Project Management’s Emotion-fuelled Underbelly


Project Management’s Emotion-fuelled Underbelly

Around 25% of the population typically report a mental health problem every year. This statistic clearly overlooks how many of us continuously ‘self-medicate’ to prevent ourselves being totally overwhelmed. Yep, we’re doing everything out here – doughnuts, chocolate, chardonnay, real ale, cheap larger, Lagavulin, nytol, paracetamol, vaping, cough mixture, caffeine, pot, cigarettes, video games, extreme shopping, vigorous purposeful exercise, extreme sports, personal reinvention, cheap holidays, going temporarily into hiding and the best, most effective one of all, leaning on very tolerant friends.

What on earth does any of this have to do with looking after trees, you ask? Well, let me tell you, trees are the most emotive form of plant life on the planet. No question. People chain themselves to trees, occupy them to save them from destruction, set fire to them, try to poison them, produce layout drawings that fail to acknowledge they exist, write poems about them, draw and paint them endlessly, talk to them, listen to them, complain that they whisper in the night, take them down without permission in the night….seriously, someone should write a paper on trees and their role in emotional catharsis.

In my working life, I exist at the centre of all this. I spend a lot of my time negotiating workable tree protection solutions for development sites. This regularly involves having to make informed decisions about which trees should stay, and which can go. Starting out with relatively simple, easily summarized goals, each situation can quickly become, well, complex. Distinct tensions arise and grow the sticky tentacles of an angry octopus. There are costs involved, banks and funding, laws and policies, often serious timing issues. Multiple parties get pulled in; civil engineering, architecture, ecology, archaeology, different departments of the Local Authority, land-owners and then, not insignificantly, the General Public. Yes, everyone has an agenda – it’s ok, it’s ok, they’re entitled. And everyone’s viewpoint is valid. It’s a simple fact of life that many different interests are represented in any situation likely to bring about broad brush-stroke environmental change, and so discussions will be multi-faceted, lively, possibly unpredictable and harbour a tendency to burst into flames if left unattended for even a short period (just my experience).

This would be challenging enough if everyone’s agenda remained rational, logical, balanced and, with a little effort, readily communicable. But we’re talking about human beings here. The same human beings (as we’re now beginning to understand as a society) whose mental health affects their overall well-being to a far greater extent, on way more of an on-going basis, than a lifetime’s physical factors put together.

Following a particular exchange last week, it struck me that we often struggle out (or in) to work with a streaming cold, a stomach upset, a hangover, a pulled muscle, etc, etc, expecting a degree of under-performance and possibly even actively seeking the temporary indulgence of those around us on the grounds that we’re handling a clearly-defined impediment. At the same time we aim to do our best and avoid being a nuisance. Much less obviously, but probably a lot more often, we struggle out (or in) to work with troubled minds, heavy hearts, maybe having suffered a shock, deeply anxious about loved ones, or the direction of our lives, nervous in the face of an unforeseen challenge to our personal circumstances, confused by a trying relationship…honestly, the list is very, very long, pretty much inexhaustible in fact. And we don’t say a word, because we don’t know how. And we’re determined our performance will be just the same as usual, even though it definitely won’t.

I’m not going to round this collection of observations off with an exhortation for us all to be kinder to one another, blah, blah, blah…. We probably all should be, but this is work I’m talking about and there’s a job to be done. In fact there are multiple jobs to be done, and they can’t wait while everybody stands around being kind. What might help though, and what might deliver a sort of psychologically harmonious efficiency, is if we can all be a bit kinder to ourselves. Refrain maybe, from giving a strident opinion, when you’re not feeling that strident? Don’t take charge of making an important decision when frankly, at this particular time, even someone less experienced than you is likely to make a better one? Don’t wade into an argument when you’re already angry about something else? Soft-peddle on your work schedule when you know you’re distracted by something far more important to you?

Friends – it’s just advisable to wait some things out. In a bar.