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Spencer Holmes


Managing Director and Training Consultant

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The seven facets of leadership pt3: Positive intolerance


In part 3 of a series, Spencer Holmes describes a new approach to the development of project managers to meet the current challenges of organisations in all sectors. This week: Positive intolerance.

Of all the seven facets, positive intolerance is by far the one that raises most interest when we talk to business professionals about the development of their project managers. And from experience, any manager. So, what is it? Our psychometric describes it thus:
'Positive intolerance' refers to the extent to which the individual is able to sacrifice popular decisions to accomplish goals. Often, tough decisions ought to be made that may portray individuals as disagreeable in order to gain a positive benefit to the project.
Maybe you too are now paying more attention? There is a damaging lack of positive intolerance out there in project land. My experience alone has shown me that too many projects are going too slowly and being executed by the wrong people in the wrong ways and weak positive intolerance is at the heart.
This may seem a bold statement but we are ready to back it up. In some cases issues repeat themselves in organisations (the classic being poor communication and conflicting priorities across functional silos) and project managers seem to simply put up with it and compensate for the resultant inefficiencies by working extra hours. Sometimes the wrong people are assigned to specific work areas and unsurprisingly fail to perform to the extent the project requires. All too often however the project manager just lets it go, fearing recrimination, conflict or a lack of popularity if they were to deal with poor performance. Sometimes project managers run projects they know are doomed to failure rather than speak up at the right time and to the right person.
"There is a damaging lack of positive intolerance out there in project land."
Of course, there is more behind all of these (real) examples than just a lack of positive intolerance. Often top-down hierarchies actively and tacitly discourage speaking up or making hard choices, sometimes repeated attempts to change things met with no support create a sense of futility in the project manager. Sometimes there are personal issues that would make 'taking a hard line' inhumane. We understand this but more often than not a tougher stance would have been the best choice but was avoided.
In case this is starting to sound somewhat despotic I would like to share four examples from a recent film called Invictus in which Nelson Mandela perfectly displays the facet.
(being told that he is wrong to support the rugby team because the people do not like them) "Yes, I know, but in this instance the people are wrong. As their elected leader it is my job to show them that." - Nelson Mandela, Invictus
(being told that he is risking his political capital and future as a leader if he supports the Springboks) "The day that I am afraid to do that is the day I am no longer fit to lead." - Nelson Mandela, Invictus
(pleading with the black sports committee to keep the Springboks) "This is no time for petty revenge. This is the time to build our nation using every single brick available to us even if that brick comes wrapped in green and gold." - Nelson Mandela, Invictus
(being counselled against placating the white minority) "That minority still controls the police, the army and the big economy. If we loose them, we cannot address the other issues. If we take away what they cherish, the Springboks, their national anthem -- we just reinforce the cycle of fear between us. I will do what I must to break that cycle or it will destroy us." - Nelson Mandela, Invictus
Mandela is not usually described as tyrannical or unfair but here he shows in various ways, his readiness to upset the majority and put his own popularity at risk in order to achieve the goal. Now most project managers are not dealing with overthrowing an entire political regime and rebuilding a broken nation - although at times it may feel that way! However there are useful comparison we can draw and lessons to learn from these examples.
As always we will end with some thoughts on how to develop the facet, but first we need to make the case to justify that effort. Developing positive intolerance may be the toughest of the seven development areas, so what does it mean when there isn't enough PI on a project? Do any of these sound familiar?
  • Risks turn to issues (bad possibilities become reality) because a clear decision is not taken early enough
  • Money and time are wasted because a powerful stakeholder is not tackled about an unrealistic request early enough
  • Teams fragment because poor performers are not dealt with and stronger players get disenfranchised
  • Suppliers are overpaid and complacent because contracts are not actively managed
  • Creativity is stifled because the dominant culture dissuades the project manager from doing anything differently
  • Issues occur late in projects (when they are most expensive to deal with) because being "sparing with the truth" regarding progress reporting has been permitted earlier in the project
  • Project team effectiveness is harmed by cynics and negative critics that the project manager fails to deal with (sometimes because they are senior management!)
As always, the list could go on.
Often it is the dominant organisational culture that nurtures these issues. As these cultures tend to recruit in their own image, the problem is exacerbated. We work in many organisations where people would be described as 'accommodating' and the preference is to avoid conflict, even when it's blatantly obvious something different needs to be done. Often, sessions with these groups take on a confessional tone where they know what the issues are, they are often disarmingly open about their faults, they even have good ideas about what needs to be done to improve, but they fall short when it comes to how to go about making these changes.
"We work in many organisations where people would be described as 'accommodating' and the preference is to avoid conflict, even when it's blatantly obvious something different needs to be done."
These organisations are always the ones we look forward to visiting because they are always so friendly, but it might be, at times, this is getting in the way of effective project working. The cohesion and amiability that comes with the accommodating culture is great during good times, but when projects hit problems frustration is very quick to arise "how did we get here again!?" Project teams sometimes run at the whim of both clients and suppliers who negotiate harder – a tug of war that's impossible to win.
OK, so, enough of the horror stories, how can project managers build leadership ability by strengthening their positive intolerance?
  • Positive intolerance links closely with the first facet, pragmatism, as you must have a very clear picture of what is right in order to make tough decisions about anything that challenges or threatens that image. In project terms this means clearly articulated, prioritised objectives and 'end goal' that has been agreed by all key stakeholders. It is often difficult to sternly defend a project if the senior decision makers are split.
  • Honestly assess situations you may be avoiding for the wrong reasons. Why are you avoiding those situations? Are your concerns legitimate or constructed? Many cultures actively discourage assertiveness, labeling it "bullish", "cocky", "precocious" etc but if you are stepping forward for the right reasons, to improve a situation, this should not be the case. Always clarify first how the project will benefit from your intervention before you go ahead.
  • Focus on the 'positive' of positive intolerance - this is not about being a dictator. If your usual approach is positive, collaborative and inclusive, people will understand and respect your motives when you have to draw a hard line
  • Practice general assertiveness building activities such as negotiating and debating. These will help you keep calm in tricky interpersonal settings which is the basis of keeping the 'positive' in positive intolerance. Start small and work up (see if you can get some free nuts with your martini)
  • Be clear with the team and stakeholder group of the vision for the project and the expectations you set for yourself and others. Some teams benefit from a charter, especially in joint ventures and multi-organisation / cultural projects. In this way, it will be clear if people are acting in conflict to the project ethos and hence why you are having to be tough
  • Get feedback. Make sure you don't over compensate into good old-fashioned 'intolerance' in your efforts to strengthen your levels of assertiveness. Remember, keep it positive
  • Brits, next time you are served a bad meal in a restaurant, be positively intolerant, don't just say it was fine and try to avoid a fuss
This is the last of the three facets that look at your 'approach' to project leadership. Next week we look at the first of three 'awareness' facets, your degree of 'stability' which is the perfect follow up to considering positive intolerance. You have to be able to keep your head during the madness in order to lead with a 'firm hand in a soft glove'.
To read pt 2 click here

Spencer Holmes is the managing director of Global Project Leaders Ltd. He runs projects, trains and consults globally on the subject. His passion is for helping project managers develop the resilience required to thrive in an increasingly pressurised world. His company can be found at

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Spencer Holmes

Managing Director and Training Consultant

Read more from Spencer Holmes

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