Social Skills for Project Managers: Interview with Geoff Crane [Video]

How do you gain influence with body language? What should you be aware of for managing stress in the workplace as a project manager? Geoff Crane and I discuss all that, plus better listening and manspreading!

There’s a transcript below if you prefer to read more about our chat.

Elizabeth: Hello everyone, It’s Elizabeth here, and today, I am at the PMO conference in London with wonderful Geoff Crane who’s come over from Canada.

Geoff: How’s it going?

Elizabeth: So you’ve flown in pretty much just for this conference, haven’t you?

Geoff: That’s right.

Elizabeth: And you’ve had two days’ worth of PMO workshops?

Geoff: Yep.

Elizabeth: So tell us about that.

Geoff: So we’re basing my work off the work that we do out of my university lab. I run Adaptimist Insights. We are an emotional and social learning organisation that is actually the commercial offshoot of Trent University’s Emotion and Health Research Laboratory. And the nice thing about that is it gives us kind of the best of both worlds so we can be affiliated with the university as much as we like. We have instrumentation, we have tools, we have stuff that we develop in house in an academic setting but when we need to, we can also be sort of an external, our own kind of separate entity and we can deliver programming to groups in private enterprise and stuff, so it’s really nice kind of juxtaposition.

And the work that we’ve done over the last couple days… we’ve developed a programme specifically to teach emotional and social learning to PMOs so the kind of work that we were teaching. We spent all the first day understanding how to bolster sort of interpersonal interactions as influence without authority is one of those big challenges that PMO have to contend with.

What we thought was, well, let’s start building that idea of influence from the ground up. So we have modules on reflective listening and how to actually establish meaningful dialogue and meaningful connections. We built all of this based on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Behavioural Change stairway model. They actually have a model that they have understood works like if you’re a hostage negotiator and you’re in a situation where all you have, all you have is the phone, and your voice, and these are the tools that you’ve been given to be able to affect specific behavioural changes, and somebody who’s doing something genuinely dangerous, I mean, these are the exact same skills that you need as a PMO, it’s just the consequences aren’t quite as dire.

Elizabeth: So what’s your top tip then? Your top tip for body language, or that what we were talking about influencing without authority, what can I do tomorrow that will make me more influential?

Geoff: Well, one of the things that we always espouse is kind of like taking real backseat, listening is the first thing, listen, listen, listen, listen, listen, you do not need to speak. In fact, one of the exercises that we do is I have two people, one person tells a story to the other person, and the person who is doing the listening has to throw up their hand every time they have a thought that is unrelated to what the speaker is saying, right? And what happens is, you get like, in the space of 60 seconds, the hand just keep going up.

Elizabeth: Because the story is so boring?

Geoff: No, because what happens is, when we are speaking, we are fully engaged because we love to hear ourselves talk, right? But when we have to sit and do the listening, now all of a sudden, it’s like, the person starts speaking–

Elizabeth: What’s for dinner?

Geoff: And maybe it’s what’s for dinner, or maybe it’s even kind of related? Oh that reminds me of the time, and then your mind is off and you’re thinking about something completely different, you’re no longer listening. Even though you’ve broken for maybe a fraction of a second, and then you come back, you still miss stuff. And the other thing, too, is that while you’re listening, you’re not necessarily, while you’re kind of in that casual listening, you’re not necessarily paying attention to the full message that’s coming on. There is the words that are being spoken, but there’s also the body language, hand gestures, eye movements, body posture, you know, eye contact, attentiveness, all of these things are key aspects in being able to understand and comprehend the specific message that’s coming across to you.

Elizabeth: So better listening?

Geoff: Better listening, yes, that’s the long answer.

Elizabeth: I was trying really hard to listen, and make it look like I was really listening.

Geoff: So that’s the very long answer to your question, which I could have said in two words, yes. What we also do, we do stuff on reading facial expressions, reading body language, but one of the challenges is that, so here’s an interesting controversial example. We talked about the manspread in class the other day. The manspread, of course, we’ll all familiar with something that gentlemen do on the tube.

Elizabeth: On the train.

Geoff: On the train, in places really kind of annoying, and it’s very distracting, but it also has this adaptive purpose. When I take up more space, because I’m spreading my legs, so I take up more space, now all of a sudden, I’m exuding sort of more dominance. So here’s something that interesting, a little social experiment that you can pay attention to, if you’re out somewhere and you are a gentleman, this doesn’t really work if you’re a lady.

But if you’re a gentleman, you just decide to pop the legs open and just sit there and what will happen, what I guarantee you will happen, it is like clockwork. Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, manspreading will just happen all around the room. But here is the challenge. The challenge for ladies is because generally, from a fashion perspective and from other perspective, this cannot happen.

Elizabeth: Doesn’t really work for me.

Geoff: It doesn’t work, so what ladies do, is as this thing moves around the room, and it’s all happening very unconsciously, as it moves around the room, ladies kind of close up and now what’s happened is, you have separated yourself from the dynamic in the rest of the room. You are now at a disadvantage.

Elizabeth: So how do you manspread as a woman?

Geoff: You don’t.

Elizabeth: Why?

Geoff: The best thing to do, we would advocate is, takes a little bit of courage, takes a little bit of courage. But the first time the sign of the first manspread happening in the room, if you’re a lady, you just call it right out and you say, that’s a very interesting point. And what’s gonna happen, what’s gonna happen, all of a sudden, the guy’s gonna be very, very self-conscious and slam, and now, nothing’s happened, just that whole thing that happens around the room, doesn’t get an opportunity to actually develop. This takes courage, though, this does take courage.

