How Fear Can Doom Your Project

Fear is a powerful force. While it can have positive impacts—helping to prod people from inertia into action, for example, or heightening their awareness of potential risks—in project management it often triggers significant negative effects. When fears aren’t addressed and carefully managed, either through a concerted effort spearheaded by a seasoned PM or with the help of an outside project management consultancy experienced in navigating performance issues and rescuing troubled projects, they can become so severe that they lead to flawed decision making and poor judgement. This diminishes the team’s ability to deliver good results and puts the project’s outcome in jeopardy.

If you’ve already seen the byproducts of fear, its potential to doom a project is probably no surprise. But for those who haven’t witnessed it firsthand, consider how fear impacts the project team and the ways it might send your initiatives spiraling toward failure.

Fear that resources—time, money, knowledge—are too lean to achieve success.Project managers that worry about a lack of resources can sometimes turn that fear into poor decision making. Though their concerns are typically legitimate, they may try to fix their challenges by padding their budget estimates or asking for more staff than are strictly necessary. When they can’t justify their figures, the senior management team loses confidence in the project team and suddenly their resource fears become nightmares, as funding and personnel allotments are thinned out even further. If these concerns are ongoing, morale could suffer and key team members may seek opportunities elsewhere out of fear that longer-term career prospects within the organization are dim. The cycle is self-perpetuating and highly destructive.

Fear that a lack of support will leave the project team out to dry. Support for initiatives often comes from the executive team or through well-placed sponsors. These individuals help ensure the necessary resources are allocated to the project and that assistance from other internal departments is available as needed. A project group that fears its sponsors aren’t fully committed may put more energy into stakeholder engagement than they do into planning and executing the project’s tasks. Conversely, some may give only a half-hearted attempt to complete their activities because they assume the project will be killed mid-stream. Project failure under these circumstances is highly likely.

Fear of repeating past mistakes and other performance problems.If your team doesn’t have a solid methodology for examining previous project outcomes, identifying areas for improvement, and implementing the steps to get better, it makes sense that they’re fearful they’ll experience the same bad results as before. This is a particularly troublesome situation, because when team members are focused on their fears, their ability to make sound decisions is diminished. They often act out of fear rather than strategically weighing the challenges and opportunities in front of them. Their fear of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Fear of relaying bad news.Anxieties about delivering unwelcome messages can have devastating effects on your project’s overall health. Whether it’s issuing a warning about an unanticipated delay or asking for additional funding, people are often hesitant to be the bearer of bad news. When this fear prevents someone from raising the necessary flags, that’s where the problems really begin. A delay that goes unannounced could cause serious downstream effects, potentially interfering with the project’s target completion date. Budget issues that aren’t corrected may have far-reaching impacts on future funding approvals and cash flow. Even if the person eventually musters the courage to speak up, they may do so too late in the process, leaving too little time to fix whatever problem has been festering.


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