Successful project management in a low-authority environment

the importance of emotional intelligence

Abstract

A frequent complaint by project managers is that they do not have the “authority” to do their jobs. Project managers are expected to elicit top performance from all members of the project team, often in an environment of high responsibility and low authority, coupled with the use of borrowed resources in a matrix organizational structure. This paper will provide ideas on how to strengthen your ability to effectively work with project teams and other stakeholders to achieve success when you do not have a large amount of formal authority. Specific project situations will be examined, along with suggested methods for obtaining results, including how to flex your personality style to obtain commitments and improve communication.

Introduction

This paper begins by exploring the differences between a leader and manager, including a discussion of what project teams really want from their project manager. The definition of power, explanations of types of power, and a discussion of how power relates to authority follow. The role of emotional intelligence and how it influences both leadership and management skills is then explored. Practical tips for getting results with limited authority are provided, including how to flex your personality style to obtain commitments and improve communications. Specific project situations are discussed, along with suggested methods for obtaining the necessary results in a low-authority environment. Finally, this paper addresses the role of conflict management and how project managers can resolve conflicts in an environment of low authority.

Leaders versus Managers

Let’s start out by clarifying the differences between a leader and a manager. A leader is someone who influences and inspires people. A leader will motivate, bring out the best in others, and get people to work together to achieve a common goal. A manager is a person who is responsible for directing and controlling the work of others. A manager will organize, control, balance priorities, and make sure the work gets done. Developing and championing a new idea is leadership, whereas implementing the idea is management. A quote that nicely summarizes the difference between managers and leaders is “managers do things right while leaders do the right things” (Hitt, 1998, p 5). A person who needs to stand up in a meeting and state to the group “I am a leader” (as witnessed by one of the authors) is most likely not a leader and probably not a very good manager either.

So, are leadership or management skills more important to being a successful project manager or are they equally important? The projects undertaken by a company or organization should align with the corporate vision and strategy, which are typically determined by middle and top management. This level of management also decides on the projects that will be done to support the strategic plans. Note that project managers are responsible for getting these projects successfully done by directing and controlling the work of others. Key responsibilities for project managers include organizing, coordinating, resolving issues and conflicts, and communicating. These descriptors are all about managing the project. You will frequently see in the job description for a project manager a statement about “leading the project team”; however, the reality is that most of what project managers do is simply not leadership. While having a project manager who is a good leader is highly desirable, the manager’s function is more critical in order to successfully implement the project. The project team may look at the sponsor, some other key executive, or even a respected team member as the person providing the leadership. This isn’t something that gets listed in the roles and responsibilities for a project, but we do suggest that a project manager should consider for a project whether the team sees him or him as a “leader” or if that will come from another source. Don’t take this as a personal insult, because leadership is situational.

A good method for showing the two dimensions of manager and leader is using a grid, shown in Exhibit 1 below. Leaders provide the vision and inspiration, while managers provide the implementation. This grid (Hitt, 1998, p 7) is used to show that “the new leader is able to transform vision into significant actions” (Hitt, 1998, p 6); however, our view is that leadership and management are two separate concepts. While we agree with the grid and the desire to have a project manager who possesses both good leadership and managerial qualities (a leader-manager) the reality is that many project managers are very successful “doers,” and leadership is not necessarily something the project team wants or needs.

The Leader-Manager Grid

Exhibit 1 – The Leader-Manager Grid

The Role of Power

The dictionary defines power as the capacity to do something, and includes the control and influence over other people and their actions. In a notable study of power conducted by social psychologists John French and Bertam Raven in 1959, power was divided into five separate and distinct forms: coercive, reward, legitimate, referent, and expert (MindTools, n.d. ¶1-5). Although the French and Raven list is frequently cited, listed below is our composite list more specific to the different types of power that are relevant to project managers (Changing Minds, n.d., ¶1, 2, 4-8):

  1. Positional Authority – This covers the power people have from being in defined positions. Positional authority refers to the specific powers given to a person based on their position in an organization, such as president of a country, chief executive officer (CEO) of a company, or a general in the military. Your supervisor may be another example, because this person often has the ability to make decisions that impact you such as raises, promotions, and work assignments. It’s important to note that not all positions, despite their formal titles, have an accompanying amount of significant power. For example, the vice president of the United States has a very high position, but very little actual power. In some companies, your supervisor may decide on your raise, whereas in other companies, the supervisor makes a recommendation, but it’s the next level up that has the authority to make the final decision. In some organizations, a project manager may be given specific positional authority, such as signing contracts, approving invoices, and negotiating change orders with a client, whereas in others this power may be retained by upper management.

