8756-9728/03

Introduction

Rapid technological change combined with increasing market pressures has resulted in project management becoming an essential pan of the general management strategies of many businesses today (Kerzner, 2003). The information technology (IT) industry is no exception in this respect, with an increasing employment of project managers in recent years (Calisir & Gumussoy, 2005). Although general management is a high stress occupation (Haynes & Love, 2004), the level of stressors experienced by project managers is known to be even higher due to the conflicting demands of completing a project on time, within budget, to quality, and satisfying stakeholders (Haynes & Love).

This results in several costs. One is the cost to the organization, both in terms of employee turnover and job satisfaction (Thong & Yap, 2000). Another is the legal implication for employers following the successful litigation of employers both in the United States and the United Kingdom (Howard, 1995). Turnover is also of particular concern within the IT industry, which has higher than average levels, resulting in increasing recruitment and training budgets, as well as lowering the morale of remaining employees (Lim & Teo, 1999).

Stress has become a topic of academic interest since the 19th century when it was considered a basis for ill health (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Selye (1976) used the term stress to describe physiological changes induced by environmental demands. The study of occupational stress has been pursued within a number of occupations, including teaching (Guglielmi & Tatrow, 1998), policing (Storch & Panzarella, 1996), and managing (Broadbridge, 2002). Relatively few studies have been conducted with project managers (Gallstedt, 2003; Haynes & Love, 2004; Lysonski, Nilakant, & Wilemon, 1989), and of these only Gallstedt focused on IT project managers. The extent to which Gallstedt’s findings apply outside the sample studies is not known.

This paper reports on research aimed at validating and extending Gallstedt’s work by identifying the sources of stress, coping strategies, and outcomes that are relevant to IT project managers in Australia’s South East. In particular the following question was addressed “What are the stressors faced by IT project managers, how do they cope with them, and how effective is their coping?” Using critical incident analysis, exploratory interviews were conducted with 12 project managers resulting in the collection of 50 stressor, coping, and outcome incident chains. Although preliminary, the results suggest that the stressors faced by IT project managers are similar to those faced by other managers hut with resource control appearing to be more salient than in previous studies. The most effective coping strategies were found to be problem-solving, planning, and social support with university graduates being more likely to use problem-solving and planning strategies.

Stress and IT Project Management

Stress and coping is becoming increasingly relevant in the cut rent global marketplace. There are huge costs associated with occupational stress, both for the employee and for employer (Howard, 1995; Thong & Yap, 2000). It can be seen then, that the study of occupational stress is justified, not only from an academic perspective, but also for the implications it has for occupational practice.

However, defining stress is not as easy as one might believe. Researchers have proposed a number of models and theoretical frameworks of the stress process, including the person-environment fit (Edwards, 1996; Edwards & Rothbard, 1999), demand-control (Karasek, 1979), and cognitive appraisal (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Cognitive appraisal has advantages over other frameworks in its ability to explain stress and coping in many different contexts and acknowledging the importance of individual differences and other moderating variables.

Forty stressors for managers were identified by Cooper and Marshall (1978) and this research was extended by Broadbridge (2002). The stressors expected to be experienced by project managers include new technology, boundary spanning, role conflict, workload, and uncertainty. These are drawn mainly from research on project managers (Haynes & Eove, 2004; Eysonski et al., 1989) although some extrapolation of results from other industries is needed due to the lack of research in the occupational stress field in the project management discipline (1 laynes & Love; Lysonski et al.). The literature on coping suggests that there are two main categories of coping responses: problem-focused and emotion-focused (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Evaluating the effectiveness of these types of coping responses has provided mixed results, with some researchers arguing that problem-focused coping is more appropriate for project managers (I laynes & Love).

In the solitary study of IT project managers stress to date, Gallstedt (2003) applied an exploratory, qualitative approach, interviewing project managers and participants from the IT consulting and telecommunication industries. This enabled her to identify two broad categories of incidents impacting on perception of working conditions on projects-resource allocation problems and priority problems. The level of stressors was also found to vary over the project life cycle and between project managers and project team members, with project managers experiencing the greatest number of stressors in the beginning and end of projects, and team members finding the execution phase most stressful. An example of the high levels of stressors was the pressure felt by project team members in the design phase before the goals of the project were clearly defined. In addition, uncertainty was identified as a source of pressure leading to long working hours. For coping responses, risk management was a strategy used in many companies. Project managers would also respond to stressors by sharing their concerns with co- workers-a social form of emotion-focused coping that may be related to a construct studied in some stress research referred to as social support.

Methodology

Background

Occupational stress is typically studied through the use of questionnaires containing lists of stressors, determined a priori by the researcher. These questionnaires commonly also contain measures of affective states, psychological or physical health, or other outcome variables such as job satisfaction. However, there are several potential problems with this research design:

* It may suffer from the influence of common method variance (Tennant, 2001; Tuten & Neidermeyer, 2004).

