A summary of major research findings regarding the human element in project management

University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

David L. Wilemon

Syracuse University

One of the most significant developments in management thought and practice during the past two decades has been the accelerated emphasis on project management in administering complex tasks and programs. Project management is now a widely utilized management system. The early project management literature tended to be oriented around the development and explanation of the tools and techniques of the project manager.1 Since the late 1960’s, however, increased research attention has been placed on the behavioral and organizational dimensions of the project management concept. This research emphasis has resulted in a growing body of knowledge which helps to explain the myriad of complex human factors which contribute to project management effectiveness.

A review and synthesis of the most relevant research which has contributed to the understanding of the human element in project management is appropriate at this time in the life-cycle of project management. Although the authors reviewed dozens of articles, some important research may have been neglected. Space limitations preclude a complete coverage of all the relevant research. In some areas, pertinent research dealing with general management problems has been cited to further contribute to the understanding of the interpersonal dimensions of project management.

Five major areas were selected for a review of key research contributions. These areas include: 1) leadership styles/interpersonal skills; 2) conflict management; 3) decision making styles and team building skills; 4) organizational design and project manager authority relationships; and 5) relationships of the project team with the parent, client, and other external organizations.

Leadership Styles/Interpersonal Skills

The leadership abilities and interpersonal skills of the project manager are critical to effective project management performance. While there has been much discussion on the role of leadership in project management, only recently has there been a growing interest in empirical investigations of some of the determinants of effective project management leadership.

Lawrence and Lorsch (1967) investigated the differences between effective and ineffective integrators (managerial positions like project managers) in terms of their behavioral styles in dealing with others in their organizations.2 Ten integrators were rated as “effective” and ten were evaluated as “less effective” (superiors’ ratings were utilized). They found that:

  • Effective integrators have a significantly higher need for affiliation than the integrators rated as less effective. Differently put, the effective integrators had higher needs for interpersonal involvement, interaction, and demonstrated empathy in dealing with others.
  • No statistically significant findings were found between the effective and less effective integrators in their need for achievement. A tendency, however, did emerge which seemed to indicate that the more effective integrators had a lower need for achievement than their counterparts.
  • The need for power was rated approximately the same for the effective and the less effective integrators.
  • Integrators rated as effective “prefer to take significantly more initiative and leadership, they are aggressive, confident, persuasive, and verbally fluent. In contrast, less effective integrators avoid situations that involve tension and decisions.”3
  • Effective integrators also are more ambitious, forceful, and effective in communication than those rated as less effective.

Hodgetts (1968) empirically addressed the means of overcoming the “authority gap” in project management.4 Researching project management in aerospace, construction, chemicals, and state government environments, he found the following:

  • Negotiation skills were important in aerospace and construction project environments.
  • Personality and/or persuasive ability was considered important in all the project management situations.
  • The project manager’s competence was considered important in all the project management situations.
  • The project manager’s competence was considered important in aerospace, construction, and in chemicals.
  • Reciprocal favors were noted as important as a surrogate for authority in aerospace and construction.
  • The combined sample of firms (aerospace, construction, chemicals, and state government) rated the four authority supplements as “very important”, “important”, or “not important”. The following represents the significance of each technique as rated by the project managers in overcoming authority deficiencies. (Percentages are for those authority surrogates rated as either very important or important).

— Competence                                          98%

— Personality and/or Persuasive Ability      96%

— Negotiation Ability                                 92%

— Reciprocal Favors                                 47%

Gemmill and Wilemon’s exploratory research (1970) on forty-five project managers and supporting project team members focused on identifying several influence bases utilized by project managers in eliciting support.5 Their research suggested the following:

  • Authority, reward, punishment, expertise, and referent power are sources of influence frequently utilized by project managers in gaining support for their projects. Each influence mode can have different effects on the organizational climate of the project organization.
  • Two fundamental management styles used by project managers were identified. The first style relied primarily on the project manager’s authority, his ability to reward, and his ability to block the attainment of objectives by those who support him — punishment. The second style relied on an expert referent influence style.