  2. Knowledge – This power can be either technical or social. Technical knowledge can include such things as knowing how to prepare a schedule using specific software or knowing the technical details of a financial software package being purchased for your project. Knowledge can also be socially related, such as being an expert on the use of social media or having specialized training in communications or team building.

  3. Skill – This power, which is closely related to knowledge, is the ability to do something rather than just know it. For example, having extensive knowledge of team building will not help a project manager unless that person has the skill to use this knowledge when working with a project team.

  4. Obligation – If a person feels obligated to you, this is a source of power. A sense of obligation can be created when you do a favor for someone and that person feels a duty to repay that favor. People also can feel obligated to follow rules (such as project team roles and responsibilities) or they can feel a responsibility to meet a commitment they made. You can build this type of power by the favors you do, the help you give people, and by building a sense of team commitment.

  5. Trust – The definition of trust is confidence in and reliance on your good qualities, especially fairness, truth, honor, or ability (MSN Encarta). The trust of others has to be earned by your actions over time; this is done by consistently showing integrity and respect for others. People develop confidence and belief in you and what you can do based on your actions; this in turn gives you the power to ask for things without them wondering whether you may take advantage of them or have ulterior motives.

  6. Self-Determination – You decide what you say and do. You decide on your actions. You can show initiative and challenge the status-quo, or go along with established procedures, no matter how irrelevant they may seem. For example, let’s look at the case of a project manager with plans to contract the development of a new software application for his company. He wanted to use a cost reimbursable contract with a not-to-exceed cap and a cost incentive for finishing below a target price. This project manager was told by the buyer handling the professional services that the contract type he described was not an option—he could use a fixed price or cost reimbursable contract, which were the company standards. The project manager could have simply capitulated and followed the guidelines, but instead he got corporate purchasing and his management involved, argued his case, and won.

  7. Emotional Intelligence – In addition to the power sources listed above, project managers looking to be really effective in a “low-authority” environment have another tool at their disposal: emotional intelligence (EI). Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and manage your own emotions and to effectively deal with the emotions of other people. In the article, What Makes a Leader, Daniel Goleman (author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ) makes the point that there is a direct link between a company’s success and the emotional intelligence of its leaders (Goleman, 1998, p 94). In fact, he states that EI is twice as important as technical skill and IQ for job success!

The Myth of Positional Power

A frequent comment we hear from project managers is “if only I had more power.” The belief is that with this additional “power” the various project problems would all just go away. Many people relate effective management and leadership with having positional power, which gives them “authority.” However, consider The Office, a popular American television comedy series, with Michael Scott as the Regional Manager of the Scranton branch of the Dunder-Mifflin Paper Company. For people who have watched this show, it is very obvious that, although Michael has positional authority in his role as regional manager, he is not recognized by most of his employees as either a leader or as an effective manager.

The upshot is that having positional authority alone does not make a person either a good leader or manager. A frequent complaint by project managers is that they don’t control the project resources, and team members get pulled for production emergencies or other work. The belief is that having “authority” over the project resources would solve the problem. But consider this: Do most project managers really want to act as supervisors for team members, and conduct performance appraisals, address career planning, and handle the many personnel issues that come up? This would be a major distraction and reduce the amount of time the project manager can focus on the project. In addition, if a production emergency does occur within the company that requires one or more of your project resources, are you really going to put your project above the greater immediate needs of the company? The answer is probably not if you have any career aspirations.

Another interesting point about positional power is reflected in a confidential survey conducted of project managers and resource managers at a large corporation. The simple question asked was regarding the balance of power, and whether the project managers or resource managers had more “power” (Exhibit 2). The results were surprising: the resource managers felt that the project managers had more power, yet the project managers felt that the resource managers had more power. This result occurred for two reasons. The first reason was a lack of clearly defined responsibilities. The second reason was that many people just assume that they don’t have power; they forget about their “power” of self-determination. Sometimes it’s better to take the initiative and assume you have the authority and responsibility to make decisions. Remember the saying that it’s often easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to seek permission.