* It does not allow subjects to report those stressors that may fall outside of the predetermined categories (e.g., Tuten & Neidermeyer, 2004; Jackson & Schuler, 1987; O’Driscoll & Cooper, 1994; Wetzels, de Ruyter, & Bloemer, 2000).

* The self-report measures may be confounded with personality (Greiner, Krause, Ragland, & Fisher, 2004; Spector, 1992).

Qualitative methods, on the other hand, such as interviews, allow a more sophisticated understanding to be developed (Briner, 1997). Coping strategies, for example, are situationally dependent, with different responses being elicited in different contexts (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), and therefore, it is likely to be more fruitful to study this within the context of a particular encounter, rather than asking subjects to list their ways of coping with generic stressors. Qualitative interviews also allow the participant to relate particular stressors to situations rather than having to select stressors from a global list without any contextual information.

In view of the small amount of research on IT project management stress, the problems inherent with a priori stressor, coping and outcome categories, and the context dependency of the stress process, it was therefore decided to use a qualitative interview method. O’Driscoll and Cooper (1994) proposed a method for studying stress and coping utilizing a critical incident approach conducted by structured interviews. This method aims to improve the ecological validity of responses as well as provide links between stressors and coping responses (O’Driscoll & Cooper), and forms the basis for the method utilized in the current study.

Procedure

Twelve staff members of a large ICT organization based in Queensland, Australia, were interviewed from a potential pool of 22. This represents a 55% resp\onse rate to the invitations for interview. All subjects had current or very recent experience as project managers within the organization. The sample consisted of seven male and five female participants. There was a slight bias toward subjects being male; however, due to the small sample size the bias is exaggerated.

To minimize possible bias from fear of repercussions, participants were assured that all responses would be anonymous and any names of people or projects would be changed to protect their anonymity. The subjects were also informed that they may withdraw from the study at any time.

The interview.was conducted in three parts: the stressors, coping behaviors, and outcomes of the stressor-coping behavior interaction:

1. To generate responses about stressors the subject was asked to respond to the following: “Please recall an incident, in your work as a project manager that placed demands on you or caused you problems or difficulties. Please describe the incident.”

2. To ascertain the specific behavioral responses to the stressor, the subject was then asked to describe what they did in response to the situation or incident that they had described. The subjects were also asked about the behaviors of those around them, in order to elicit information about the coping resources available to them.

3. Outcomes of the stressor-coping behaviors were obtained by asking the subject to describe the consequences of their behavior. In line with O’Driscoll and Cooper’s (1994) suggestion, both a description and evaluation of the effectiveness of the coping behavior was obtained to allow the separation of behavioral consequences and evaluative assessment, avoiding confounding of the two related concepts.

This process was repeated with the goal of obtaining at least three complete stressor-coping-outcomes examples from each subject and resulted in 50 stressful incidents, their corresponding coping strategies, and outcomes. These were then coded into themes describing the stressors or coping mechanisms, respectively, while outcomes were coded into categories describing the effectiveness of the coping strategy in reducing strain as judged by participants. The outcome categories consisted of positive, neutral, and negative categories.

Data analysis was then conducted in two stages, each making use of a different epistemological research paradigm. The first stage involved utilizing content analysis to code the responses into categories developed from earlier studies to avoid coding bias. This approach falls within the interpretive paradigm as opposed to the more empiricoanalytical approach taken in the next stage, which utilizes the more positivist technique of frequency analysis (Byrne- Armstrong, Higgs, & Horsfall, 2001). This allowed the frequency of links between particular stressors and coping responses to be analyzed, as well as those between coping responses and outcomes (O’Driscoll & Cooper, 1994).

Results

Demographics

With seven males and five females, there was clearly a slight bias toward subjects being male; however, due to the small sample size the bias is exaggerated.

The subjects interviewed were evenly spread across the age ranges of 26 to 55, with three subjects in each age group of 26-35, 36-45, and 46-55. However, no subjects were younger than 26 nor were any 56 or older. In the case of the lack of younger participants this may indicate that project management requires some experience in the workforce. Although in the case of the lack of older participants, this may indicate an example of the younger workforces commonly found in IT organizations.

Eight subjects had attained an undergraduate degree or higher qualification, with four of these obtaining postgraduate qualifications. Of the remaining four subjects, two had completed a TAPE or trade certificate, and two had completed their studies at high-school level.

Individual Stressors and Coping Strategies

As a result of performing a content analysis of the interview notes and transcripts, 15 categories of stressors and 15 coping strategies were identified. These are discussed and explained in detail in Appendix A with examples given from the interviews.

Table 1 summarizes the frequency of stressors raised and the relationship with their corresponding coping strategies. This shows that different coping strategies are used when faced with different stressors. In other words, coping is situationally specific or context dependent. The most commonly cited stressor is the lack of control over project resources, followed by having to deal with a new or unknown technology and high workload, the conflicting needs of the project manager and third panics, and the weight of responsibility.

