The human factor in project management


Certified Professional Coach, Human Factor Formula, Inc.


One of the biggest challenges to successful project implementation is the evolution of the project team. The challenge of taking a diverse group of individuals, with varying backgrounds and experience, from different functional areas, sometimes with conflicting agendas, and placing them on a project team with a project, anager who is not their direct supervisor, can challenge the success of any project. In lieu of direct authority as a means of leading, what other forces can a project manager utilize to help establish commitment to the goals of the project and to the team?

The first part of this paper explores some of the underlying key behavioral and relationship forces at work within our project teams. The key to understanding the behaviors of others is rooted in the understanding of oneself. The second part of this paper offers a few easy-to-implement strategies to utilize these tools in order to create highly functioning teams, guiding them through the team development process, and getting them to work together more effectively from the outset.


“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” – Dale Carnegie

In our pursuit of project excellence, one question trumps all others; how do we lead, influence, and inspire our teams to work together more effectively? It's been one of the most sought-after solutions in the project management community, and truthfully in the business community at-large.

When I have the opportunity to work with project managers, one of the topics we invariably discuss is why some projects fail. The answers typically consist of reasons such as lack of resources, poor communication, unclear objectives, competing priorities, scope creep, and others. The one factor most often ignored is easily the most important one – the human factor.

What is “The Human Factor in Project Management?” Quite simply it seeks to answer the fundamental question of how we can get our teams to work together more effectively from the start. It is built upon the foundation of Human Needs Psychology and Emotional Intelligence and provides project managers and leaders with the most effective tools and strategies for understanding and responding to the behavior of team members.

Armed with this understanding, project managers can have an unprecedented level of confidence in their ability to effectively manage the most challenging teams and situations.

A New Model for Understanding

Human Needs Psychology

The premise of Human Needs Psychology is that every human being has the same six basic human needs, regardless of upbringing, experiences, education, etc. (Madanes, 2009, p. 16, 21-25). These needs drive all our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors either on a conscious or unconscious level. There are several key elements to understand when considering how human needs affect behavior. Each one of us prioritizes those needs based on our own experiences and beliefs; and, each of us has our own vehicles or strategies for how we meet those needs.

We can choose to meet those needs through positive or negative methods. The challenge for us is to find strategies that are good for us and for those around us. In any relationship you must understand the other person's needs, as well as your own, in order to know what is really going on. As Stephen Covey said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

The Six Basic Human Needs


The first need each of us has is for certainty. We all want to feel safe, to avoid pain, and feel comfortable in our environment. Every individual needs some sense of certainty and security; knowing that our basic needs are being met. Some of the key words for certainty are comfort, security, safety, stability, protection, and predictability.

A person can meet their need for certainty by going to a specific school or studying a specific subject in order to acquire the skills that will land the job they aspire to. Or they can become obsessed with controlling their environment to make sure there are no surprises or unexpected problems. Or, they can meet the need for certainty by living in a one-bedroom apartment, collecting welfare and rarely leaving.

The thing that's important to know is that it looks different to everyone. But, is your strategy for meeting this need one that is merely what I call obtainable – that is, is it easy to get in the short term, but not good for you or the people around you in the long term? Or is your strategy sustainable – good for you, the people around you, and the organization or society you live and work in?

Uncertainty or Variety

The second need is for uncertainty or variety. We all need variety and challenges that will exercise our emotional and physical range. Everyone needs some variety in his or her life. Key words for variety are fear, instability, change, chaos, entertainment, suspense, surprise, conflict, and crisis.

For you as a project manager, think about how uncertainty can challenge you. So many times in work and life, the situations we face are unfamiliar, and we experience levels of uncertainty. That, in itself, is not a problem. The problem comes when that uncertainty drives us to act in ways that feed our fears.


The third need is for significance. We all need to feel important, needed, and special; we want to feel worthy of attention. Significance comes primarily from comparing ourselves to others, and we question our superiority or inferiority. Key words for significance include pride, perfection, evaluation, discipline, competition, achievement, performance, and rejection.