The Balance of Power

Exhibit 2 – The Balance of Power

The comment by project managers about having more power also doesn’t really get to the root cause of their dissatisfaction. When interviewing project managers regarding what specific “powers” they really need to be more effective, what is most often revealed is the need for more support from management. Unfortunately, many middle and upper managers will express support for project management, but their actions don’t demonstrate that support. A perfect example of this is a large corporation in which project planning was done “by the book” and a project budget of $55 million was determined. The client manager insisted that the project should only cost $48 million, based on no specific expertise except his “expert” opinion. The project organization management provided no support to the project manager and he was told by his management to “make it work.” Unfortunately, they neglected to give him a magic wand or a bag of potions. There were no scope reductions —the client wouldn’t entertain any suggestion of that—and the project ended up costing $54 million and the project manager was removed from the company. Obviously the management in this company really didn’t support project management.

In the past, corporations used to focus on positional power and authority. What will become more common in the future is a shift from power based on formal authority to other types of power such as knowledge, skills, trust, obligation, self-determination, and emotional intelligence. Project managers need to stop using “lack of authority” as an excuse for project problems, because, in reality, they can draw on these other sources of power. The ability to innovate, create, apply new knowledge, and build trust should occur at all levels of the organization, but especially on the front line where project managers are working to successfully deliver projects. However, these other sources of power are not bestowed on a project manager; they have to be developed by the individual.

The Power of Emotional Intelligence

An often overlooked source of power is emotional intelligence. According to Daniel Goleman, there are five components that make up emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill (Goleman, 1998, p 95). As with other managerial skills, EI can be learned. Critical to developing your EI is having a good knowledge of personality styles. The better you understand personality styles (both your own and others), and the better you are at adapting your personality style to those of others, the more successful you will be as a project manager in your dealings with project team members and other stakeholders.

There are numerous personality theories, but most are based on the four-quadrant behavioral model, with behavior mapped along two axes. While each personality theory has its own specific vocabulary, the horizontal axis is usually labeled introvert versus extrovert, and the vertical axis is most simply labeled feelers versus thinkers.

Introverts are typically described as being less assertive, quieter, more reflective, and in no rush to make decisions, in contrast to extroverts, who are described as being more assertive, more talkative, louder, and quicker to make decisions. Feelers are typically described as being more responsive to others, more playful, and more focused on feelings, in contrast to thinkers, who are described as being less responsive to others, more serious/reserved, and more focused on facts. The intersection of these axes forms four quadrants, each of which represents a personality “type.” (Exhibit 3) Again, each theory uses its own vocabulary; however, the labels analytical, amiable, driver, and expressive serve well to define the four basic personality styles. Although everyone is likely to have a dominant type or style, that style is augmented by a mixture of the other personality types and their traits are also dependent on environment and circumstance. Also, no one personality style is “best”; each can be successful, and each has its merits as well as its drawbacks.

The Four-Quadrant Personality Model

Exhibit 3 – The Four-Quadrant Personality Model

Unfortunately, most project managers ignore personality styles when dealing with project stakeholders. Yet understanding personality models is of direct help in achieving personal awareness and adaptability; it can help you recognize behavior patterns in others and yourself and can be a source of power. Learning about personality and realizing that people have different styles is the first step in improving your emotional intelligence. The second step is becoming aware of your style, including strengths, weaknesses and how you react to stress. The third step is learning to identify and work effectively with the personality styles of other people. The more you understand about your own personality and those of other people, the better able you are to realize how others perceive you, and how they react to your personality style. The fourth step is learning how to flex your style to improve the way you work and communicate with others on a project. Mastering these four steps will improve your emotional intelligence and make you a more effective project manager. Improving your emotional intelligence will provide you with more “power” to use on your projects. For more information on personality styles, see Pardon Me – Your Personality Is Showing (Lukas, 2009, pp 1–7).

Getting Results with Limited Authority

Our earlier discussion on power has hopefully helped you realize that positional authority alone won’t get results. A project manager with high emotional intelligence, including knowledge of personality styles, coupled with knowledge, skills, trust, and self-determination is a person with power who can consistently deliver successful projects.