Elizabeth: Okay, so you’re actually pointing out the fact, not using the words, you’re taking up a bit more space than you need to with those giant legs.

Geoff: You can say that, too.

Elizabeth: But yes, to sort of make it clear that that body language has happened.

Geoff: Oh yeah, just look right down, just look right down, and say I see your point.

Elizabeth: Yeah, that could take some courage.

Geoff: It does take some courage.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Geoff: It definitely takes some courage.

Elizabeth: And I think it depends on how, perhaps how well you know the people in the room.

Geoff: That’s very true, and possibly, if it’s a senior stakeholder, maybe that’s something you wanna avoid.

Elizabeth: Yeah, maybe not.

Geoff: You wanna be careful there, but…

Elizabeth: But I take the point of trying to shut down negative body language before it effects everybody else in the room.

Geoff: That’s absolutely right.

Elizabeth: And if you can use, it’s a bit like neurolinguistic programming?

Geoff: Yeah, yeah.

Elizabeth: Where you’re trying to take what you can see and reflect it back or influence it to change the dynamic.

Geoff: Exactly.

Elizabeth: How interesting.

Geoff: So yeah, that’s one thing that we do.

Elizabeth: Excellent.

Elizabeth Harrin and Geoff Crane
Elizabeth Harrin and Geoff Crane at PMO Conference

Geoff: We talk about, we talked about adaptability, we did a whole day’s worth of stuff on managing burnout, dealing with, we talked about mental health issues that can come up that are specific and unique, well, not necessarily 100% unique, but very common among project professionals, so we have things that emerge for us like lack of opportunities for recuperation. For example, when is the best time to take a vacation? Well, if you’re in the project professions, never, right?

Elizabeth: Not really.

Geoff: Never, ever, ever.

Elizabeth: There’s always something going live.

Geoff: That’s exactly right.

Elizabeth: Or being planned.

Geoff: That’s exactly right, and let’s say that you are a contractor or you work in a contingent capacity, or you measured on billable uptime so what happens, I need to take a vacation. Well, I’ll take it in between phases ’cause right now, I’m putting a lot of fires out. But in between phases is when I have to do a lot of replanning, so I don’t get it then. So you know what the best time is when the project is over, but here’s the problem, I come to the end of the project, and I don’t have a next project to move on to.

So I can’t go on vacation because I have to worry about how I’m gonna put food on my table at the end, or I have to worry about how people are gonna measure or evaluate me when it comes to bonus time. I have to make sure that I’m going off to my next job. So I’m not taking a vacation. But then, I find the next job and what am I doing? I’m starting on my next job.

Elizabeth: And then you can’t take another holiday because you’ve only just started the work, and they need you there, it’s very difficult isn’t it?

Geoff: Exactly right, it is a big challenge. So what’s very, very important though, is if, we’ve got a study from a guy Per Gustafsson, yeah, we have a lot of, for some reason on this burnout stuff, we have a lot of stuff coming out of Sweden. It’s cool. Love Sweden. What he actually did was he did a study involving people who work in a contingent capacity, so not necessarily project managers, but anybody so, we have like, adjunct faculty, interim managers, all kinds of people in the way, but the point is that they move from job to job to job to job on a regular basis. He evaluated the waking cortisol in their saliva.

Elizabeth: Okay?

Geoff: So cortisol is the stress hormone, right? So if you are feeling high levels of stress, more cortisol is released to give you the opportunity to fight, to runaway, to survive, right? It’s super great if you’re a zebra at the watering hole, and you know a lion comes along and it’s gonna eat you. I gotta run, I gotta run, so cortisol fires you up and off you go. And then, if you’re a zebra, you outrun the lion, good for you. Now, you just go back to eating some grass, hanging out, making other zebras, whatever you wanna do.

But zebras don’t have mortgages, they don’t have two kids they’re trying to put through school, they don’t have a project that’s got like running 180% over budget and is late and all that kind of stuff. So what happens is our cortisol never ever really quite leaves us.

Now the point of this study with Gustafsson was he believed that if you work in a contingent capacity, the contingent nature of the work itself is inherently stressful. He wanted to validate this by looking in the saliva, the waking saliva of people who work in these jobs. Zero people who had never been exposed to this kind of work in the past had, I think their cortisol, morning cortisol was 34%, let’s say. Then you looked at people who had been working for up from zero months to 24 months, what does the morning cortisol look like for them? Well, it’s actually risen by 10%, it’s almost 10%. People who’d been doing it for two years or longer, it’s 10% higher than that.

Elizabeth: Really?

Geoff: So it actually keeps going up, so all that means, what that means is, just working–

Elizabeth: You just get more stressed.

Geoff: You just get more stressed, it has nothing to do with the job, it has to do with the nature of moving from job to job to job and that inherent instability. So if you aren’t getting adequate recuperation, because you feel I can’t take a vacation, I can’t take time off, there’s no good opportunity for this, you’re actually doing yourself a serious health disservice. So finding ways to be able to manage that, to sort of recalibrate our lives, to incorporate that new reality into the work that we do is very important. So that’s what we spent the second day working, that kind of stuff.

Elizabeth: Really interesting.

Geoff: Yeah.

Elizabeth: Okay. Great. Well, thank you for giving us a bit of an insight into the different types of research and what you’ve been talking about up here in the conference over the last couple of days.

Geoff: You’re very welcome, it’s been my pleasure.

Elizabeth: Thank you very much.

Geoff: Thank you.

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