Leadership effectiveness in program management

GTE Sylvania, Incorporated

David L. Wilemon

Syracuse University

Managing projects is, without question, a difficult job. Not only does it require sophisticated tools and special organizational design considerations, but also a different breed of manager. Five areas that require special managerial skills1 are often cited by project leaders as necessary conditions for project success:

• Coping with a multi-disciplinary project environment

• Dealing with problems across functional lines

• Building effective teams at various organizational levels

• Handling conflicts effectively

• Managing change.

Specifically, the project manager must be able to integrate various supporting disciplines in a continuously changing work environment. In his search for multi-disciplinary problem resolution, he must often cross functional lines to deal with personnel over whom he has limited direct, formal authority. Moreover, he has to build teams at various levels of the project organization. This requires an understanding of interpersonal dynamics to make sure that various specialists contribute to the end objective of the project. Thus, the challenge is for the project manager to provide an environment conducive to the motivational needs of his team members. Equally important to successful project performance is the project manager's ability to deal effectively with the inevitable conflict situations. Taken together, the role of the project manager is a difficult one. His project success often depends significantly on his ability to deal effectively with human behavior in a multi-disciplinary environment.2

Several research studies have investigated managerial leadership styles in general management situations. Conclusions stress the situational nature of leadership effectiveness.3 That is, leadership effectiveness appears to be a function of at least three sets of variables: leadership style; the situation, characterized by the task and organizational environment; and the characteristics of the followers. This paper explores project manager leadership and its situational effectiveness.

The Study

Approximately 125 managers from a variety of project-oriented companies were asked to participate in the research. A usable sample of 68 project managers and 33 of their superiors was eventually obtained. A questionnaire was used as the principal data collection instrument. In addition, reviews of the study were conducted with a number of project managers to assist in the interpretation of the data.

Specifically, the investigation was designed to:

  1. Characterize the leadership styles of project managers and their work environments
  2. Identify the situational effectivenss of alternative leadership styles used by project managers.

The importance of the above research was identified during related studies by the authors.4 Specifically, it was felt that within the changing work environment of the project manager, the interaction between the project manager, his team, and the environmental context of the project needs to be examined before any conclusions on the effectiveness of a particular leadership style can be drawn. Therefore, the research design focuses on collecting data on three sets of variables: characteristics of project work environment; characteristics of leadership style of project managers; and effectiveness rating of project managers.

Characteristics of the Work Environment

The study utilizes part of Rensis Likert's typology to characterize the project-organized environment.5 Three modified sets of variables were identified:

1. Organizational climate

• Quality of communication

• Continuity of work

• Career growth

2. Task complexity

• Skill-level requirements

• Multi-disciplinary nature

• Project size and duration

3. Position power of the project manager

• Degree of control over personnel

• Control over budgets, schedule, and performance

• Degree of P&L responsibility

• Resource sharing with functional organization

Standard scales were used to measure variables in each of the above sets.

Project Manager Leadership

As previously stated, a project manager's ability to perform effectively may depend on his leadership style; the task complexity; the required technological sophistication; and the climate of the organization in which he functions. In analyzing project management leadership it is particularly important to understand how tasks are accomplished. Contrary to functional management, influences, such as direct rewards and punishments, may be in the hands of supporting department managers. Further, the overall influence a project manager has may vary over the life of his project, since complexity, budgets, client demands, and functional interfaces change. Thus, effective leadership relates human, technical and the situational variables of a project in a complex manner.

For the current investigation fifteen statements were designed to reflect the project managers’ general orientation toward developing support. The items were designed to assess the project leaders’ attitudes toward both formally derived influence sources and individually derived influences for gaining support. The formally derived influence sources are typified by authority, rewards, and punishments; while the individually derived influence sources are related to the intrinsic motivations of project team members. Examples are the project manager's attitude toward assisting contributors in their career development; matching team member interests and capabilities with task requirements; making efforts to provide a smooth transition from one project to the next job assignment; and establishing positive interpersonal relationships with team members.

Analysis of the data indicated that some project managers relay primarily on the formally derived organizational influence bases, while others prefer building their support by focusing on the needs and concerns of individual contributors. For the purpose of this study, we defined two leadership style categories:

  1. Style I, a primarily leader-centered approach to management, characterizes project managers who demonstrate a preference for organizationally-derived influence sources such as authority, reward, and punishment.
  2. Style II, a primarily team-centered management approach, characterizes project managers who focus on the needs of their team members in deriving the influences for their project support.