A key component for getting results when you have limited authority is use of personality styles, especially the ability to “flex your style.” This means you do what is appropriate in a communication situation with another person by temporarily using some behaviors typical of your non-dominant styles. This does not mean abandoning your dominant style but it does require that you be well aware of not only your style strengths but also your style weaknesses, as well as the style of the other person. It requires using body language effectively and matching your wording to the preference of the person you are communicating with. Learning to flex your style is especially important when the other person is stressed, something important is at stake, you need to get off on the “right foot” in a new setting, or you are operating with limited positional authority.

Your ability to adapt or bring into play different style traits in response to different situations and needs is one of the most powerful capabilities that a project manager can possess. Some examples on how to get results with limited authority by use of style flex will now be described to provide examples on how emotional intelligence can make a difference. In these examples, the project manager is Cindy, a driver personality, which is an extroverted thinker. Individuals in this style are generally described as being dominant, independent, candid, decisive, and efficient. Drivers emphasize overcoming opposition to accomplishing results, tend to seek power and control, tend to push for quick decisions, and are poor listeners. As a driver personality style, Cindy likes to be brief and direct. She focuses on objectives and results and avoids unnecessary details.

Assigning Team Members

In the first example, Cindy needs a business analyst for her project. Cindy knows the resource manager (Helen) needs work for Jerry, her new, inexperienced hire. Cindy also knows that, with some reshuffling of work, Helen probably could make Susan available, and Susan has the experience and skills you need. Jerry could probably handle some of Susan’s other work, which is not as important as your project.

In this example, let’s assume that Helen, the resource manager, is an analytical personality style. Analytical personalities tend to focus on details and need structure. Cindy realizes that in meeting with Helen, she will need to flex her style and be prepared and thorough. Cindy prepares a detailed explanation about why she needs an experienced business analyst, along with why Susan is the right person for the project. In the meeting, Cindy also offers a comment that maybe Susan might be available, with some work realignment that Jerry could pick up. In this situation, Cindy should not demand that Susan be assigned to the project nor ask for an immediate decision. Cindy should ask Helen to consider her request and ask if a response by tomorrow is possible (don’t ask an analytical person for a quick decision). Cindy should also allow sufficient time in the meeting to discuss details.

Resolving Project Priorities

In this example, Cindy realizes she and Jack, another project manager, are fighting over the same shared resources. Jack is an expressive personality style, which is an extroverted feeler. The expressive style is charming, outgoing, enthusiastic, persuasive, fun-loving, and spontaneous. This personality type emphasizes influencing or persuading others, likes casual talk, tends to focus on people, and seek popularity and recognition. On the negative side, this style can be disorganized, lack focus, and be poor at planning and follow-up. Cindy decides to meet with Jack to discuss the conflict over resources. She suggests that they ask the client sponsor to clarify which project is the priority. Given Cindy’s concern over Jack’s persuasive style, she also suggests they both update their project business cases and provide that factual information to the sponsor to aid in the decision process. Because of Jack’s style, he doesn’t view this as a competition between him and Cindy.

Settling Solution Approach Disagreements

In this example, Joe is the head of the technical team deciding on what software package to purchase. Joe is a driver personality and is pushing hard for package A. Cindy also has a technical background and believes package B is the better choice. However, if she forces the decision, Joe, a driver personality, may become hostile, overbearing, and opinionated. Cindy steps back and gives more thought to the situation. She realizes that since both she and Joe are driver personalities, the situation has become a competition between them and neither driver wants to “lose.” Cindy also realizes that she needs to trust her team members. Joe is an experienced systems architect with a good reputation. Cindy concedes that both packages will work and she decides to let Joe make the decision and supports him.

Dealing with Schedule and/or Cost Variances

In this example, George is handling the data migration work for the project and he is behind schedule. Cindy schedules a meeting with George to discuss and resolve the matter. George is an amiable personality style, which is an introverted feeler. The amiable personality style is cooperative, supportive, diplomatic and patient. This personality type emphasizes cooperating with others to carry out a task and focuses on people, seeks sincere appreciation, and needs time. The amiable personality tends to avoid rejection, takes difficulties personally, and may become stubborn if pushed to make a decision.

