Project Management Institute

Improving project results by assisting team members to change their self-images


Research has shown that how you see yourself affects your performance. How does this apply to projects? To achieve any goal within a project, an individual needs to believe they can do it. Sometimes this may be a problem, whether the individual consciously realizes it or not. This session discusses how to assist team member's increase their self-esteem so they may reach project goals.

This session provides practical tools for assisting project members in recognizing self-image blockages and replacing them with positive concepts. These tools are based on current research and will be immediately useful for session attendees.

The result of improved self-concepts of team members will be multi-fold within projects, including clearer communications, improved individual and team morale, and ultimately, projects that achieve their goals.

This session that is related to this paper follows the Guided Design Method.

What is Self-Image?

How you picture yourself and how you think others see you, which is the definition of self-image, affects much of your working life.

Self-doubt is a much more common problem than many people would like to believe. I am convinced that, to one extent or another, everyone – and I do mean everyone – harbors self-doubt. It's a trait we're handed with our birth certificate. (Ringer 1990)

Self-esteem and self-confidence are closely related to self-image. Self-esteem is our internal feelings and evaluation of ourselves based on our “perceived” self-image. Both are largely based on our feedback from parents, peers and other important figures while growing up (, 1998).

Abraham Maslow depicted the need for achieving self-esteem in his well-known Needs Model, as shown in Exhibit 1:

Maslow's Needs Model

Exhibit 1: Maslow's Needs Model

Maslow noticed, while working with monkeys, that some needs take precedence over others. According to Maslow's model, once the physiological, safety and belonging needs are met, we begin to look for fulfilling our self-esteem needs.

Maslow noted two versions of esteem needs, a lower one and a higher one. The lower one is the need for the respect of others, the need for status, fame, glory, recognition, attention, reputation, appreciation, dignity, and even dominance. The higher form involves the need for self-respect, including such feelings as confidence, competence, achievement, mastery, independence, and freedom. Note that this is the “higher” form because, unlike the respect of others, once you have self-respect, it's a lot harder to lose!

The negative version of these needs is low self-esteem and inferiority complexes. Maslow felt that Adler was right in proposing that low self-esteem and inferiority complexes were the root of most of our psychological problems. In modern countries, most of us have what we need in regard to our physiological and safety needs. We often experience a reasonable amount of love and belonging, too – however, a little respect often seems very hard to get.

Are Self-Esteem Issues a Problem for Project Teams?

Assuming that team members may have self-esteem issues, is this a problem for the project team? If team members do not feel or display respect for each other, feel they are being recognized, or believe they themselves are competent, does this mean the project will have problems?

Around 1990, post-project analyses began to indicate that most failures are indeed caused by behavioural factors in project teams. Such factors include poor morale, lack of employee commitment, lack of functional commitment, poor productivity, and poor interpersonal relationships. (Kerzner, 1998)

In many studies of corporate America, adults do not appear to be different from the children they once were, and the social workings of the job reminiscent of playground politics. This does not come as a surprise to human resource consultants who have been saying for years that “people skills” are important at every level of a company's operations. The studies concluded that it was the social isolation, presumably due to a low EQ, that led to diminished work performance. (Shapiro, 1997)

In summary, studies show that projects fail mostly because of behavioural factors, and adults with low emotional intelligence exhibit diminished work performance.

The Project Manager as a Facilitator of Growth

Going with the assumption that project team members have a good chance of harboring self-esteem problems that may result in reduced work performance, what can the project manager do to facilitate self-esteem growth in team members?

Of course, related questions that arise are: Should the project manager concern him/herself with this matter? Shouldn't only team members who do not exhibit low self-esteem be asked to join the team?

Some authorities state that if a team member is under-performing, first you counsel them, and if that doesn't work, you fire them. Others state that it the cost of firing and rehiring is too great to not work with someone to improve their situation on a project.

This paper is working under the assumption that all individuals are capable of greater self-esteem (since no one is perfect). Granted, in some cases the project manager may need to get the assistance of its human resources department to handle specific behavioural problems.

That said, the project manager is in an ideal situation for facilitating growth of team members, since the manager is also a leader. Leadership is about change, and changing people is influencing people to accomplish goals, whether the goals are organizational or personal (Brooks, 2002).

Methods of Facilitating Self-Growth

Methods the project manager can use to facilitate the growth of self-esteem in team members include common management/leadership techniques, such as:

  1. Role Modeling
  2. Putting Project Mechanisms such as Roles Definition and Communications Structures in Place
  3. Facilitating or Making Available Self-Esteem Training
  4. Counseling

1.   Role Modeling

One of the aspects of being a project manager is being the role model for the team. As the 3GSL® Visionary and Transformational Leadership model states:

  • Leaders are always modeled and imitated
  • Certain values and behaviours are important and correct in all organizations and cultures
  • Leader behaviours are magnified many-fold by subordinates
    • Good behaviours benefit many people
    • Bad behaviours cause much suffering

Again, adults can be compared to children. For example, children require models to grow. They will model their parents, their older siblings, and of course, their friends, especially when they are teenagers. When do children feel that they may want to change some of their behaviours? When their current behaviours do not get good responses from their classmates, family or other social groups. How do they change their behaviours? Often, they first observe how those who are more successful act, and integrate some of those behaviours into their actions.