A six-point scale was used to measure the degree to which project mangers relay on each of these influences in gaining support from contributors.

Effectiveness Rating of Project Managers

A measure of managerial effectiveness was obtained by contacting the superiors of the 68 project managers investigated. Each superior was asked to rate the project manager relative to his peers on overall project performance. A 0-100 percent scale was used.


The results are presented in two parts. First, an analysis is performed on the sample of project managers regarding their shared control over personnel. Second, a correlation analysis between managerial leadership style and managerial effectiveness is presented to formulate some tentative conclusions about the most suitable leadership style for different project situations. All correlation figures were obtained by Kendall Rank Order correlation methods.

Shared Control Over Project Personnel

Project managers often interact with the various functional and staff departments in managing their programs. Depending on the type of project organization, the project manager has different degrees of control over resources. At the outset of this study it was expected that project managers in a matrix organization would share more resources and have less control over project budgets, schedules, and performance than in a projectized organization. We expected this because the matrix organization is more of an overlay on the functional organization than the projectized form which is relatively independent of other support groups. However, with the exception of profit and loss responsibility (Figure 1), the data, summarized in Figures 2 and 3, show that project managers in matrix organizations perceive themselves with essentially the same amount of control over resources, budgets, schedules, and performance as their counterparts in projectized organizations. This is a significant finding because it indicates that the position power of a project manager probably depends less on the particular organizational type with which he is associated than the organizational climate and the task structure.

Similar findings surfaced during analysis of shared control over project personnel. Project personnel often serve two masters, the project manager and the functional manager. The more a project organization leans toward a functional structure, the more control is vested with the functional manager. Therefore, project managers in a matrix organization should experience less control over project personnel than in a projectized environment. The actual data shows, however, that project managers in matrix organizations experience almost the same degree of control over support department personnel as project managers in projectized organizations. Furthermore, this finding seems to be independent of project size. The perceived control of project managers over their personnel varies from low to high regardless of the project size. Figures 4 and 5 summarize these shared control characteristics for both “control over work assignments” and “control over reward and punishment.”

Perceived P&L Responsibility of Project Managers

Figure 1. Perceived P&L Responsibility of Project Managers

Perceived Resource Sharing (Follows Approximately the Distribution for Both Matrix and Projectized Organizations)

Figure 2. Perceived Resource Sharing (Follows Approximately the Distribution for Both Matrix and Projectized Organizations)

Perceived Control Over Projects

Figure 3. Perceived Control Over Projects

The Effectiveness of Managerial Styles

Figures 6 and 7 show the type of leadership style which is most favorably associated with project managers’ performance under different environmental conditions. Kendall Tau Partial Correlation Techniques were used to obtain the correlation figures based on the perceived project management leadership style and the effectiveness rating provided by their superiors.

The statistical correlation between project management performance and the managerial style indicated in each of the quadrants is in the range of τ = .20 to τ = .33 with an average confidence level of p ≥ 90 percent. A framed style indicates a particularly strong association between leadership style and performance of τ ≥ .35 with p ≥ 95 percent. The data suggest that leadership style I, the leader-centered approach, appears to be the most effective in a poor organizational climate while leadership style II, the team-centered approach, appears to be most effective in a good organizational climate.

Shared Control Over Project Personnel Regarding Work Direction. (Control Ranges from Full Sharing to No Sharing Regardless of Project Size)

Figure 4. Shared Control Over Project Personnel Regarding Work Direction. (Control Ranges from Full Sharing to No Sharing Regardless of Project Size)

More specifically, the quantitative data suggest that the poorer the organizational climate (as measured by the quality of communication, the continuity of work, and the career growth) the more likely a project manager will succeed with leadership style I. That is, the more he relies on leader-centered approaches to project management, the more effective he may be perceived to be by his superior. Contrarily, the better the organizational climate and the more a project manager relies on leadership style II (team-centered), the more likely it is that he will receive a high performance rating from his immediate superior.

