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The Project Observer – What Do You See?

by Marie Benesh

In our most recent podcast, How To Know Your Project is in Trouble, we mentioned the role of observer. This is a person who is charged with looking at the project from a different perspective – from an observer point of view.

This doesn’t have to be a full-time role, and usually isn’t. It can be you, the project manager, who decides to sit back and observe the project and team without interjecting. Or it can be a shared role, something that everyone on the team takes on at one time or another.

But what are you looking for? What behaviors or indicators will give you more information than the words that people are speaking? Or what are the words you can listen for that might tell you something is amiss or that there is meaning and information under the words that are being spoken?

There are some obvious signals that most of you will be aware of:

  • Body language cues: in a meeting, a person sits with their arms crossed, doesn’t speak up during the meeting, and may look angry, disgusted, or “closed” to ideas and discussions going on in the meeting
  • Angry words or behavior from a team member; slamming doors or drawers, walking out of a meeting, raising his/her voice during a discussion
  • Isolation – this is when someone (or a sub-team) works in silence, does what they want to do and generally ignores anything else going on around them. This one can be a little tricky, as there are people who are just really good at staying out of the fray and are focused workers. Learn the difference.
  • Words that might indicate “more going on underneath” are: concerned, am not comfortable with, “whatever,” words of acceptance but with a different body language… Okay, (but with a sigh at the end).

But there are some subtle behaviors and signals that you may not recognize because you are focused on other issues – plans, meetings, schedules, vendor negotiations.  Here are some other clues you might want to watch out for:

  •  Passive-aggressive behavior – this might manifest itself in a person constantly forgetting to turn in her weekly report or deliverables. Oftentimes, gossip is a form of passive-aggressive behavior – “I won’t tell you to your face that something is wrong, but I will talk about you/the project/someone.”
  • Stress behaviors
    • Anxiety – sometimes a team member will have issues with a person or the project or deliverables, but isn’t sure enough of what they see or think to tell anyone. They can seem anxious, nervous or be very quiet, although alert and observant, in a meeting.
    • Tears – when stress becomes overwhelming, some people can feel very close to tears or begin to cry when asked what seems to be a simple and straight-forward question. This is often more likely to happen when you ask them about themselves – how are you doing? what do you need?
    • Absenteeism – if an employee seems to be calling in sick or having many different personal issues that keep them from coming to work, that may be an indicator that they are avoiding work and are feeling stressed, lost, overwhelmed or otherwise uncomfortable with the work environment or the project itself.

What other behaviors or signals give you pause or make you step back?

In my next blog post I’ll discuss some possible ways to address these signals.

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