In terms of coping strategies, social support is used for a wide range of stressors. There is also an increased use of social support when faced with a new or unknown technology. Communication is most often used to cope with a lack of control over project resources, while engaging additional resources is also used to cope with this situation in addition to high workload, high level of responsibility, and unreasonable deadlines. Emotional avoidance, or trying not to think about the problem, was most common when project managers felt the weight of responsibility upon them, lacked control of resources, and when the workload was high. Problem-solving was used to cope with new and uncertain technology as well as difficulties with delegated work.

When broken down by gender, age groups, and education, the results are quite similar for most stressors, although work overload was mentioned by all five female project managers in contrast with only one of the seven male project managers. Uncertainty was also mentioned by two of the five female project managers but by none of the males, although this may be an age effect, as the two female project managers were both in the 46 to 55 year-old category. Delegation and interpersonal conflict, on the other hand, were mentioned by two of the seven male project managers and by none of the female project managers.

Table 1: Stressors faced and the frequency of use of different coping strategies per stressor

Table 2 shows the frequency of the coping strategies in association with the different outcomes, indicating social support to be the most frequent strategy employed. The outcomes for social support are also mostly positive. Other coping strategies associated with more positive than negative outcomes are adding resources, problem-solving, and planning. Those associated with mixed results are communication, avoidance, work increase, and exercise.

It was noted that only one of the five female subjects, in contrast with four of the seven male subjects, use problemsolving as a coping strategy. Also, the university-educated subjects employed problem-solving and planning strategies more often the than high- school or TAFE-educated subjects.

Other Results

An additional finding was the feeling of some project managers that stress was to be expected: “The longer I do projects the more I find that these issues will pop up, and you really stress about them and they seem to be all consuming, but if you don’t worry about them and still do the work towards getting them done they seem to blow over. It’s a bit like being on the ocean and having various storm cells coming over you. You do get to the eye of the storm and then you get to the other side and you’re in a calm spot.”

Two of the project managers interviewed also mentioned that the pressure they felt varied across the project life cycle, with the most demanding times being at the beginning and end of projects. This result also corresponds with Gallstedt’s (2003) previous study.

Discussion

Demographic Differences in Stressors

Many of the 15 stressor categories correspond with the findings from the general stress literature. One major difference, however, is that of control of resources-the most frequently reported stressor in the study and yet not featured at all in the literature.

Table 2: Coping strategies used and their frequency of outcomes per stressor

In addition, this aspect points to a characteristic peculiar to the project management occupation and is most likely attributable to what has been termed the boundaiy-spannins role of the project manager (Lysonski et al., 1989). All the interviewees have responsibility for staff across organizational boundaries but lacked the necessary authority within the different organizational domains to exercise effective control-giving rise to frustration due to an inability to issue instructions and see them carried out. Boundary spanning may also be the reason for conflicting needs being one of the more prominent stressor categories as it leaves them vulnerable to conflicts between demands placed on them from different sources- as evidenced by reported conflicts between requests for information and conflicts in the expectations of participants.

The results that are consistent with the literature include work overload and time pressures (Haynes & Love, 2004; Leung, Ng, Skitmore, & Cheung, 2005). This is not a surprise as project management is well known for such pressures. Of course, the two are interrelated, as time pressures are likely to be a major cause of work overload. Further research utilizing longitudinal designs should provide future insights into this aspect.

Although from only a very small sample, the gender differences are also consistent with Lim and Teo (1999) who found significant differences in stress scores for men and women on a number of dimensions, including work demands, attributing feelings of guilt about the neglect of families caused by work overload to the increased stress of the women. Likewise, the possibility that uncertainty is more stressful for women project managers may be explained by the Lim and Teo’s assertion that women are more likely than men to appraise uncertain events less confidently.This effect may be amplified by the male-dominated nature of the IT industry and Lim and Teo’s further finding that women were more likely than their male counterparts to fear falling behind technologically.

New or unknown technology was raised seven times as a stressor and corresponds with Sachdeva and Namburi’s (1993) views concerning project managers and Broadbridge’s (2002) findings with retail managers on its importance. However, both of these cases were concerned with the effect of technology on people, while the current study was concerned with the understanding of the technology. As one project manager stated “We had never sold that product before. We didn’t have the infrastructure in place. We didn’t know the technology.” This difference in findings may be due to the difference in occupations of those involved, with the involvement with technology being much greater for IT project managers.

Also some of the project managers in charge may not have had enough experience or skills in the project management field. In the S9 Delegation section, for example, it could be argued that the project managers should have supervised the work more closely if they already noticed that their staff was not doing the work. Similarly, the coping technique of “getting the work done themselves, and the other by micro-managing in order to have the work completed” suggests likewise, as do the results in S11, S12, and S13.