This is the single biggest contributor to conflict I've ever encountered on the teams I've worked with. When a person has a high driving need for significance, it tends to lead to counterproductive behaviors that have a tremendously negative impact on the rest of the team.

Those behaviors can include hijacking meetings, putting other team members down, comparing themselves to others, and generally disrupting things in order to feel significant – making themselves more important than the team.

How you handle a situation like this can impact the overall morale of the team, and affect the success of your project or your organization.

Love & Connection

The fourth need is to experience love and connection with others. Everyone needs to feel connection with other human beings, and everyone strives for relationships that give them love. Some of the key words for love and connection are togetherness, unity, teamwork, warmth, and desire.

Human beings are wired for love and connection. And, it's more important in the workplace than we've previously believed. In fact, it's so powerful that it is considered a survival need. The feeling of being disconnected and alone can be devastating.

In fact, scientists have discovered that the same part of the human brain that is triggered by hunger and thirst – basic survival needs – is the same part of the brain that is triggered by feelings of loneliness and disconnection. (Rock, 2009, p. 191)


The fifth need is for growth. When we stop growing we die. It's a biological imperative in nature; and in human beings we seek to grow intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. Some people will satisfy their need for growth by reading new books or taking classes. Others might challenge themselves by taking on new initiatives. Key words indicating growth are development, inspiration, challenge, and learning.

One of the things I've learned in my many years of working with people, is that we are most happy when we feel as though we're making progress in our lives. Growth equals progress.


The sixth need is for contribution. This is about going beyond your needs in order to make a contribution beyond yourself, and to give to others. What happens to your own problems or challenges when you're giving to others? Typically, they disappear – you don't think about them when you're focused on helping others. Contribution is essential to feelings of fulfillment and happiness. This can manifest itself in the workplace through mentoring programs and training that seeks to improve the individual in meaningful ways. Some key words are giving, mentoring, generous, and helpful.

When we contribute, it tends to meet all our other needs in a positive, sustainable way. And, when we truly contribute to the project, the team, and the organization, it doesn't matter who gets the credit for success. The whole team shares in that success!

Our Driving Needs

Out of those six basic needs, every person has two that are the primary needs in their life. We call these the driving needs, because they literally filter every thought, action, and decision that we make. We will do almost anything to satisfy these two needs, and they are experienced more intensely than our other needs. (Madanes, 2009, p. 27)

A person whose top need is variety will make very different decisions than one whose top need is significance. And, to further complicate matters, two people who share the same primary need can meet that need in very distinct and different ways. One person can meet their need for significance by comparing themselves to others; another person may meet that same need through the work they do, while another might meet their need for significance by living in a big house and driving a nice car.

The question isn't whether one is right and the other wrong; it's about finding ways to meet your needs that are sustainable, and are good for you and the people around you. It's important to recognize when these needs are not met in positive and sustainable ways, that people will step all over their values in order to meet their driving needs. And when it comes to team dynamics, it's essential to understand your team members and their primary needs. When you can do that, you have an opportunity to understand them on a deeper level and create a connection that inspires commitment and loyalty.

Becoming a Better Leader

How can a project manager utilize the knowledge above to become a better leader? By using the strategies outlined here, a project manager can expect the following:

Gain confidence & clarity

  •     Know how to handle difficult people and situations more effectively
  •     Maintain control of your emotions
  •     Learn to understand your team members and their needs

Learn groundbreaking strategies for success

  •     Learn the most effective ways to lead teams
  •     Gain commitment to objectives without coercion

Eliminate self-doubt

  •     Become rock-solid in handling conflict
  •     Learn to confidently set boundaries that everyone will honor

Create a roadmap to building sustainable teams

  •     Learn new ways to meet your team members' needs
  •     Initiate repeatable processes for sustaining successful teams
  •     Have a profound impact on your teams and organization

What's Your Priority?