Shared Control Over Project Personnel Regarding Reward and Punishment. (Control Ranges from No Control to Full Control by the Project Manager Regardless of Project Size)

Figure 5. Shared Control Over Project Personnel Regarding Reward and Punishment. (Control Ranges from No Control to Full Control by the Project Manager Regardless of Project Size)

Most Effective Leadership Style of Project Managers Considering Organizational Climate and Task Complexity

Figure 6. Most Effective Leadership Style of Project Managers Considering Organizational Climate and Task Complexity

From the summaries provided in Figures 6 and 7, it is interesting to note that the choice of an effective leadership style seems to depend primarily on the organizational climate with little influence from task complexity or position power. The strength of the association between style and climate is, however, substantially influenced by the task and position power. More precisely, the data indicate that:

Leadership Style I (Leader-oriented)

  • is more likely to be effective in a poor organizational climate particularly if associated with high position power.

Leadership Style II (Team-oriented)

  • is more likely to be effective in a good organizational climate particularly if associated with high task complexity and/or low position power.

It should be emphasized that project managers do not necessarily operate in extreme environments characterized by “very good” or “very poor” conditions. Therefore, the project management style needs to be adapted to the mix of the prevailing working conditions.

Summary and Discussion

While project management has gained widespread recognition as an organizational concept, it is only recently that there has been much interest in the leadership requirements of the project leader. The early research which did focus on the leadership styles primarily concentrated on the influence modes used in gaining compliance from support personnel.6 Moreover, little attention has been focused on possible differences in the effectiveness of leadership styles depending on various task complexities or organizational climates. This research has attempted to develop new insights into these relationships.

Most Effective Leadership Style of Project Managers Considering Organizational Climate and Position Power

Figure 7. Most Effective Leadership Style of Project Managers Considering Organizational Climate and Position Power

Based on the exploratory study, several conclusions can be tentatively formulated:

  1. The effectiveness of the project manager depends on his leadership style and his work environment. As shown in Figures 6 and 7, leadership style I, a leader-oriented management approach, appears most effective in a poor organizational environment where communications, work continuity, and career growth are inferior. However, in a good organizational climate, leadership style II, a team-oriented style, seems to be most effective.
  2. Task complexity and the position power of the project manager does not appear to be an important determinant of the leadership style. While the effectiveness of a particular style may be influenced by the degree of position power and task complexity, the choice between style I and style II seems to depend only on the organization climate.

The rationale for leadership style I effectiveness is tentatively formulated as follows. In a poor organizational “climate,” the project managers may need to exert strong direction over their project personnel. In such cases, project personnel may follow the directives of the project manager because of: the authority he possesses; the rewards at his disposal; and to avoid the penalties he may use against them. In addition, in such a climate, the only “order” project participants “see” is that which comes from the directive style of the project leader. For some project team members, this may reduce the anxieties they experience while working in an environment characterized by low degrees of work continuity, poor communications, and limits on career growth opportunities.

On the other side, leadership style II appears to be more effective in a good organizational climate because project participants are not as threatened by individual and organizational concerns. They are more apt to be responsive not only to the project leader's willingness to develop individual relationships with them and their professional capabilities, but also to his efforts to maximize the functioning of the total team. This may typify the kind of environmental context within which the highest levels of team “integration” occur. Environments are not, however, always predictable. Rapid environmental change is not unusual in project management. Personnel, budgets, project scope, and client demands may trigger change within the project. Thus, a project manager needs to be flexible in his leadership approach.7

Several suggestions can be derived from this study which can increase the project manager's effectiveness. First, an audit of the host organization should be undertaken to identify the potential causes of a poor organizational climate. Second, a decision should be made whether the determinants of organizational climate can be changed. Third, if they can be altered or modified, a program to alleviate the conditions should be initiated.

Some of these determinants, such as work continuity and career growth, are strongly associated with the general economic climate which is not under the control of the organization or its management. However, management can often influence the organization's internal climate in spite of its external dependence. For example:

Top Management can help in building the organizational climate by performing effective long-range business planning and keeping people informed about the basic corporate objectives and business prospects. This may reduce the anxiety often created by an uncertain future and may help to increase the perception of the quality of organizational environment, particularly with regard to work continuity and career growth. Project start-up and phase-out practices are other important areas to be considered. Personal morale and motivation often decline toward the end of a program because employees fear termination or transfer to less desireable jobs. Top management can avoid problems by setting up an appropriate project organization which provides home office features and a system for phasing projects effectively. Such a system may include policies for transferring personnel between projects and inter-project training programs.

Delineation of clearly defined decision channels and support of project managers in dealings with functional support departments may yet be other areas of top management involvement toward building a favorable organizational climate.