Coping Strategies

As the results indicate, the project managers use a wide variety of coping mechanisms. Clearly, what may be successful for some are not necessarily successful for others. That coping strategies are also situationally specific supports Lazarus and Folkman’s (1984) similar contention. A number of mechanisms have also been proposed to explain the effects of social support. These include the direct, moderating and mediational effects models (Viswesvaran, Sanchez, & Fisher, 1999). As social support is positive in the majority of instances it supports the direct effects model, which states that social support and stressors act independently on strains (Viswesvaran et al., 1999).

On the other hand, that a less effective coping strategy, avoidance, was found to have been effective only some of the time is surprising given that llaynes and Love (2004) found avoidance coping to be significantly related to anxiety and depression. I lowever, the present study did not measure outcome variables such as depression but rather relied on subjective evaluations of effectiveness and this may have led to some bias in the results due to the tendency of people to relate positive memories in dealing with negative events (Dewhurst & Marlborough, 2003).

Problem Versus Emotion-Focused Coping

It is believed that social support and avoidance do reduce stress (Tyson, Pongruengphant, & Aggarwal, 2002), and the use of social support as an effective coping mechanism is certainly supported by several studies (Babin & Boles, 1996; Gallstedt, 2003; Swickert, Rosentreter, llittner, & Mushrush, 2002), and it may be that it is more beneficial in highly stressful situations. Haynes and Love (2004), however, believed problem-focused coping to be a more effective approach. In this study, both forms seem to exist in practice. As might be expected from project managers, such problemfocused project management skills as problem-solving and planning are also employed as stress reducers. This will involve considering the treatment of stress as a project in its own right; solving the problem of its reduction and devising plans to implement the solution. Communication, on the other hand, met with mixed results and strategies such as work increase and training tended toward negative results.

The same mixed results are found in emotion-focused forms of coping, with social support receiving positive evaluations while avoidance, exercise, and alcohol consumption were reported as having mixed effectiveness. Therefore, it does not appear that either form of coping is superior. Moreover, the mixed results suggest that the most appropriate coping strategy is again highly dependent on the individual project manager and the situational context involved.

Summary and Conclusions

Although only of a preliminary nature, the study identifies three areas for further investigation:

1. The stressors faced by project managers are similar to those reported in the literature as being faced by other managers. However, there are some differences that are attributed to the differing requirements faced by project managers as opposed to general managers.

2. Project managers utilize more problem-focused coping strategies than emotion-focused strategies. However, in terms of total instances of each strategy the comparison is more even, with the prevalence of a single emotion-focused strategy, social support.

3. Social support is the most effective coping mechanism. This is despite previous research suggesting it to be associated with high stress (Haynes & Love, 2004). Planning and problem-solving were also effective, with university graduates more likely to employ these strategies, inviting the recommendation that project managers should undertake additional formal training or self-study in project management to allow them to better cope with stressors.

Should these results turn out to be true in general, there are a number of possible implications for the practice of IT project management:

* A number of coping strategies, including planning, risk management, time management, and communication, were widely regarded as effective. It is possible that these coping strategies may be learned and their application enhanced by formal training. Typically, this would involve such project management skills as planning, communication styles, risk management, resource management, and time management.

* Training project managers about the technologies they were implementing was found to be of mixed effectiveness after the project had commenced. However, this may be of benefit for project managers prior to being assigned to the task. It may help if project managers are kept up to date with the technical advances in their areas of expertise so as not to add the burden of learning about new technology while performing the already demanding role of the project manager.

* The support networks available to a project manager appear to be critical. Project managers may benefit from having access to a network of project managers with which they can consult about issues they encounter on their projects.

* In order to relieve uncertainty, it may be beneficial for project managers to have access to project records of past projects. This can allow project managers to build upon the effort of previous projects and give them guidance on what can be considered for their own project.

* That control of resources was the most prevalent stressor for the IT project managers interviewed suggests that project managers may benefit from having clear authority over project staff. This may involve allowing project managers to take project team members on as if they were their line managers. However, this might meet with resistance in some organizations and may not be feasible in some circumstances. The culture and structure of an organization would need to be considered when making changes to lines of authority.

The exploratory nature of this study limited its scope to interviews conducted with one organization. Of course, this inherently leads to the problem of small sample sizes and limits the generalizability of its conclusions. There also some doubts about the expertise of the project managers involved. Further studies that are broader in scope are therefore required in order to improve the validity and scope of application of the findings of the current study beyond a single organization. In addition, for future research in this topic:

* Several stressors were identified not previously included in quantitative stress and coping studies. These could be used to build upon those compiled from previous literature. Quantitative research could then be used to gain access to a larger sample and provide more generalizable results, providing greater predictive power when referring to the discipline of IT project management.

* The current study aimed to group results into broad categories for comparison. A deeper analysis might provide greater insight into the stressor, coping, outcomes relationship and provide direction on appropriate avenues for further research.

