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Episode 77: “Nice PMs Finish First: How Kindness Pays Off” with Betty Chan

Betty Chan, a Senior Project Manager at Purpose, is the guest on this episode of the discuss how kindness pays off in Project Management.

Betty has a strong focus on process development. As a steady force on projects, she is the go-to person for making sure project goals are clear, promises are kept, and that step by step, everyone makes it happily to the finish line. Today, Betty and the host discuss how kindness pays off in Project Management.


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Transcript: Episode 77: “Nice PMs Finish First: How Kindness Pays Off” with Betty Chan

Can you share with us a little bit about your background?
I’m currently working as a senior PM at an organization called Purpose. It is an interesting organization because we work mostly to help build and support the movement around the social impact, and social good space. Generally, we are just trying to help to build a more open habitat.

I guess the way I came do project management you can say quite accidental, after college I went to business school, thinking that I will end in a corporation, but I ultimately realized that it was not my cup of tea. I ended up doing a lot of freelance design on my own and ultimately ended up being a project manager.

Can you just tell us how you got into this whole area of kindness?

It was less warm and cozy than most people think. I have been through some rough times, just like most of the project members, even designers and team members have. And a lot of times when I look back at the project, it is not so much about the details or the solutions that I recall. A lot of times, the things that stick with me are the gestures that my team has shown me throughout the project and that I have successfully shared back with them.

It’s just about being able to look back and realizing that, sure a profitable project is great at the end of the day, but as human beings, when we are walking away from the projects and companies, what we really truly remember are the small gestures, that connection, and compassion that I had from my teammates. On top of that, I am from New York, I’m a native New-Yorker and there is always such stereotype that we are rude and that we don’t know how to smile before we have a cup of coffee.

So, I like to, whenever I travel, to challenge that stereotype. Because, at the end of the day, I do find that New-Yorkers can be incredibly kind and it usually it works. But often I get mistaken for being a Canadian first.

How does kindness vary in terms of physical gesture in your experience?

I think it’s a lot like, when you travel, there is a lot of local custom and as a person when you walk into that movement, and you kind of want to be respectful of standards. A lot of them seem like no-brainers but simple things like the high-five or a hug can be perceived very differently, depending on where you are from. Like, for example, even within the US, as a New-Yorker, we are very sensitive about our state, if you don’t know a person and you just reach out and do what you think is a kind gesture, like reassuring hand on the person’s shoulder, it may not be welcomed, and when the person doesn’t react well, you just have to be respectful of that.

I also had a very interesting conversation with a gentleman from the South. He mentioned that a lot of examples of kindness that would work and top up as going above and beyond in New York or the Northern part of the US, may not in that way in the South. So, what they see as kindness might be a bit more effort than we would do in the North East.

Are there various levels of kindness and how do you formally introduce and ensure that people are going to be kind to each other within the project?

Regardless of what level of kindness, it simply starts with a very warm “Hello”. I don’t think it’s ever something that you have to walk up to the CEO and say “Hey, we need more kindness in the company”. It generally starts with yourself like how you walk the walk and how you are able to bring kindness to the table, as day-to-day, as a project manager, as a human, as a teammate. I think the first thing that is a no-brainer but I find a lot of people forget, especially in a work environment is that the person sitting next to you and across from you is just another person.

There is no superpower about them that makes them vulnerable like they’re unable to be susceptible to the lack of kindness in a workplace. So you just need to look up and say “Hey, good morning. How is your day? How is your afternoon?”, that you want to care about that person as a human being and the rest just comes pretty easy.

Do you do anything more formal to ensure, not necessarily on the individual level, the people are kind to each other but that there’s a culture of kindness within the project?

I would say that I haven’t seen any one-size-fits-all formula, the way I see it managed is actually through the smaller, day-to-day gestures. For example, every day, when you come to work in rush, you sit at your desk, you open the computer and you just start working, it does send a certain message to those people around you. Just like that, when you start a meeting, you just hit the crowd running, it’s the same principle.

The kindness is taking that conscious pause and you take that moment to just do an act of kindness, and it is really helpful. For me, one physical manifestation of that is, in the morning if there were some certain things that someone has done in the evening before, that I found very helpful, I would take a moment to go to them in person or just send them a note “Hey, remember that thing you did yesterday, it was very helpful. Thank you. I really appreciate that.”