Project Managers must understand the interaction of organizational and behavioral elements in order to build an environment conducive to their team's motivational needs. The flow of communication seems to be one of the major factors which determine the quality of the organizational environment. Since the project manager must build multi-functional teams at various organizational layers, it is important that key decisions are properly communicated to all project-related personnel. By openly communicating the project objectives and those of its sub-tasks, unproductive conflict may be minimized. Regularly scheduled status review meetings can be an important vehicle for communicating project-related issues.

Effective planning early in the life cycle of a project is another action which will have a favorable impact on the organizational climate. This is particularly so because project managers have to integrate various disciplines across functional lines. Insufficient planning may eventually lead to inter-departmental conflict and discontinuities in the work flow.

Furthermore, the project manager can influence the work environment by his own actions. His concern for the project team members, his ability to integrate the personal goals and needs of project personnel with project goals, and his ability to create personal enthusiasm in the work itself can foster a climate which is high in motivation, work involvement, open communication, and subsequent project performance. We found, for instance, that work challenge is a catalyst which helps to integrate personal and project objectives. It is an influence source over which project managers have a great deal of control. Although the total work structure is normally fixed, individual assignments can be made to accommodate the interests and preferences of project personnel.

In summary, project managers must not only be able to adopt their leadership style to the prevailing work situation, but should also have the ability to develop an organizational climate conducive to the effective functioning of high performing project teams. This requires the effort of a highly skilled project manager plus top management commitment.

Footnotes and References

1. For representative articles which deal with these issues, see: John M. Stewart, “Making Project Management Work,” Business Horizons, Vol. 8, 1965; Ivars Avots, “Why Does Project Management Fail,” California Management Review, Fall, 1969; Joseph J. Hansen, “The Case of the Precarious Program,” Harvard Business Review, January-February, 1968; Paul R. Lawrence and J. W. Lorsch, “New Management Job: The Integrator,” Harvard Business Review, November-December, 1967; Arthur G. Butler, “Project Management: A Study in Organizational Conflict,” Academy of Management Journal, Fall, 1970; Hans J. Thamhain and David L. Wilemon, “Conflict Management in Project-Oriented Work Environments,” Proceedings of the Project Management Institute, September, 1974; G. R. Gemmill and Hans J. Thamhain, “The Power Styles of Project Managers: Some Efficiency Correlates,” 20th Annual Joint Engineering Management Conference, October, 1972; David H. Morton, “Project Manager, Catalyst to Constant Change,” Project Management Quarterly, Vol. VI, No. 1, 1975.

2. This issue was discussed by Douglas McGregor in The Human Side of Enterprise, New York: McGraw-Hill, as early as 1960.

3. Fred E. Fiedler, A Contingency Model for the Prediction of Leadership Effectiveness, Group Effectiveness Research Laboratory, Department of Psychology, University of Illinois, 1963; and Fred E. Fiedler, A Theory of Leadership Effectiveness, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.

4. For specific discussions leading to the current research study, see articles by H. J. Thamhain and D. L. Wilemon, “Conflict Management in Project-Oriented Work Environments,” Proceedings of the Sixth International Meeting of the Project Management Institute, September 1974, and “Conflict Management in Project Life Cycles,” Sloan Management Review, Spring, 1965.

5. Rensis Likert shows that the work environment of an enterprise can be characterized with a relatively small number of key variables. For this study the originally suggested variables have been modified to focus on the project environment. See Rensis Likert, “Human Resource Accounting,” Personnel, May-June, 1973.

6. See, for example, Gary R. Gemmill and David L. Wilemon, “The Power Spectrum in Project Management,” Sloan Management Review, Fall, 1970; and Gary R. Gemmill and Hans J. Thamhain, “Influence Styles of Project Managers: Some Performance Correlates,” Academy of Management Journal, June, 1974.

7. Y. K. Shetly aptly discusses the need for flexibility in leadership patterns in “Leadership and Organizational Character,” Personnel Administration, July-August, 1979, p. 20, as follows: The successful manager is neither an autocrat, nor a complete democrat, rather one who integrates the forces operating in relation to the particular situation in question. The behavior of an effective leader under specific technological considerations may lead to failure under other technological situations. The leadership appropriate in one organizational system may be irrelevant or even dysfunctional in another system.

The authors acknowledge the helpful assistance given by Mr. Ramesh Ratan in evaluating the research data.

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.



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