Gemmill and Thamhain’s empirical research (1974) of twenty-two project managers and sixty-six project support personnel addressed the relationship of the project manager’s utilization of the interpersonal influence and project performance.6 Their research revealed the following:

  • Support project personnel rank the eight influence methods as follows (1 is most important, 8 is least important):
    Influence Method Mean
    Authority 3.0
    Work Challenge 3.2
    Expertise 3.3
    Future Work Assignments 4.6
    Salary 4.6
    Promotion 4.8
    Friendship 6.2
    Coercion 7.8
  • Project managers who are perceived to utilize expertise and work challenge as influence modes experience higher levels of project performance.
  • Project performance is positively associated with high degrees of support, open communication among project participants, and task involvement by those supporting the project manager.
  • The use of authority by project managers as a means to influence support personnel led to lower levels of project performance.

Conflict Management

It is widely accepted that project environments produce inevitable conflict situations.7 Increasingly, the ability of project managers to handle these conflicts is being recognized as a critical determinant of successful project performance. Researchers have addressed the causes of disagreements in project management and the means by which conflict is managed.

Determinants of Conflict

Wilemon’s study (1971) on delineating fundamental causes of conflict in the Apollo Program revealed that:8

  • The greater the diversity of expertise among the project team members, the greater the potential for conflict to develop.
  • The lower the project manager’s power to reward and punish, the greater the potential for conflict to develop.
  • The less the specific objectives of a project are understood by project team members, the more likely that conflict will develop.
  • The greater the ambiguity of roles among the project team members, the more likely conflict will develop.
  • The greater the agreement on superordinate goals (top management objectives), the lower the potential for detrimental conflict.
  • The lower the project manager’s formal authority over supporting functional and staff units, the higher the probability that conflict will occur.

Butler’s theory-oriented paper (1973) develops, a number of propositions on the primary causes of conflict in project management.9 Many of his propositions are suppoted by prior research on conflict in various organizational settings—not exclusively project management. A few of the propositions advanced by Butler may be summarized as follows:

  • Conflict may be either functional (beneficial) or dysfunctional (detrimental).
  • Conflict is often caused by the revised interaction patterns of professional team members in project organizations.
  • Conflict also develops as a result of the difficulties of team members adapting their professional objectives to project work situations and requirements.
  • Conflict often is the result of the difficulties of diverse professionals working together in a project team situation where there is pressure for consensus.
  • Role ambiguity and stress by the project managers and supporting functional personnel is more likely to occur when project authority is not clearly defined.
  • Competition over functional resources, especially functional personnel, is likely to produce conflict.
  • Conflict may develop over the lack of professional incentives derived from functional specialists participating in project-oriented work.

Thamhain and Wilemon’s research (1974) focused on the causes and intensity of various conflict sources.10 Utilizing a sample of 100 project managers, their study measured the degree of conflict experienced from several variables common to project environments which were thought particularly conducive to the generation of conflict situations.

  • The potential sources of conflict researched revealed the following rank-order for conflict experienced by project managers:
    1. schedules
    2. project priorities
    3. manpower resources
    4. technical conflicts
    5. administrative procedures
    6. cost objectives
    7. personality conflicts
  • The most intense conflicts occur with the supporting functional departments followed by conflict with personnel assigned to the project team from functional departments.
  • The lowest degree (intensity) of conflict occured between the project manager and his immediate subordinates.

Thamhain and Wilemon followed their 1974 research with a study focused on measuring the degree of conflict experienced in each of the four generally accepted project life-cycle phases, namely, project formation, build-up, main program, and phase-out.11 Results reported from this research include:

  • Disagreements over schedules result in the most intense conflict situations over the entire life cycle of a project.
  • The mean conflict intensities over the four life cycle stages reveal the following rank order:

    Project Formation

    1. project priorities
    2. administrative procedures
    3. schedules
    4. manpower resources
    5. cost
    6. technical conflicts
    7. personality

    Build-up Phase

    1. project priorities
    2. schedules
    3. administrative procedures
    4. technical conflicts
    5. manpower resources
    6. personality
    7. cost

    Main Program Phase

    1. schedules
    2. technical conflicts
    3. manpower resources
    4. project priorities
    5. administrative procedures, cost, personality


    1. schedules
    2. personality
    3. manpower resources
    4. project priorities
    5. cost
    6. technical conflicts
    7. administrative procedures
  • Suggestions for minimizing detrimental conflict in each of the four life cycle states were also developed in the study.