What I noticed is that voluntary communication does have people smiling more throughout the day, it kind of reassures them “Oh I am good at something. I am doing something well. It actually helped the project to kick in the high gear.”

Can you elaborate a little bit more the area of costs?

Whenever we think about projects, I think, the things were consciously taught, to think about like the timeline, communication, and budget and I kind of think that kindness is a very critical piece of that equation. And it does come through more in communication. The reason why I say that as a project manager our job is to make sure it goes smoothly. And the only way to really do that is to have the right information and the correct dedication from your team, from day one to the very end. And the longer the product the harder it is to see that.

Having, doing these daily small acts of kindness throughout the project, sends the message to your team that makes them learn to trust and rely on you. On a project, if there’s a good communication, if a mistake is made, your team will be more comfortable sharing with you and that allows you as project manager to be two steps ahead, and provide the solution. If the things go sideways in your project and generally they do, but to be able to find the right solution without anyone feeling judged, and feel good when they come out on the other side.

It’s knowing that you and a project manager are on the same court. And to be able to get there with your teammate is through those daily gestures of kindness.

I guess if project start to go in the wrong direction is that where you know people almost feel like they’re under too much pressure to be kind, that kindness is replaced or removed by pressure?

“I don’t have enough time” or “I don’t have enough money” are the two things I hear a lot. It’s true when you’re busy, it’s really hard to focus on taking a moment or going out for a cup of coffee for 30 minutes. There are actually smaller stuff, there are the different level of kindness, that you can practice without having too much out of your own time.

There are times when a client throws you a curve ball or when the team feels like it is thrown under the bus, or when you say the quality of the website is not very good, it is very buggy, they might hear “Oh you think that my work is not good enough” and would end up being defensive. They might tell you that they didn’t have enough times, they didn’t have the right tools or the information to the best job that they can.

But I think if you have got to know each other as people and that he/she knows that you are in their corner when you say that, that the client came back and said that website is buggy, their brain starts to think in a different way. Instead of triggering the defensive mode, they are more open to talking about solutions to get there. So, if they stay close then your project won’t be able to get back on the right track.

And you were talking about how to put yourself first without appearing selfish. I think a lot of us would like to be able to do that better. Can you give us some insight from your experience about that?

The favorite thing I hear on an airplane is when a flight attendant is giving us the instructions on safety and the thing that they always say is “Please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others”. And I think that’s actually a really great way of thinking about how you should work for yourself. PMs tend to work really hard and they tend to give everything of themselves to the team and to the client. And they forget to look and realize that “Hey, I am also a critical member of the team and in order for this project to go forward, I have to function, I have to be in the right mindset, have enough happy things that I can share that back.”

It’s also a part of growing up, learning about what your limitations are and that you can’t compare to others. For me, for example, I am one of those types that can work really well into the night but I take care of myself by making sure that I have been set up and I block out work hours of my day to that, even if my team really needs me, they know that I have the left but I will try to make myself as available as possible.

But those are little things you have to do for yourself to make sure that you have the kindness and that protection that will allow you to give yourself to the team more, later on. There is a myth that you can’t be kind to yourself at the same time when you are kind to the others. That is actually a cycle that feeds each other and the better you treat yourself the better you are able to treat others at the end of the day.

For those who want to introduce more kindness to the workplace, where they can start?

There are a few ways. As I mentioned earlier, you can start with being more conscious, you can say “Hello, how’s your day?” That’s what opens the channel for communication. But I will say just start with yourself, like if you can on a daily basis give yourself or dedicate 10-minutes of me-time. Find that one thing that really inspires you, throughout the day of kindness, like really learning to open your mind and deal with yourself first. Find out what are gestures that I can do for me, that makes me want to do better my job, for their sake and a lot of time does exactly that’s what your team needs from you. You can start there.

And finally, your golden rule of project management is the one golden rule that you bring to every project. I’m guessing it’s possibly kindness and if it is, is there another one?

I always like to calculate, from the team perspective, there is no right or wrong, and there will always going to be something on the project that goes wrong. It is going to be an adventure and let’s do it together.

Show Notes

Connect with Betty Chan on LinkedIn

Find out more about Purpose here

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