* Although the current study gained insight into the effectiveness of coping strategies by having project managers make subjective evaluations, it may prove useful to compare such evaluations with more objective measures of outcomes such as job satisfaction, mental health, physical health, turnover intention, and other commonly used outcome variables. This would provide insight into the accuracy of subjective measures of effectiveness.

* A longitudinal design that measures the effectiveness of the implications for practice might be conducted. Such a study might measure the prevalence of stressors and the well being of project managers at time A, then stress management interventions or business processes might be altered and stressors and wellbeing measured again at time K in order to determine the effectiveness of such changes.

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ARIN RICHMOND, Queensland University of Technology, Australia

MARTIN SKITMORE, Queensland University of Technology, Australia

ARIN RICHMOND completed a BA at the University of Queensland in 1999 and gained a Masters degree in project management from the Queensland University of Technology. He has worked for a range of ICT service providers and consulting companies in both Brisbane and London, including work for ThruPoint, Reuters, and The Royal Bank of Scotland. He is currently consulting on a network design for Queensland Health.

MARTIN SKITMORE is a professor of construction management and economics, School of Urban Development, Queensland University of Technology, where he is currently leader of several postgraduate courses in project management. He has published widely in project management related topics, with a particular interest in procurement.

Appendix A: Individual Stressor Categories and Coping Strategies

Stressor Categories

Sl. Control of Resources

Control of resources refers to the lack of authority or control over the human resources required to complete a project. This stressor was the most frequently cited source of pressure faced by the project managers interviewed.

Most commonly this stressor was raised by those interviewed in the context of the project being made up of team members from different parts of the organization in a matrix structure. This was effective in providing skilled resources to work on projects; however the authority of the project manager over team members was often not established, and was even met with resistance. As one project manager stated, “My project involves people from groups all over the organization. They had to perform the project work along with their regular service support activities. So you’ve got management not replacing staff, two major organizational change overheads, and people are very resistant to assisting you, both the project staff and their managers. I couldn’t get resources without a lot of resistance and a big fight in some instances.”

One project manager mentioned that he or she had been asked to give orders to a team member who was their junior on the project but within the organization was senior to them. As there was no formal announcement of his or her authority on the project, he or she felt as if they had no control over this staff member.

Another project manager was given a project that was strategically important to the company, however, lacked support from general managers and the staff assigned to the project. As the project manager interviewed stated, “The target was to deliver it in three months. It’s now 13 months, due to no commitment from management or staff… The quote from my manager was ‘yu/re the PM, they’re your staff,’ but projects around here don’t work that way. I had no day-to-day authority over staff on the project. The team leaders of the staff would have them work on other jobs and not my project.”

One project manager raised a resource pressure about those outside of the organization. In this case the project was stopped due to technical difficulties and it was put upon the vendor’s developers to come up with a solution. The project manager found his or her complete lack of control over the outcome very difficult to deal with as evidenced by the following quote. “We encountered a technical problem that stopped the project for six weeks. We didn’t have a solution. The way forward was dependent highly on the vendor. I was waiting at the whim of someone else, watching the clock ticking forward and you can’t do a damn thing about it.” This resulted in them drinking heavily to cope with the pressures, which led to increased absence at work.

Coping with a lack of control of resources was handled in other ways as well. Most commonly, communication was used by project managers. This was typically in the form of discussions held with line managers and staff members on the importance of the project. Some project managers used more formal communication with their direct superiors to flag the problem and have it dealt with by senior management.

S2. New or Unknown Technology

Working with new or unknown technology was the second most prevalent stressor raised by project managers. This involved the project manager being required to manage the implementation of new technology or technology with which they were not familiar with. As one project manager stated, “I don’t have a degree in IT, I’m not a geek or a tech head, I’m a process person. That can be worrying; I mean you don’t have an in-depth technical knowledge of what you’re doing.”

In many cases project managers had to deal with a technology that had not been used within the company before. They found that this often left them inappropriately resourced or that deadlines were not estimated correctly due to the lack of understanding of \the technology within the organization. In the words of one project manager: “We had never sold that product before. We didn’t have the infrastructure in place. We didn’t know the technology. All the information we had from initiation was wrong. There were bits missing, the timeframes we’d given the client weren’t accurate, we had to reassess the hours needed for implementation. This was basically all due to the lack of knowledge of the technology being implemented.”

A number of different coping strategies were used for dealing with the demands of implementing new or unknown technology. These included social support in the form of talking to colleagues, friends, and family, as well as obtaining extra resources, such as in one case having a vendor provide staff to assist in technically challenging components, or in other cases of having the project team spend more time on learning about the technologies or obtaining extra team members to work on the project. One project manager found this challenge exciting and devoted a lot of time to learning about the technology and became a knowledge expert on the subject. However, they pointed out that this level of commitment would not be sustainable across multiple projects.