Now comes the million-dollar question; when you look at the list of needs above, which ones jump out at you? How would you list them in order of importance in your life? Are you even aware enough to do that? You see, we all have blind spots; parts of our personality and behavior that we aren't consciously aware of. We tend to develop patterns of behavior based on meeting our needs that, once established, become like our own invisible operating system. They provide us shortcuts to know how to respond to situations based on our own internal programming.

The challenge arises when our responses do not align with the situation. That's because we are running a program that isn't specifically set to engage the issue we're facing. Let me give you an example to illustrate what I mean.

In my previous career working for a world-class manufacturing company, we had undertaken a 3-year, US$65 million ERP implementation. I was a business process owner for this project, and served as a key stakeholder, as well as subject matter expert.

When the day came to throw the switch and go live, the entire production floor was brought to a grinding halt! Needless to say, those of us on the project were a bit panicky. What followed were several weeks of very long days striving to create workarounds that would allow us to configure and build our products.

For me, the biggest issue was that my department had suddenly gone from being one of the best for on-time delivery to being the biggest bottleneck in the entire system. Not a very comfortable place to be… especially as a department head. I recall sitting in one particular meeting with vice presidents, directors, and managers, discussing what could be done to alleviate the pressures and get things back on track.

During that meeting, one of the vice president's present suggested that resources be diverted from other departments to mine in order to help us address the problems that were severely impacting production. I felt attacked. All eyes were on me, and I could feel my pulse quickening, my blood pressure rising, and my face getting red.

And then it happened. Have you ever had one of those moments in time when the words shoot from your mouth like a barrage of machine gun fire, hearing them in your head and the whole time thinking, “Shut up! Stop talking!” Well, that was my moment. And it was ugly. “I don't need any help with this! My team has it under control. Besides, no one knows my piece of the business like I do, and it'll take longer to train them on what to do than it will for my team to fix it!”

I heard myself asking in my head, “Why did I just do that? Where's the rewind button?”

In that one moment, almost 20 years of a great reputation felt as though it had been flushed. It took me a long, long time to make up for that. As my friend said to me a few days later, “You can't un-ring that bell.” Yes, it was true.

What I came to learn many years later was that my driving needs at that time in my life and career centered on certainty and significance. Think about how that impacted me and influenced my decisions. First of all, the crisis we were facing at that time was completely uncertain. No one knew how or when we would get the system back up and running smoothly. For me, valuing certainty so highly, I was trapped like a rat. I saw everything around me as being uncertain, even dangerous. So I chose the only alternative my brain saw – respond out of fear.

Add to that the fact that I was being singled out in that meeting as not getting the job done. (At least, that is what my brain registered, even though it wasn't true.) My significance in that organization was being gravely threatened. I no longer felt I had the credibility I'd worked so hard to build, or the trust of my peers and superiors. The quickest way to become significant is to get angry. Think about it. When I get angry, all eyes are on me. I AM significant. Remember what I said earlier in this paper, that the methods we use to meet our needs could be positive or negative. Either way the need is met. Our goal should be to meet them in positive, sustainable ways that are good for us and for those around us.

My choices in terms of prioritizing certainty and significance as my top two needs had nearly catastrophic consequences for my career. Had my top two driving needs been contribution and growth, my response certainly would have been much different. Coming from a place of contribution, my first thoughts would have been focused on “How can I contribute to this situation in meaningful ways? Where can I give more to help us get past these issues and get the organization back on track? How can I help my team get back to normal working hours and eliminate the considerable overtime we're working?”

And by focusing on growth, I would have been anxious to learn all the new information, tools, and strategies that would certainly be the result of working through the current issues. The focus would have been outside of me, rather than inside me where all my fears and frustrations were swirling. The goal of this paper is to help readers to understand the impact these forces have on us, and to find more resourceful ways to prioritize and meet their intrinsic needs. Remember that it's not about making any of these needs wrong. We have all of these needs. It's more about how we prioritize them and the vehicles we use to meet our needs that makes the difference in our lives.

Two Specific Strategies

There are two specific, easy-to-use strategies that any project manager can begin using today to drive engagement and gain commitment to the project and the team.