2.   Putting Project Mechanisms such as Roles Definition and Communications Structures in Place

The performance in one area of a project can affect the other areas of a project, with the factors at the top of the hierarchy influencing those that come after (Rubin, Fry and Plovnick, 1978):


As part of their jobs, project managers usually ensure that environmental influences (for example, team location), goals of the team, roles and processes are clearly defined and communicated. By doing so, the manager provides team members with a comfortable, unambiguous working situation. When team members feel comfortable, they are more able to concentrate on self-esteem and actualization goals (physiological, safety and belonging needs are not creating problems.)

3.   Facilitating or Making Available Self-Esteem Training

Project managers can incorporate growth techniques into their everyday or weekly project routines, and/or ensure team members get training on interpersonal and self-esteem building topics.

Such training and techniques can include methods for using affirmations, visualization, positive thinking games, and role playing exercises.

One visualization technique for building self-confidence is thinking and practicing acting “as if.” Acting “as if” you are a person with the ability to nurture and care for yourself may well be the first step to becoming that person.

Team members might also discuss and participate in team building exercises based on Robert Ringer's four methods to deal with self-doubt:

  1. 1.    Realize that people we look up to also harbor self-doubt. Find stories about famous people, and how they overcame self-doubt.
  2. 2.    Ask yourself, “What are the downside consequences if I should fail to accomplish my objective?”
  3. 3.    Short-circuit the self-doubt cycle as quickly as possible by realizing that the world can be very negative, and that every successful person has been told many times that what they wanted to do couldn't be done.
  4. 4.    Face the reality that you will fail – often and in a big way, but that you have to learn through your mistakes. Think of mistakes as an opportunity to grow.

These methods agree with the practices promoted by Albert Ellis, Ph.D., and Robert A. Harper, Ph.D.(1990), which teach people how to deal effectively with their own emotional issues.

4.   Counseling

How do you assist team members to change, if change is required? Counseling is one method. As defined by (Truell, 1981):

Counseling is an activity that focuses on changing a person's behaviour. It may be corrective or preventive in nature and is designed to help an employee examine those conditions, attitudes, feelings, perceptions and behaviour patterns which may be hindering effective performance on the job and/or causing problems for the employee. In this activity, the manager assumes the role of a facilitator who helps the employee adjust to his or her work situation and/or personal situation through a problem-solving process.

Truell offers some questions that managers can ask themselves, others involved in the project, and the employee themselves, to determine why the employees' performance is not satisfactory:

  1. Does the employee know what he or she is supposed to do?
    • The remedy for this situation is for the manager and his or her employee to spend more time together clarifying exactly what the employee is supposed to do.
  2. Does the employee know what is considered “satisfactory performance”?
    • Both the employee and his or her manager must have a clear understanding of just what is considered “satisfactory performance” – above which can be measured excellence and below which can be measured failure.
  3. Does the employee know that his or her performance is “unsatisfactory”?
    • Some studies have indicated that 50 to 60% of employee performance problems stem from the simple fact that employees do not know whether they are doing well or poorly – there has been no feedback on their performance. If lack of feedback is the problem, the solution is not coaching or counseling; instead, the manager should work with the employee in developing feedback systems so both the manager and the employee can monitor the employee's performance on an on-going basis.
  4. Is the employee encountering obstacles or barriers in trying to perform?
    • These include such things as improper tools or equipment, inadequate resources to work with, and external factors such as the weather. The manager first step is to remove these obstacles; if they cannot be removed, the manager can coach or counsel the employee on how to deal with these obstacles.
  5. Is it worth doing anything about? Ask these questions to determine the answer to this:
    • Is this an isolated situation or a common occurrence?
    • Is it important?
    • What would happen if we did nothing?
    • Who or what does this behaviour impact?
    • Am I reflecting some of my own personal biases, preferences and/or priorities?
    • Should I change my own expectations?
    • Could I live with it as it is?

If the answers to 1 to 4 is “no,” then the manager should ask him/herself the following questions:

  1. Can the employee do the job? (Do they know how to do it? Does he/she have the knowledge and skill?) If no, training and coaching are required.
  2. Are any organizational reward and/or punishment systems actually perpetuating the employee's present behaviour? (That is, is there something in the organization that is rewarding the current behaviour?)
  3. How does the employee feel about his or her performance? (That is, is there an attitude problem? Is the employee disenchanted with the job?) The employee must see that acting differently will help him or her for the employee to change his or her behaviour.


Our self-image and self-esteem does affect our performance. Project managers can assist their teams in improving their self-images by modeling desired behaviour, providing project mechanisms for a secure environment, providing informal and formal training, and counseling, where required. Likewise, project members can improve their self-images and contribute more effectively to project results.



Brooks, H, PhD. (2002). Team Building. BMMTEC.

Ellis, A. Ph.D & Harper, R. A. Ph.D., (1990). A Guide to Rational Living. Melvin Powers Wilshire Book Company.

Kerzner, H. (1998). In Search of Excellence in Project Management. John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Ringer, R. J., (1990). Million Dollar Habits. WYNWOOD Press.

Rubin, I., Plovnick, M. S. & Fry, R. C. (1978). Task-Oriented Team Development. McGraw-Hill.

Truell, G. F. (1981). Coaching and Counseling, Key Skills for Managers. PAT Publications.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.



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