S3. Work Overload

Work overload was the next most reported stressor. It was usually associated with having to do a large amount of work in a small time frame in order to meet a milestone or complete a task. l;or example, one project manager spoke of a project that had been neglected until the project manager’s arrival: “There was a PM assigned from February to December, 1 arrived to find that it was really just a talkfest and nothing had been done. Planning risk management hadn’t even been attempted. I had to start working around the clock to get it in place.”

In other cases, work overload was caused by an increased level of reporting demanded by the program manager or project office within the organization, typically because the project had gone off track or was in trouble. The project managers interviewed understood why the reporting was necessary but felt it placed an additional burden on them when their project was already in need of greater attention. “The reporting goes from fortnightly to weekly and you have to front to every project office meeting. On top of that you have to explain all your rpons personally. The time squeeze makes it hard. It’s like you’re trying to dig yourself out of a hole, and they’re just shoveling more dirt in on top of you. I understand why they need the reports, hut it’s just not easy to deal with.”

Another project manager said, “There were not enough resources to do the work that needed to be done. So I found myself doing the work of maybe three or four people. So I was working 12-hour days every day. I went to the program manager and said we don’t have enough resources and he said tough. This work had to be done or the company would grind to a halt. I felt totally responsible for it.”

The most common response to having an increased workload was to assign additional resources to the project. Two project managers also said that they tried to stop thinking about work while they were at home, trying to focus more on recreational and family activities.

S4. Conflicting Needs

Conflicting needs refers to the project manager being faced with a conflict in the needs of third parties. In two cases the project manager was asked to produce separate reports for different stakeholders. The project manager was buried in reporting-”Every time you’re reporting to a different person they have their own spin on what level of reporting you have to do… [this lead to] having to re-invent your reporting process two or three times.” In another case, a set of key performance indicators (KPI) was assigned to the project without consultation with the project manager. In order to meet these KPIs the project manager had to completely redo their project schedule and change significant parts of the project. In another case mentioned, the project manager felt that he or she was in conflict between the success of the project and the client’s needs. Another project manager found himself or herself in conflict with the project sponsor on what the scope of the project should include.

Social support and communication were the most commonly used coping mechanisms with four project managers seeking support from colleagues and three discussing their projects with project sponsors. Two project managers also used exercise to relieve tension, with eating more and engaging additional resources were mentioned once each.

S5. Too Much Responsibility

This category refers to the responsibility that the project managers interviewed felt that they had for project success. This stressor was often accompanied by another stressor. In one case responsibility was coupled with a lack of control over project resources, so the project manager felt he or she were to be held accountable for project success while having little control over the people working for him or her. “There is only a small portion that I have control over, but I’m charged with delivering it on time.” In another case it was coupled with having to implement new technology. In this case there was a problem with the new equipment and the project manager felt he or she was being blamed for the technical difficulties encountered. Lastly, one project manager felt that the complexity of the project was underestimated and consequently under- resourced, this was coupled with a project sponsor who was demanding success from the project manager.

The project managers coped with these situations by asking for additional resources, trying not to think about work, or emotionally distancing themselves from work, as one project manager said, “It’s only work, in the end it doesn’t matter, I can always get another job.”

S6. Time Pressures

Deadlines refer to the time frame given to complete a piece of work. One project manager had been given unreasonable deadlines when there were given only nine days to complete work that would ordinarily take two weeks. This theme was borne out by another example where a project manager was not given enough time or resources to complete tasks. Another had to roll out a project with a drop-dead date for completion and found this placed them under a huge amount of pressure. Finally, one project manager stated put it this way, “We couldn’t procure the equipment until we had sold the product to a client. By selling to the client we had to commit to a very tight delivery timeline, and then had to adjust timescales of the project based around this timeline. That created immediate pressure from the project. All the slippage in the project had pretty much disappeared.”

The most common coping strategies were communication and assigning additional resources each being used twice, while social support, avoidance, risk mitigation, and increasing workload were also used.

S7. Role Conflict

Three project managers raised conflict between their role as project managers and their operational roles as a source of pressure, an example of which is in the following quote: “Still being tied to an operational role at the same time as trying to run a project is frustrating. You’re always tempted to work on operational issues, but this puts you further behind on the project. On the client side, it’s the same, their project team is the same as their operational team, which means work with the client gets mixed between project and operational.” Two found it difficult to juggle their responsibilities between the two roles, while another was given conflicting directions by the manager that were not of benefit to the project they were running.

The coping strategies used in these cases were mixed, with one project manager attempting not to think about work when not on the job, while another engaged additional resources to reduce his or her operational workload in order to focus on the project, while the third project manager found time management and seeking social support useful.

S8. Uncertainly

The common theme with uncertainty which project managers reported was the feeling that they had missed something in their project planning. Three project managers reported that they worried that they had missed a key task or not thought of a potential risk that could spell disaster for their projects. One project manager said, “…at the back of your mind, the whole time, you really feel like ‘have I thought of everything? There was always the fear that you would miss something or forget something.”

