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Why Do Some People on Your Project Trigger an Allergic Reaction in You?

Have you ever found that collaborating with stakeholders and team members can be a bit challenging? And have you ever experienced that some people – in certain situations – push a few of your buttons, but you’re unsure why it generates a strong reaction in you? If the answer is yes, then keep on reading.

Daniel Ofman’s core quadrant model offers valuable insight into fundamental human behaviours. I recently came across this powerful tool and would like to share it with you. It can help explain why you sometimes react strongly to some people and why they react strongly to you. It’s also a great tool for understanding what you need to do more of in order to become a more balanced project manager and leader.

As I explain the model, please keep the below 4-quadrant illustration in mind. We will start in the top left hand corner (core quality) and work our way around following the arrows. The green illustration on the right is an example.


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Core quality

We start in the top left-hand corner of the matrix, where it says core quality. The basic idea of the model is that everyone is born with a number of core qualities, like determination, open-mindedness or attention to detail.  These core qualities are real assets to us and it’s important that we make the best use of them. If you wonder what your core qualities are, think about some of the things you are naturally very good at – and always have been. Consider the feedback you receive from people around you. They may say things like “you’re always so organised” or “you’re always so calm”.


Sometimes however, we over-use our core quality, meaning that it becomes a weakness. This happens when we are too much of something. We are over-determined or too detail-oriented. We go into over-drive and misuse our quality.  In the core quadrant model, this is your pitfall (top right-hand quadrant).

Let’s assume for a moment that your core quality is determination. As a project manager and leader this is a good quality to have. You are determined that you will serve your customer, produce a quality product and that the team will deliver. At times of stress however when the pressure is on, you may go into overdrive and get so determined that you become unpleasantly pushy towards the team. This is your pitfall and a danger area that you must avoid. Being overly pushy will not help you create a conducive project environment or generate results. On the contrary: you might end up alienating or exploiting the team.


In order to avoid your pitfall and becoming too much, you have to focus on your challenge (bottom right-hand quadrant). Your challenge is the exact opposite of your pitfall.  If your pitfall is “pushiness”, then your challenge might be “patience”. If you become patient at the same time as you are determined it will make you a more complete project manager and leader. The idea is not to take away from your core quality and make you less determined. No. It’s about adding more patience to the mix so that there is balance between your core quality and your challenge. It’s about both/and, rather than either/or. In this example, we could say that you need to become patiently determined.


What’s really interesting is that too much of your challenge is likely to trigger an allergic reaction in you. Too much patience is “passivity” which represents your allergy. This means that you may lose it when you come across people who are passive. This is because your allergy is the opposite of your core quality. It’s also possible that you shy away from being more patient because you are afraid of becoming too passive. But your challenge (patience) and your allergy (passivity) is not the same thing. As long as you confuse your challenge with your allergy, your challenge will remain unattainable.

You can learn the most from people who you are the most allergic to because they have too much of something you are lacking. I find this really thought-provoking. When you react strongly to a team member or a stakeholder, it often says more about you than them. A team member may be quite relaxed about a task that needs to be completed, but in your mind they are passive and non-caring, which makes you more stressed and pushy. Not a good reaction. The team member might actually be on top of the task, but provokes a reaction from you because their approach is opposite to yours.

Another curious insight from this model is that the core quality of your life partner or best friend is likely to be your challenge, because opposites attract! But that also means that you may be married to your allergy! If you consider yourself an organised person for instance, you may be attracted to a life partner who is more relaxed than you. They may however trigger an allergic reaction in you when they become too disorganised!

What does my own core quadrant look like?

My own core quadrant isn’t too different from the example above. I am naturally a very driven and energetic person, which has its advantages when running a large project. Back in the days I would always ensure that all the ducks were in the row and I would often be the last one to leave the office. Plans were updated, minutes written up and emails were sent.

The pitfall however of being so driven and energetic is that I would sometimes go into overdrive and get obsessive – especially when the pressure was on. I would overwork myself and expect others to also put in 110%.  During those times my focus would narrow and I would favour speed and progress over quality. I remember that everything seemed very rushed. The problem with this approach is that not only is it exhausting, it’s also really inefficient because poor quality leads to rework and that’s not smart at all.

My challenge was to slow down, breathe and to take a step back from the detail. This can seem counter intuitive when you’re busy – I know it did to me – but I eventually got so tired that I stopped in my tracks. I unconsciously embraced my challenge and as I did, small miracles began to happen. When I stopped rushing from one thing to the other and instead took a step back from the detail, I was able to observe what was really going on. I became better able to lead the team and there was space for others to be seen and heard.

The reason why it was so hard for me to slow down was that I was confusing my challenge with my allergy. The extreme version of slowing down and taking a step back is to be inactive and lazy – my allergy. I have since learnt that I can be driven and energetic AND at the same time take a step back and not get over excited.  It may sound easy but it took me years to learn and to accept that running faster isn’t always the answer.

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What does your core quadrant look like?

Now it’s your turn to crate your own core quadrant. Use the below questions to guide you:

  1. What is a core quality of yours? Something you are inherently good at and that people compliment you for?
  2. What happens when you over-use that quality? What is your pitfall and in which project situations does it tend to show itself?
  3. The opposite of your pitfall is your challenge. This is a positive quality that you need more of to balance your strength. What is your challenge and how can you pay more attention to it?
  4. Finally, the extreme version of your challenge is your allergy. What does your allergy look like and in which project situations are you confronted with it? How can you stop confusing your challenge with your allergy?


Read more on Daniel Ofman’s core quadrant model


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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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