Conflict Handling Methods

If recognizing some of the primary determinants of conflict is a first step in effective conflict management, the second step is understanding how conflictful situations are managed in the project environment. Lawrence and Lorsch in their 1967 study examined the methods that “integrators” used in handling conflicts.12 The following items from their study are considered pertinent:

  • The uses of three conflict handling modes were examined, namely, the confrontation or problem-solving mode, the smoothing approach, and the forcing mode. The utilization of the latter often results in open competition or a win-lose situation.
  • The most effective integrators relied most heavily on the confrontation approach.
  • Functional managers supporting the integrators in the most effective integrated organizations also relied more on the confrontation approach than the other two modes.
  • Functional managers in the highly integrated organizations employed “more forcing, and/or less smoothing behavior” than their counterparts in the less effective organizations.

Thamhain and Wilemon (1974), building on the methodologies of Lawrence and Lorsch,13 Blake and Mouton,14 and Burke,15 examined the effects of five conflict handling modes (forcing, confrontation, compromising, smoothing, and withdrawal) on the intensity of conflict experienced.16 They found:

  • When interacting with personnel assigned from functional organizations, the forcing and withdrawal methods were most often associated with increased conflict in the project management environments.
  • Project managers experienced more conflict when they utilized the forcing and confrontation modes with functional support departments.
  • The utilization of the confrontation, compromise, and smoothing approaches by project managers were often associated with reduced degrees of conflict in dealing with assigned personnel.
  • The withdrawal approach was associated with lower degrees of conflict. (This may be detrimental to overall project performance.)

To determine the actual conflict handling styles utilized by project managers, research was conducted by Thamhain and Wilemon (1975) in conjunction with their study on conflict in project life-cycles.17 The results reported included:

  • The problem-solving or confrontation mode was the most frequently utilized mode of project managers (70%).
  • The compromising approach ranked second with the smoothing approach ranking third. The forcing and withdrawal approach ranked fourth and fifth.
  • Project managers often use the full spectrum of conflict handling modes in managing diverse personalities and various conflict situations.

Decision Making Styles and Team Building Skills

The degree of participative decision making and esprit de corps have considerable impact upon not only the human aspects of the project management environment but also upon the perceived success of projects.

Baker, Murphy and Fisher in their study of over 650 projects, including over 200 variables, found that certain variables were significantly associated with the perceived failure of projects, others were significantly associated with the perceived success of projects, and still others were linearly related to failure/success, e.g.:18

  • Lack of project team participation in decision making and problem solving, lack of team spirit, lack of sense of mission within the project team, job insecurity, and insufficient influence of the project manager were variables significantly associated with perceived project failure.
  • In contrast, project team participation in setting schedules and budgets was significantly related to perceived success.
  • The relative degree of goal commitment of the project team and the degree to which task orientation (with a back-up social orientation) was employed as a means of conflict resolution were linearly related to project success.

Kloman’s study contrasting the Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter projects revealed that several elements contributed to the higher levels of actual and perceived success associated with the Lunar Orbiter project:

  • Lunar Orbiter benefited from a strong sense of teamwork within both the customer and contractor organizations and in their relations with each other. Surveyor was handicapped by the lack of an equivalent sense of teamwork, particularly in the early years of the program.
  • Senior management was committed to full support of the Lunar Orbiter project and was personally involved in overall direction at both the NASA field center and in the prime contractor’s organization. There was far less support and involvement in the case of Surveyor.19

Organizational Design and Project Manager Authority Relationships

Several research studies have investigated the impact of organizational arrangements and the authority of the project manager. Baker, Murphy and Fisher found that with respect to organizational and authority arrangements:

  • Excessive structuring within the project team and insufficient project manager authority were significantly related to perceived project failure.
  • Adequate and appropriate organizational structures and effective planning and control mechanisms were significantly related to perceived project success. (Note that no particular type of organizational structure or particular type of planning and control mechanism was associated with success. This finding supports the contingency theory of management.)
  • Degree of bureaucracy and degree of spatial distance between the project manager and the project site were linearly related to success/failure, i.e., the greater the bureaucracy and the greater the spatial distance, the more likely the project was perceived as a failure.20

Marquis and Straight studied approximately 100 R & D projects (mostly under one million dollars) and found that:

  • Projects in which administrative personnel report to the project manager are less likely to have cost or schedule overruns.21
  • Projects organized on a functional basis produce better technical results.
  • Matrix organizations in which there is a small project team and more than half of the technical personnel remain in their functional departments are more likely to achieve technical excellence and, at the same time, to meet cost and schedule deadlines, than purely funcitonal or totally projectized organizations.22

Baker, Fisher and Murphy also found that insufficient project manager authority and influence were significantly related to cost and schedule overrun.