Again, the coping strategies were mixed, with planning being one response, combined with relaxing after work with dinner and a glass of wine. Another project manager had their project team role-play all possible scenarios in order to generate ideas about what could have been missed. This was classified as a problem-solving strategy. Lastly, a project manager sought support from his or her partner and held discussions with contractors to determine if anything had been missed.

S3. Delegation

Two project managers had found it difficult to deal with staff that had been assigned to complete work but had failed to do so. “I had to do a fair bit of research on technical strategies. To do that 1 needed a lot of information so I engaged a technical person to do a component of the work. I estimated it would take him about three days…l gave him a target deadline of five days. When I went to see him he hadn’t even started… I gave him another three days and again he hadn’t started. I started to get a bit upset about it.”

The common response in this case was to problem solve, one by getting the work done themselves, and the other by micro-managing in order to have the work completed. Other responses included avoiding thinking about work, exercising more, and talking to co-workers in order to let out the frustration they were feeling.

S10. Interperson\al Conflict

Interpersonal conflict was mentioned twice by the project managers interviewed. Once it was in the context of a conflict between the designer of the solution being implemented and the project manager, and in the other case it was an argument between the project manager and a project team member over the work that was to be completed; “We had a meeting and 1 told her that my expectations weren’t being met and asked what she was going to do about it. She burst into tears and left the meeting.”

In the first case the project manager avoided thinking about work and the overly complicated design, as well as adding additional resources to the project in order to implement it, while in the second case the project manager talked with the staff member involved and tried to smooth things over.

S11. Project Scope

The scope of the project was another source of pressure. In the two cases mentioned, one found that the scope was changed when the software to be implemented was completely replaced from tender to implementation, while in the other case there was a lack of definition of scope and the project manager felt that the work was slipping behind but did not have a way to gauge the progress as the scope of the project was not understood: “The scope wasn’t originally defined, what was included or required by certain dates… You had a sense that you were getting behind, but you don’t know how far behind.”

In the first case the project manager spent time training on the new software, promoting it to the client, and seeking support from other project managers who had faced similar situations. In the second case much time was spent on planning in order to have the scope defined more clearly.

S12. Team Conflict

Team conflict occurred where there was conflict between team members within project teams. This was raised twice, and in one case the project manager used the problem-solving approach of re- organizing the teams in order to avoid clashes, while in the other case the project manager communicated to the team members involved the importance of the work that they were doing. “I had to deal with a lot of conflict with teams of people. Because I was new to the project I didn’t know that if you put Frank and Sarah together they hated each other’s guts. I just saw them as a resource. I had to change team members.”

S13. Poor Communication

In this case the program manager was not communicating the outcomes of other projects within the program and as a result the project manager did not know the requirements of the project and how it fit into the bigger picture: “Because we were only a part of it, we didn’t get invited to project meetings. We were very much left out of what was going on, and so we always had our ear to the ground to get information about what was happening. The program manager just didn’t want to communicate.” In order to cope with this, the project manager set up meetings with the program manager and attempted to improve communication flows.

S14. Project Risks

One project manager was managing a project where the core infrastructure had to be replaced, which if not done would pose a high risk to the organization. “Because we were delayed we had these devices in the network that were no longer supported by service agreements. That was the producer of anxiety for me, the fact that we’d increased the risk to us, of having these things that could fail at any time and had no support at all.” In order to cope with the pressure of being exposed to such high risk, the project manager developed a risk mitigation strategy and purchased spare equipment.

S15. Reputation

Another project manager found that in having to switch to an unfamiliar product, the project manager’s reputation was at stake. “I found out that we had chosen to use software that was completely different to the tender. I felt that the solutions architect was getting a kickback from the new vendor. I felt it was a bad decision for this client. I found out the new software was vaporware, it didn’t even exist. I thought that my reputation was at risk.” This occurred in combination with the change of scope in the solution being implemented. As previously mentioned in the scope section, training/self-study, promotion of the new product to the client and social support from other project managers was used as coping mechanisms. Of course, in this example, the issues of planning and management of resources are also involved in terms of failure to reevaluate earlier assumptions.

Coping Strategies

C1. Social Support

Social support was the most frequently used coping strategy. Examples of social support were talking to co-workers about what was happening, expressing feelings of frustration to family, and talking to a manager in order to share feelings about what was happening. “The only thing I did was to talk to other people about it and have a laugh. You would say to them what you would really like to say to the person involved. It helped to get it off my chest.”

Social support was used in response to nearly every stressor raised, and had an overwhelmingly positive evaluation of effectiveness by the project managers. The majority of project managers felt that talking about their problems helped them to reduce feelings of anxiety. Only in one case did a project manager rate social support as worsening the situation. In this case, the project manager felt that things were beyond his or her control and was confronted with managing a project with which was totally unfamiliar. As such, he or she felt that no coping strategies could have helped.

