Emotions in Project Management


Lev Virine, Ph.D., P.Eng.; Michael Trumper; Eugenia Virine, PMP

Intaver Institute Inc.

Calgary, Alberta, Canada


In this paper we will learn about how decisions in project management are affected by our emotions. People make choices under the influence of emotions all the time. Emotions can lead to mental mistakes; mental mistakes lead to low quality decisions. We will not attempt a comprehensive review of human emotions; instead, we will explain why even the most emotionally intelligent people make irrational decisions when they find themselves in stressful situations. We will also provide few choice engineering ideas that will help you to mitigate the negative impact of emotions on your decisions in project management.

The headbutt felt around the world

What was your most memorable moment of 2006 football World Cup in Germany? If you are like us, it was the moment during final match between France and Italy where France’s captain, national hero, and talisman Zinedine Zidane, playing in his final match for France, was sent off in disgrace for giving Italy’s Marco Materazzi’s a Liverpool kiss to the chest – more commonly known as a head-butt – in retaliation to a series of verbal insults the Italian had barraged him with. Italy won 5–3 on penalties. Millions of his fans all around the world were were left to wonder how such an experienced player as Zinedine Zidane was goaded into acting so recklessly. Though there was some insinuation that Materazzi had managed to go as low as mentioning Zidane’s mother, it did not justify Zidane’s actions.

We can imagine what happened to Zidane at this moment. It was extra time in perhaps the most important game of his career. France was on the verge of repeating as World Cup champions, an achievement that would place them in very rare company in the annals of soccer greats. It is in this type of environment, where the pressure to succeed is so great, that even seasoned performers find it very difficult to perform at their best. Strangely, the object that most affects their performance is not a tall foul mouthed Italian soccer star, or some other external force, it is a small organ located deep in our brains, the amygdala (Swanson and Petrovich 1998, Whalen and Phelps 2009). The amygdala is almond-shaped group of nuclei located deep within the medial temporal lobes of the brain. The primary purpose of the amygdala is the processing and memory of emotional reactions.

When people perceive danger or become involved in other situations which cause fear or anger, a signal is sent to amygdala, where an association with a memory of the stimuli is formed. The signal is then passed to other portions of the brain which triggers a response to the danger. This response can cause different symptoms: rapid heartbeat, increased respiration, stress-hormone release, and even temporary freezing. In addition, people’s ability to process information rationally becomes very limited for a period of time. This period of irrationality can be just few seconds, a few minutes, or longer depending on the individual and situation. During this period of time, people will make decisions based on emotion rather than analysis. Essentially, during times of high stress, our amygdala sets off our instinctive defense mechanisms significantly faster than they can be shut down.

This mechanism was developed in the brains of our remote ancestors millions and millions of years ago and helped protect our predecessors from the many dangers they faced in the hostile environments in which they lived. Nowadays, the perceived threats in the environment are different, instead of a terrifying encounter with a large carnivore during the early Pleistocene, it may be a terrifying encounter with senior project manager. Regardless of the perceived threat, our reaction to danger remains the same. Perhaps the same process took over Zidane just before the infamous incident, when under increasing stress a cascade of signals from his amygdala overwhelmed Zidane’s ability to think rationally and led to the delivery of the head-butt and his eventual ignominious dismissal from the match.


It is important to note, everybody from presidents to janitors is susceptible to the same symptoms. If you happen to come across someone who is completely unaffected by emotions, there are two possible explanations: you are on the set of a Star Trek movie and are looking at an actor playing a Vulcan, or you have stumbled upon a corpse. This is not to deny that there are differences in individuals’ ability to handle stress and act appropriately in stressful situations. However even for those people who are able to maintain the best control, they will eventually succumb to their own biology and start to make instinctive or irrational choices. Often this is triggered not by simple stimuli, as in a clearly defined threat, but in complex situations where the real threat to is themselves or, in the case of project managers, to their projects.


To read entire paper (click here)


About the Authors


pmwj37-Aug2015-Virines-PHOTO LEVLev Virine, PhD

Intaver Institute
Alberta, Canada


Lev D. Virine, Ph.D.
has more than 25 years of experience as a structural engineer, software developer, and project manager. He has been involved in major projects performed by Fortune 500 companies and government agencies to establish effective decision analysis and risk management processes as well as to conduct risk analyses of complex projects. Lev’s current research interests include the application of decision analysis and risk management to project management. He writes and speaks around the world on the decision analysis process, the psychology of judgment and decision-making and risk management. Lev can be contacted at [email protected]

To view other works by Lev Virine, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/lev-virine-phd/


pmwj19-feb2014-virine-AUTHOR2 TRUMPERMichael Trumper

Intaver Institute
Alberta, Canada


Michael Trumper
has over 20 years’ experience in communications, software design, and project risk and management. Michael is a partner at Intaver Institute Inc., a vendor of project risk management and analysis software. Michael has authored papers on quantitative methods in project estimation and risk analysis. He is a co-author of two books on project risk management and decision analysis. He has developed and delivered project risk analysis and management solutions to clients that include NASA, DOE, and Lockheed Martin.

To view other works by Michael Trumper, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/michael-trumper/


pmwj36-Jul2015-Virines-EUGENIAEugenia Virine, PMP

Alberta, Canada


Eugenia Virine
, PMP, is a senior manager for revenue development at Greyhound Canada. Over the past 12 years Eugenia has managed many complex projects in the areas of transportation and information technology. Her current research interests include project risk and decision analysis, project performance management, and project metrics. Eugenia holds B. Comm. degree from University of Calgary.

To view other works by Lev Virine, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/eugenia-virine-pmp/