Chapman found that:

  • A matrix structure works best for (1) small, in-house projects, (2) where project duration is two years or less; (3) where assignments to technical divisions are minimal, and (4) where a field installation has substantial fluctuation in the amount of project activity it is handling.
  • A matrix structure begins to lose its flexibility on large, long duration projects, and therefore a more fully projectized structure is appropriate in these circumstances.23

In contrasting functional organizations with project organizations, Reeser found some unique human problems associated with projectized organizations:

  • Insecurity about possible unemployment, career retardation, and personal development is felt by subordinates in project organizations to be significantly more of a problem than by subordinates in functional organizations.
  • Project subordinates appear to be more frustrated by “make work” assignments, ambiguity and conflict in the work environment, and multiple levels of management than functional subordinates.
  • Project subordinates seem to feel less loyal to their organization than functional subordinates.24

The work of Fred E. Fiedler is the cornerstone of much of the current research and literature concerning effective leadership styles under various levels of authority and for various task situations. Space limitations preclude describing his model which supports a contingency-oriented approach to leadership but one of his major findings was that:

Both the directive managing, task-oriented leaders and the non-directive, human relations-oriented leaders were successful under some conditions. Which leadership style is the best depends on the favorableness of the particular situation and the leader. In very favorable or in very unfavorable situations for getting a task accomplished by group effort, the autocratic, task-controlling, managing leadership works best. In situations intermediate in difficulty, the non-directive, permissive leader is more successful.25

The findings of Jay Galbraith also support a contingency-based view of project management organizational design.26

Relationships of the Project Team with the Parent, the Client, and Other External Organizations

The patterns of relationships among the project team, the parent, the client, and other external organizations are extremely important to the perceived success of projects. Baker, Murphy, and Fisher found that:

  • Coordinations and relations patterns explained seventy-seven percent of the variance of perceived project success. (Stepwise multiple regression analysis with Perceived Success as the dependent variable. Perceived Success Factor included satisfaction of all the parties concerned and technical performance.)
  • Success criteria salience and consensus among the project team, the parent and the client also significantly contributed to perceived project success (second heaviest factor in the regression equation).
  • Frequent feedback (but not meddling or interference) from the parent and the client, a flexible parent organization, lack of legal encumbrances or governmental red tape, and a minimal number of public governmental agencies involved with the project were pertinent variables significantly related to perceived project success.27

These findings supported Kloman’s earlier study:

  • From a management viewpoint, the greatest contrast between the Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter projects was the nature of the relationships of participating organizations, or what might be called the institutional environment. For Surveyor, there was an unusual degree of conflict and friction between Headquarters, JPL and the prime contractor. For Lunar Orbiter, harmony and teamwork prevailed. Institutions and people worked together in a spirit of mutual respect.28


Research regarding the human element in project management has enabled practitioners to formulate strategies which can not only improve the human behavioral aspects of project management but which also result in more effective project performance. The many research projects are relatively consistent with each other. Some of the principal findings which should be constantly stressed are:

  • There is no single panacea in the field of project management; some factors work well in one environment while other factors work well in other environments;
  • It is important to vest a project manager with as much authority as the environment permits; once vested with his authority, the project manager is well advised to utilize his expertise and work challenge as influence modes rather than his formal authority;
  • The confrontation or problem-solving approach is generally more successful than the smoothing approach or the forcing mode of conflict resolution.
  • Participative decision making styles are generally more successful than other styles; commitment, teamwork and a sense of mission are important areas of attention in project management.
  • Project organizational design must be tailored to the specific task and the environment, but higher degrees of projectization and higher levels of authority for the project manager result in less probability of cost and schedule overrun;
  • To attain high levels of perceived success (including not only adequate technical performance but also satisfaction of the client, the parent, the project team, and the clientele), effective coordination and relations patterns are extremely important; also, success criteria salience and consensus among the client, the parent, and the project team are important.


