All About the Dopamine: Project Management, Client Relations and Keeping Brains Happy

August 31st, 2014 by

Dopamine. The happiness hormone. It’s important to your body’s functionality, but not only that, it’s important in relationship management – even client relationships. How do you leverage the power of this reward-based hormone [for effective project management and] to establish strong relationships with your clients?

Earlier this year I was in the market for buying a car. When I finally settled on “the car” I had an expectation, based on the sticker, of what the car would cost. When I was sitting across from the salesman (a friend of a friend), I learned the car was $2,000 less than I expected. This, of course, made me happy. Dopamine rush…

Why was I purchasing a car in the first place? Well, my car was at the shop (again), and the mechanic told me the repair costs would be $300. I must say, I was not a fan of the $300 repair bill, but I agreed to it. When I arrived to pay and pick up my car, I was told the bill would actually be $600. On top of that, I would need to leave it for an additional two days. This, of course, did not make me happy. No Dopamine rush…

Both are examples of feelings around expectations — met/exceeded and not met. Both produce different feelings. There is a physiological reason why we are disappointed when life does not meet our expectations and happy when life does. David Rock, (author of Your Brain at Work, 2009, and executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute) says it’s all about the dopamine. The neurotransmitter dopamine is released in our brain when expectations are met or are exceeded because, and to put it bluntly, it makes us feel good. Conversely, when expectations are not met, the brain reacts along the other continuum and we feel something closer to pain. Mr. Rock explains, “If we expect to get x and we get x, there’s a slight rise in dopamine. If we expect to get x and we get 2x, there’s a greater rise. But if we expect to get x and get 0.9x, then we get a much bigger drop.”

Our job is to make our clients happy (which makes our team happy). As a busy Internet marketing agency, juggling many projects and clients at once, we have to set clear expectations with equally clear paths for meeting, managing, and even exceeding those expectations. Effective project management is essential. Our job is to calmly communicate scope, budget, timeline, and process with both our team and the client. From there, our goal is to maintain (or occasionally reset) those expectations as needed. It’s challenging, but if you consider the potential for chaos and unhappiness when you don’t set those expectations, you see the need for setting the right expectations in the beginning so that your team can share the good feeling in the brain at the conclusion of the project.

Setting Expectations

Here are 3 tips that can help your team set and manage client expectations:

1. Say it clearly.
Once you have collaborated with the client to identify goals, you must define the plan your team will take to arrive at those goals. Goals need to translate into agreed upon scopes, budgets, timelines, and processes. Once your team is clear about what the expectations should be in all of these areas, it’s time to communicate. The client will agree to scope, budget, and timeline. The process will help clients understand the progress your team is making toward reaching their goals. You may set weekly status update calls, provide reporting documents, or any combination of these things to allow both your team and the client to keep a pulse on the progress of the project. A recurring expectation of communication around updates helps the client to feel reassured and gives the team smaller increments of time to complete tasks (to show progress) along the way.

2. Raise your hand
If things are going off track (deadlines, budget, timelines…etc.), check back in with the client. Raise your hand. Make them aware. The tip in setting and maintaining expectations is to let clients know when something is no longer aligning. For example, clients can some times gregariously request navigation changes once a website design has approval. A nod to a budget and time increase (make sure to stay calm and compassionate) will usually bring things back on track. If the client insists because the change is a rather important addition, this is a great place to reset expectations around the project. Keeping everyone on the same page is very important at every turn of the project.

3. Be calm when communicating ‘uncalm’ news
My mom says, ‘The only thing that’s the end of the world is… the end of the world.” She probably stole that quote from someone else. :) But the point is… as frustrating as many things may seem, it is not the end of the world and often (maybe even the majority of the time) solutions can be found to realign things. Your attitude is key. When things become tense…be calm. When unanticipated events threaten to derail the project, stop and take a breath. Remember you have a creative team, and when things start to fall away, don’t be afraid to bring others in. You will find that more than 95 percent of the time, there is a solution If you are calm, the people around you are more likely to be calm, and calm people can tap into their calm brains to find solutions. Even though it may seem that way, the sky is not falling and Chicken Little has no place in your business if you expect to get things done.

In essence, the point here is that you get better results on both sides when you find the happy medium that will allow you to under promise and over deliver. Ideally, the client expects X, you deliver 2X, and they keep coming back again and again for the dopamine you’re pushing. :)

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