C2. Communication

Communication may initially be thought of as being similar to social support; however, there is a difference. Social support was focused on obtaining emotional support from others, whereas communication was defined as seeking or providing information in order to resolve an issue. For example, one project manager said that he or she “…went around and held one-on-one discussions with the steering committee members. I wanted to find out what the key issues were for them, what was driving them.” As such, it is more of a problem-focused style of coping as opposed to the more emotion- focused style found in social support.

The evaluations of effectiveness for communication were mixed with almost half of the participants saying it was very helpful, while the other half said that it did not help. This split holds true even when we look at the stressor, coping, outcome chain, with like stressors resulting in a communication coping strategy but having differing outcome ratings.

C3. Adding Resources

The project managers interviewed generally found adding resources to be a positive strategy in dealing with stressors, especially those of high workload or impending deadlines. This strategy involved adding resources to the project team or hiring contractors to perform work. As one project manager put it, “In order to deal with the workload we got our team to work on it 100% and had the vendor provide staff to work on the product for us.”

C4. Avoidance

The avoidance category describes behaviors such as avoiding thoughts of work or of thinking about work as unimportant in the scheme of things. One project manager said, “I just tried to stop thinking about it constantly,” while another said, “I would tell myself it’s not important, it’s just work.” It met with mixed results, again with about half and half positive and negative evaluations. Of the five positive ratings, three involved the stressor of responsibility. The negative ratings were for role conflict, high workload, and having a lack of control over resources.

C5. Problem-Solving

Problem-solving described behaviors that were aimed at tackling the problem that was being faced. These involved strategies such as working on improving processes and reorganizing project teams to reduce personal conflict. In one case the project manager said, “…got my team to role-play all the possible scenarios, trying to come up with anything 1 could have missed.” The project managers rate it as a positive strategy for coping in five of the eight cases, with two neutral and only one negative.

C6. Work Increase

Increasing the number of hours worked was a strategy adopted by six project managers. One project manager said, “increased [my| working hours to 12 hours per day until it was done.” Unsurprisingly, in three of these cases one of the stressors cited was a high workload. This coping strategy was met with mixed evaluations, with it being rated as positive twice, neutral once, and negative three times. Two project managers reported taking increased sick leave as a result of working long hours.

C7. Exercise

Five project managers said that they increased the amount they exercised in order to cope with the pressures they faced in their job. In three cases exercise was rated as having a positive impact and in two cases the project managers felt they had a negative outcome. One project manager described exercise as “… a good way to take my mind of my problems.”

C8. Planning

Planning involved analyzing the problem and planning what needed to be done. For example, one project manager produced a statement of work and scope document in order to combat feelings of anxiety about a lack of scope while another produced a detailed project plan when faced with uncertainty about what had to be done. Planning was rated as overwhelmingly positive, with four of the five incidents being rated as such. Only once was it rated neutrally, and in this situation multiple coping mechanisms had been employed.

C9. Alcohol

Increasing alcohol consumption was utilized twice, once by itself and once in combination with adding resources to the project. When used as the only coping strategy, the project manager said, “I started drinking more and taking sleeping tablets to help myself sleep at night. 1 just felt worse though. I suppose 1 took a lot more sick leave in thatperiod.” In the other case it was rated as positive and the project manager found it a useful way to relax at the end of the day.

C10. Relaxation

Relaxation with family in the evenings was raised by two project managers. One said that she “…made sure I found time to do fun things with my husband. It helped me to lead a balanced life.” Both found it to make a positive contribution to their coping with the pressure they were faced with.

C11. Risk Mitigation

Risk mitigation describes executing formal risk management strategies. In one example the project manager said, “…we were looking at mitigation strategies the whole time. We bought a stack of spares to mitigate the lack of support. It turned out there was no need, but everyone had a warm and fuzzy feeling about having spares.” This was carried out by two project managers and was evaluated by them as being a positive coping strategy by both.

C12. Time Management

Time management involved prioritizing tasks and using time saving methods. One project manager tried to save time by submitting documentation electronically but found it to be ineffective as a coping mechanism. Another project manager said, “I set up a system of priorities and dropped tasks that were of lower importance…. 1 found it was very effective in managing my work levels. I felt better about it.”

C13. Training/Self-Study

Two project managers spent time learning about the products they were implementing. As one project manager put it, “1 had to do a lot of self-training to be comfortable with the product. Sometimes people spin you rubbish, so I had to be fairly familiar with it.” In one case it was evaluated as having no affect on coping, while in the other case it was rated as producing a negative outcome.

C14. Eating

One project manager increased his or her food consumption to cope with the pressure. “… sat at my desk and ate, I would eat snacks all the time. I don’t think it helped me feel any better though.”

Copyright Project Management Institute Dec 2006

(c) 2006 Project Management Journal. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.




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