Making the Connection

One of the most effective tools – and one of the first you should use with any new team – is to create a connection with them and among them. We have already noted that for the human brain, love and connection is as important to survival as food and water. So why not create that feeling of connection with your teams and satisfy one of the most powerful of all human needs right from the start?

There are many ways of achieving this, and many of them are very cost-effective. It's not about sitting around a campfire holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.” Although, you are certainly free to use that strategy if you'd like!

Truthfully it goes much deeper than that. And it's not terribly difficult to accomplish. Have a pizza luncheon to kick off the project, or take your team bowling, or bring in an expert to work with them in some teambuilding event. It's not the specific event that is most important. It's the execution that matters. If people are encouraged to truly engage with each other in ways they would not normally do, it opens the opportunity for more meaningful connections to be made.

I hear managers say all the time, “We can't afford to do something like this. It's too costly and time-consuming.” The truth is, most companies can't afford not to! The benefits can include greater camaraderie, a willingness to support one another, greater commitment to the success of the team, and higher levels of accountability. Also, since the company typically pays for these efforts, there is an increased sense of goodwill toward the organization – a feeling that they care about the person, and not just the employee.

All of this leads to reduced conflict, more open communication among team members, increased motivation, and a more effective team. It takes occasional maintenance, but once the connection is established, this is much less costly and time-consuming. The truth of the matter is this, if you don't make time to create a healthy organization, then you will have to make time to care for a sick one. And the costs of the latter are far greater than the former.

You’re Important to This Project

Another great way to engage team members is by making them feel significant. I noted earlier in this paper that the need for significance is the single greatest threat to a team. If that were the case, then wouldn't it make sense to appeal to our natural tendency to want to feel special and worthy of attention? All it takes is a simple comment in a status meeting such as, “Gail, I really want to thank you for your work on the report you did for the Executive Committee. It was very well done, and it provided everything they were looking for.”

A simple statement like this in front of peers can pay huge dividends. Not only is Gail's sense of significance increased by her feelings of pride in her work, she also will benefit from increased confidence from having succeeded in this task. Tom Peters, world-renowned author, business leader, and leadership consultant put it best when he said, “We wildly underestimate the power of the tiniest personal touch.”

Of course, there is a potential downside to this tactic. If not done with sincerity and authenticity, it will be viewed as a hollow attempt to manipulate. Also, praise is most powerful when given in measured doses. If overdone, it will completely lose its effectiveness and will actually work against you. As with any tools of human interaction, careful use of this strategy is essential to gaining the desired results.

The Bottom Line

There is so much more to the human factor than can be covered in this paper, but these tools and strategies can get any project manager started on the road to becoming a more successful leader of their teams. Like any successful project, it's critical to first have clarity around what you want the end result to be. Do you want to have more cohesive teams? Do you want to learn to manage your own emotions more effectively in stressful situations? Do you want to become a more effective leader, capable of gaining commitment and loyalty from your teams? Do you want to create deeper connection with your coworkers? Maybe it's all of these.

Whatever your desired outcome, it's possible to make it happen when you have the best tools and strategies at your disposal. Human Needs Psychology is an elegant and powerful model for understanding human behavior on a deeper level. It's not only about understanding others; it's also about understanding ourselves, and using that understanding to see those behaviors and patterns we would like to change.

I encourage you to become unreasonable as a leader. No one excels in this life or in leadership by being reasonable. Being reasonable means lowering your standards to drop to what others expect. Think about it, unreasonable people set the standard, defy the odds, and do what others say is impossible. If you want to truly excel, to master your leadership skills, then you must expect more from yourself than others expect from you. Lead by example, and your teams will follow. Raise your standards for yourself first, and then for your teams.


Madanes, C. (2009). Relationship breakthrough: How to create outstanding relationships in every area of your life. New York: Rodale

Rock, D. (2009) Your brain at work: Strategies for overcoming distraction, regaining focus, and working smarter all day long. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

© 2014, Kevin Ciccotti, CPCC, PCC
Published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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