Thinking versus feeling in project management

by Joshua Ramirez

What is thinking versus feeling in project management? How do you feel about reading this article right now? Do you think you’ll learn anything? I know that sometimes I get emotional about things, and projects may frustrate me. I may have a team member that just irritates me on a daily basis, or the client made me mad yesterday. Feeling is something we often associate with the word behavior, leadership, or teamwork. All too often in organizations, we hear about emotional intelligence, soft skills, or motivation. These words, too, may come into mind when hearing the word behavior.

(how do you feel about how it’s going in this article so far? [insert silly emoji here])

I want to introduce you to a different domain, however. This domain is more associated with thinking, more than it is feeling.

You go about your day much of the time without necessarily feeling any really strong emotions or motivations for or against something. As a matter of fact, about 95% of your day is spent in an automatic kind of mental state, sort of mindlessly (for lack of a better word) going about doing the stuff you have to do. Much of this time you are just reacting without deliberate thought, in this automatic mode, this is known as System one.

The other 5% of the day is spent in more deliberate thought. Think about if you have to create a list, perform a mathematical calculation, or have to make a decision based on several options that you have to choose from. This more deliberate and calculated mode is known as system two. This system of thinking is also more taxing on your brain. It reduces your energy and can be uncomfortable.

These concepts of thinking affect just about everything we do, every judgment call, and every decision we make. The interesting thing here is that much of this does not involve emotion, and may have limited interaction with motivation. However, it is usually the soft skills, motivation, and emotions that are most apparent and visible at work, and the most talked about in organizational development. We associate these things with behavior.

But the word behavior is also used in the world of neuroscience, psychology, and other domains, as a describer of their discipline. (This is where it gets more interesting…)

There are certain disciplines that have incorporated the study of how we think into how their discipline operates (notice I didn’t say how we feel), and this helps them become more effective at what they do. They usually precede the name of their discipline by the word behavior, to describe their modified discipline that applies human thinking to what they do. Here are a few examples:

  • Behavioral Economics
  • Behavioral Finance
  • Behavioral Supply Chain Management

Now, these guys and gals are starting to figure something out here…

The fun part is that there are all kinds of folks out there studying neuroscience, judgment and decision making, forecasting, organizational psychology, risk and uncertainty, and all from a thinking and behavioral point of view. There are conferences, training, symposiums, and all kinds of outlets and gatherings for these disciplines. Each of them has whole domains that are completely applicable to project management, yet as a whole, we aren’t applying these disciplines to our own.

Here’s where we need to make a change. Take forecasting, for example. In the world of behavior and thinking, they have been able to almost double forecasting accuracy in some cases. Couldn’t we do better at forecasting in project management? What about judgment and decision-making? Couldn’t we perform better in our discipline if we could reduce thinking errors like cognitive biases?

Thinking vs Feeling

In fact, I believe that there is so much in the behavioral sciences world that we could use in project management, that it may actually be worth adding the word behavior to our discipline like some others have done. We may even have a bit more applicability to the behavioral sciences than some other disciplines, because of the time constraint/time pressure of project management (see my other article, here).

I say let the behavioral sciences meet project management and see where it goes. As much as the human factor affects everything humans touch, with impacts being around 70% of project performance, I think it’s time for a new era. They’ve got Behavioral Economics and Behavioral Finance. Why not Behavioral Project Management?


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