An interview with Susanne Madsen, an internationally recognized project leadership coach, trainer and consultant, by Dominika Kantorowicz

Today we say that we are living in the VUCA world. How has this changed the role of the project manager? Must he act differently in a world of increased complexity?

More and more is being written about our VUCA world, which is an acronym that stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. In other words, we are living in a more complex world where everything is moving faster and faster. Technological changes are taking place at an unprecedented rate, there are more interdependencies, people work in global teams and they work remotely from different time zones – all of which makes things much more complex. In the old days, it was possible to plan a project from end to end and the project manager had many of the answers. Today we cannot rely on a few people having all the answers because everything is moving so fast. Nor can we rely on project managers having all the answers and telling the team what to do. So more than ever before, I believe we need project leaders to help us navigate this increased complexity. And I use the word “leader” in contrast to a manager. A leader is someone who is skilled at empowering others. They ask questions instead of telling people what to do. They draw the information out of the team and find the answer if they do not have it.

You have covered a lot of ground regarding leadership. One of the factors which differentiate leadership from management is emotional intelligence. Do you think this is something we can work on? Can we practise somehow to be better in this area

One of the big differences between management and leadership is emotional intelligence. Both managers and leaders might be cognitively very intelligent. However, some managers have a relatively low level of emotional intelligence. They do not know how to read and emphasize with others. They are not able to effectively manage their emotions, and might for instance have inappropriate outbursts of anger. In contrast to cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence is something we can always work on and hopefully, we will develop this skill as we mature in our lives. There are two sides of emotional intelligence. The first is getting better at noticing our feelings and choosing how to respond to situations. If you have a team member who does not do his work, do you feel angry and tell him that he is useless or do you work with him to find out what the reasons are? Are you able to monitor your emotions and choose an appropriate response? People can learn this skill by observing themselves, by asking for feedback and perhaps by working with a coach, who can help them reflect on how they are coming across. The basic practice is about pausing, counting to ten and considering how to respond in the best possible way. Emotional intelligence is about awareness and we need to slow down to create this awareness. The other side of emotional intelligence is the ability to empathize with others, to read others, and to build relationships of trust with others. To develop that we should slow down and listen more because we can only understand others if we listen to them and ask questions. We need to try to walk in other people’s shoes. That takes a lot of time and it is not easy. It might even be a life long journey.

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While talking about leadership styles, you distinguish between yin and yang of leadership. Yin is a supportive approach whilst yang is a challenging approach to leading others. Is there a way to find out in which situations we should apply relatively more yin or yang?

In my opinion, all project leaders need yin as well as yang. First of all we need to be supportive of people. That means listening, empathizing and asking what support they need. When we use yin we create a psychologically safety environment which is necessary to create a high performing team. We also need to make use of our challenging yang side. We need to challenge people to perform at their best and to deliver what they promised. I think the best cocktail is when we use both – when we are supportive and demanding at the same time. Of course, sometimes we should use a little more yin or a little more yang. When we work with people who are new, young or a bit insecure, we need relatively more yin. We need to support our team members, ask them questions, coach and guide them. As they gain confidence, we can begin to challenge them more. People who are already confident and who have the skills, are ready to be challenged. The art is to adapt our levels of yin and yang to the people we lead and to the situation at hand.

You are particularly interested in stress management. We know that we all need some stress to work effectively and that each of us has a different threshold for how much stress we can cope with. But do you see any patterns or wake-up calls that can help us understand when to slow down a little and try to do things differently?

If there is no pressure on a person, there is no real motivation to do their work. We all need a little pressure to perform. On the other hand, when we have too much pressure, we may feel that we do not have adequate resources and we might doubt whether we can cope with the situation. Short periods of stress are not a problem as our body is built to react properly to these situations: our blood flow changes, our heart rate goes up, and stress hormones – cortisol and adrenaline – are released. The problem arises when stress becomes chronic, meaning that we feel stressed day after day with no recovery in between. Recovery means that our body goes back to rest, the hormones settle and we can repair ourselves. Unfortunately there is often no time for recovery because we work for months and years on high-pressured projects in a very demanding environment. There are quite a few symptoms of stress to watch out for, but each of us might have different ones. There are cognitive symptoms such as inability to focus, there are emotional symptoms such as feeling irritated and short tempered, and there are physical symptoms such as poor sleep, eating too much or too little, lack of sex drive, and aches and pains in the body. It is very important to take these signs seriously.

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You mention that it is extremely important to draw a line between work and private life. It helps in maintaining a healthy balance in our lives and promotes wellbeing. Can you share with us some basic tips on how to do that?

One of the first things to do is to set boundaries – for instance, how much time you would like to spend at work. There are always exceptions because sometimes you just have to work late for a day or for a week. This is fine as long as it occurs occasionally and you have enough time to recover. There are some cultural differences too, like in Scandinavia, where people often go home at 4:00 pm. They pick up their children, attend to the family and then check emails later in the evening. This might work well for them because it gives them flexibility to fit in work as well as private life. However, every person needs to set their own boundaries in terms of when work ends and when home life begins. We must define when we close the door to work Madsenand make sure that we schedule in time for ourselves, for family, for sport and whatever is important. Otherwise we may just end up working late.

As a leader, we should remember that we are not only responsible for our own stress levels but also for the stress levels of our co-workers. I like your view that to manage stress in a team, we have to change the culture. The first step relates to vulnerability. What does that mean?

Vulnerability is about creating an environment where people can share how they are feeling. Many people cannot admit they are stressed because they feel it is weak. They think that if they say no, it shows they are not superman, and that it will be perceived as a failure. This is the culture we need to change. When we talk about vulnerability in the workplace, it means that we can express how we feel and that we are okay to say that we cannot do it all. Nobody is superman. If we have a superman or a superwoman mentality, we can burn out very easily, because we cannot set boundaries and say no. I know in some industries it might be more difficult, like in the construction sector where I do some work. It is a tough and very male-dominated industry where it is very uncommon to simply put your hand up and say that you cannot cope.