1. Such a focus is a natural development in the life-cycle of many management concepts. In the area of systems analysis, for example, the early literature centered on the hardware, software, and technical information handling processes.

2. Paul H. Lawrence and Jay W. Lorsch, “New Management Job: The Integrator,” Harvard Business Review (November-December, 1967), pp. 142-151.

3. Ibid., p. 150.

4. Richard M. Hodgetts, “Leadership Techniques in the Project Organization,” Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 11 (1968), pp. 211-219.

5. Gary R. Gemmill and David L. Wilemon, “The Power Spectrum in Project Management,” Sloan Management Review (Fall, 1970), pp. 15-25.

6. Gary R. Gemmill and Hans J. Thamhain, “Influence Styles of Project Managers: Some Project Performance Correlates,” Academy of Management Journal (June, 1974), pp. 216-224. Also see, Gary R. Gemmill and Hans J. Thamhain, “The Effectiveness of Different Powerstyles of Project Managers in Gaining Project Support,” IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management (May, 1973), pp. 38-43.

7. Paul O. Gaddis, “The Project Manager,” Harvard Business Review (May-June, 1959), pp. 89-97; Richard M. Goodman, “Ambiguous Authority Definition in Project Management,” Academy of Management Journal (December, 1967), pp. 395-407; John M. Steward, “Making Project Management Work,” Business Horizons, Vol. 8 (1965), pp. 54-68; Ivars Avots, “Why Does Project Management Fail,” California Management Review (Fall, 1969), pp. 77-82; David L. Wilemon and John P. Cicero, “The Project Manager — Anomalies and Ambiguities,” Academy of Management Journal (Fall, 1970), pp. 269-282; David I. Cleland, “Understanding Project Authority,” Business Horizons (Spring, 1967), pp. 63-70.

8. David L. Wilemon, “Project Management Conflict: A View from Apollo,” Proceedings of the Project Management Institute (1971).

9. Arthur G. Butler, “Project Management: A Study in Organizational Conflict,” Academy of Management Journal (March, 1973), pp. 84-101.

10. Hans J. Thamhain and David L. Wilemon, “Conflict Management in Project-Oriented Work Environments,” Proceedings of the Project Management Institute (1974).

11. Hans J. Thamhain and David L. Wilemon, “Conflict Management in Project Life Cycles,” Sloan Management Review (Summer, 1975), pp. 31-50.

12. Paul R. Lawrence and Jay W. Lorsch (same reference as footnote 2), pp. 148-149.

13. Paul R. Lawrence and Jay W. Lorsch (same reference as footnote 2).

14. R. R. Blake and Jane S. Mouton, The Managerial Grid (Houston: Gulf Publishing Company, 1964).

15. Ron J. Burke, “Methods of Resolving Interpersonal Conflict,” Personnel Administration (July-August, 1969), pp. 48-55.

16. Hans J. Thamhain and David L. Wilemon (same reference as footnote 9).

17. Hans J. Thamhain and David L. Wilemon (same reference as footnote 10).

18. David C. Murphy, Bruce N. Baker, and Dalmar Fisher, Determinants of Project Success, Springfield, VA 22151: National Technical Information Services, Accession number: N-74-30392, 1974, pp. 60-69.

19. Erasmus H. Kloman, Unmanned Space Project Management — Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter, a Report Prepared by the National Academy of Public Administration and sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1972, p. 14.

20. Murphy, Baker, and Fisher (same reference as footnote 18).

21. Donald G. Marquis and David M. Straight, Organizational Factors in Project Performance, Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, July 25, 1965.

22. Donald G. Marquis, “A Project Team + PERT = Success Or Does It?” Innovation, Number Five, 1969, pp. 26-33.

23. Richard L. Chapman, “Project Management in NASA,” a report of the National Academy of Public Administration Foundation, January, 1973.

24. Clayton Reeser, “Some Potential Human Problems of the Project Form of Organization,” Academy of Management Journal, December, 1969, p. 467.

25. Fred E. Fiedler, “Engineer the Job to Fit the Manager,” Harvard Business Review, Sept.-Oct. 1965, p. 119.

26. Jay R. Galbraith, “Matrix Organization Designs,” Business Horizons, XIV, 1, February 1971, pp. 29-40.

27. Murphy, Baker, and Fisher (same reference as footnote 18).

28. Kloman (same reference as footnote 19), p. 17.



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