by Ruth Pearce

When I was a child, there was a phrase that my father loved to use. Anytime we reported that we had tried something, hopeful that the outcome would be other than expected, he would shake his head and say, “Well that is the triumph of hope over experience.” When he said that, I always felt a little hurt because there was an implication that I had somehow been foolish to even try.

Nevertheless, I grew up as a generally hopeful person. Despite his perspective, to this day I hope for the best and take the steps I can to achieve it!

My hopefulness was challenged when I received my time slot for the PMI (Project Management Institute) Global Conference in Los Angeles—last day, early morning. I know from my own experience that by the last day many of us are pretty tired, and on the last night, we often go out and stay out too late! As another speaker said to me, “No one wants to be the only thing between an audience and their journey home.” But in my usual hopeful way, I focused on the fact that I would have an entire weekend to drum up support for the session. I would take the opportunity to network and see if I could surpass my own expectations.

Hope vs. Optimism

Hope is not the same as optimism. Optimism is the general sense that things will work out, and the belief that, even if you don’t take any specific action, things will be okay. Hope involves taking steps—agency—to make the desired outcome come to pass. I could have been optimistic that lots of people would show up—and possibly disappointed when they did not. Instead, I was hopeful people would come and I took steps to make it happen. I also enrolled others to help make it happen. And things are much easier when you have a team behind the goals. (To learn more about hope and agency, check out Making Hope Happen by Shane Lopez.)

A Triumph of Hope

So, imagine how thrilled I was to have about 100 participants at the 8:30 am breakout session in just about the farthest-flung room in the conference center on the third and final day of the conference! One participant admitted they had come to the wrong room but chose to stay—and a few others might have given up on the even longer walk to the other far-flung sessions. (My apologies to the presenters of the sessions on “Agents of Change” and “Ruthless Prioritization”!)

Pleased with the attendance, I was even more thrilled to experience how the group embraced the topic—willingly exploring and experiencing character strengths to engage themselves and others. We learned some valuable information about character strengths, teams, and engagement.

Social Intelligence is often the project manager’s challenge. Early on, I asked the audience what they thought about Social Intelligence, one of the 24 VIA character strengths. Many in the audience rolled their eyes; others laughed. A few shared that they think project managers are not as high as they might be in Social Intelligence. It was gratifying to see this self-awareness. My surveys have shown that as a group, on average, we project managers do indeed seem to have a lower level of Social Intelligence than our colleagues.

Project managers are more likely to be high in Hope and Prudence. Even though our Social Intelligence may not be where we want it to be, we do have some super-strengths. We tend to be higher in Hope and in Prudence. Not a bad combination for people who are charged with moving things forward in a disciplined and organized way. My audience agreed that Hope and Prudence are a great combination. They also expressed a Love of Learning (another of the character strengths) that helps us to learn about new organizations, new teams, new projects, and new goals.

Project managers tend to be high in Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence. We can use that Appreciation to engage team members and stakeholders, and to identify positives in colleagues, and we can use Love of Learning to become skilled in spotting colleagues’ strengths and calling them out right away!

(I am still collecting data on project manager strengths, and these results reflect my early findings. Project managers who take the VIA Character Strengths Survey will help verify—or not!—my hypothesis that Social Intelligence is lower on average for project managers than for others, and that Hope, Prudence, and Appreciation of Beauty are all high.)

In my presentation, I used a story to demonstrate how quickly we can learn to spot strengths—about a young man who had long dreamed of becoming a doctor, but realized that this direction was not quite right for him and changed course despite pressures from family and friends and his own long-held expectations. It’s a story of bravery, judgment, prudence, kindness, love, curiosity, perspective, and fairness.

The audience saw all those strengths and more in the story.

Next, a member of the audience stood up and told a story of a time when he was at his best on a project. Without even thinking about it, he started to identify his own strengths as he told his tale. Audience members called out the strengths they heard, and which he hadn’t recognized: Love, Kindness, Perspective, and yes, Social Intelligence. When we asked him how it felt, he said, “I felt seen and appreciated,” and “At first, I did not recognize some of those strengths in myself, but once they had been pointed out, it felt good and I could see them myself.” This is a very common reaction: We either don’t realize that we have the strengths we see in others or we don’t realize that our special qualities really are strengths.

In fact, we each have all 24 strengths, but some of those strengths are more meaningful for us and we use them more. Those signature strengths are directly connected to our sense of engagement and meaning. So, when we tap into those strengths, we become more engaged, and when we tap into the character strengths of others, we help them to become more engaged, too. And seeing the strengths of others really is not hard. When asked to talk about the strengths of speakers that the audience had seen over the weekend, the list was long and came quickly.

Here’s more insight from my research:

Project managers can build engagement by raising awareness of character strengths. Since simply being aware of our character strengths increases well-being, using those strengths increases well-being even more. Research from Gallup shows that the single biggest factor in employee satisfaction is how much the employee’s manager helps to identify and cultivate their character strengths.

Project managers should know that two-thirds of us are unaware of our character strengths. Gallup research also shows that two-thirds of employees are not engaged. Is it a coincidence that the same proportion of our workforce is “strengths blind”? In fact, when taking the VIA Character Strengths Survey, people often marvel at their top strength and say something like, “I know that is me, but I have never thought of that as a strength.” They are usually smiling broadly when they make that comment! What this tells us is that, if we learn about our own strengths, start to spot strengths in others, and then help them to cultivate strengths, we improve employee experiences. Isn’t this the heart of social intelligence? To see people for who they are and acknowledge their best traits? Is it not the art of connecting with people through thoughts, ideas, and feelings that are meaningful to them? In just a few minutes, it seemed, our collective Social Intelligence score had gone up!

Project managers only make things better by calling out strengths. The beauty of character strengths is that you cannot go wrong in calling them out. No one ever said, “I don’t want to be thought of as brave” or kind, or prudent, or a good team player. And, as we all have all 24 strengths to some degree, we all use all of them at some point or other. You can practice spotting strengths anywhere—watching TV or a movie, reading a book, chatting with friends or family. You can even make it a game with your kids!

p>In this one quick session, the audience learned about character strengths, how they can use them, what they feel like, how to spot them, and that research shows they pay dividends. And that is the tip of the character strengths iceberg. There is so much more to discover!

Five Ways to Be a Strong Project Manager

1. Leverage Hope tempered with Prudence to build achievable plans.

2. Use Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence to spot and call out strengths in others.

3. Build engagement by focusing on strengths.

4. Remember that two-thirds of people are strengths-blind and are surprised—and pleased—to uncover their strengths.

5. Call out the strengths that you see. You cannot go wrong by calling out strengths. What strengths do you see in the people around you?

Be hopeful. Be strong. Be brave. Be curious.

To find out more about using character strengths in teams as a project manager, read my upcoming book Be a Project Motivator: Unlock the Secrets of Strengths-Based Project Management.

Ruth Pearce believes that project managers have a much bigger organizational role to play in integrating and building empowered and purposeful teams. She is the founder of Project Motivator and creator of SBPM (Strengths-Based Project Management), an approach founded in evidence-based positive psychology practices to help project managers be more engaged and engaging. Through her company, she coaches project managers to accomplish great things. Ruth is also the author of “Be a Project Motivator: Unlock the Secrets of Strengths-Based Project Management” published by Berrett-Koehler. She has presented at regional project management conferences, including the PMI Global Conference in Los Angeles. In addition to coaching project managers, Ruth is the first US Thrive Programme consultant, helping sufferers to overcome anxiety and phobias. Having recently recovered from a lifelong phobia herself, she is committed to helping others enjoy their best life.