Cindy realizes that in meeting with George, she will need to be patient and supportive and ask for his opinion on how to resolve the schedule problem. Cindy really believes the answer is to assign another resource to this work, but doesn’t want to spring her solution on George. If George doesn’t bring up adding another resource at the meeting, Cindy will work this option into the conversation and ask George to give this option consideration. Cindy also reminds herself to make a point to listen and not interrupt. At the meeting, Cindy is pleasantly surprised when George makes the suggestion of hiring an outside vendor to handle some of the data migration work, but he is concerned with how the existing data migration team members will view this change.

Resolving Conflicts with Limited Authority

Conflict management is inevitable on projects. Conflicts can arise due to organizational issues such as work priorities, sharing of project resources, and responsibility for decisions. They can also occur within the project team over scope, technical solutions, schedule, costs, risks, and communications, or because of different personality styles, goals, and values.

Unfortunately, many project managers are uncomfortable with conflict and tend to shy away from it, hoping that the situation will somehow get resolved without their intervention. However, project managers with high emotional intelligence realize conflict can be beneficial as long as it is promptly managed and used to drive better project performance. Successful conflict management can help resolve issues, lead to creative problem solving and innovation, improve communication and understanding between team members, and strengthen team relationships.

The five common conflict resolution techniques are shown in Exhibit 4 below. In this section of the paper we will briefly discuss the use of these techniques in a low-authority environment, along with how the personality style of a project manager can tend to make particular techniques easier or harder to use.

The Five Common Conflict Resolution Techniques

Exhibit 4 – The Five Common Conflict Resolution Techniques

Each conflict resolution technique shown in Exhibit 4 represents a different combination of two dimensions:

  • Assertiveness: The extent to which an individual attempts to satisfy his or her own concerns.

  • Cooperativeness: The extent to which an individual attempts to satisfy another person’s concerns.

Competing

Competing is forcing resolution of the conflict with the solution you want. Forcing resolution of a conflict is appropriate when quick and decisive action is needed, or on important issues in which an unpopular course of action must be implemented. It does help to have positional authority with this conflict resolution technique, or the other party in the conflict may challenge whether you really have the decision-making power.

Drivers find this conflict resolution technique very easy to use because this personality style likes domineering and overcoming opposition to accomplish results; however, in most situations competing is not an effective conflict resolution technique because it can alienate team members who don’t agree with your point of view.

Avoiding

Avoiding is not pursuing your own or the other side’s concerns, so the conflict goes unresolved. This conflict resolution technique is appropriate when the issue is trivial, you have no chance of winning, people need to calm down, or others can resolve the issue more effectively. Obviously, avoiding does not require any positional authority because with this technique you are trying to evade the issue.

The analytical style in particular finds this conflict resolution technique easy to use because it eliminates the need to deal with the feelings of other people. However, it should be noted that avoiding does not resolve the underlying conflict.

Accommodating

Accommodating is resolving the concerns of the other side to their satisfaction while leaving your concerns unresolved. In a nutshell, it’s giving in to the other side in order to resolve the conflict. With this conflict resolution technique, the need for positional authority is very low, unless you need to give the other side something that requires authority (such as paying for overtime work). Accommodating is useful when the issue is very important to the other person and not important to you, to demonstrate that you are open-minded, or when you know you are wrong.

The amiable personality style finds this conflict resolution technique easy to use because these people focus on people, seek sincere appreciation, avoid rejection, and take difficulties personally. The expressive personality style also would find this technique easy, because these people also focus on people and seek popularity. However, “giving in” can result in the project manager being viewed as ineffectual by people within the organization and/or team.

Compromising

Compromising looks to find a solution that satisfies some concerns of both parties. With this conflict resolution technique, the need for positional authority is also very low, unless you need to give the other side something that requires authority. Use of compromise is appropriate when both sides are strongly committed to mutually exclusive positions or when a quick agreement is needed.

Drivers enjoy this conflict resolution technique because they see the compromise negotiations as a competition and one they fully expect to win. The expressive personality style also like compromises because it provides the focus on people and the recognition when the compromise is finally reached.

Collaborating

Collaborating looks to find a solution that satisfies the concerns of both sides in the conflict. With this conflict resolution technique, the need for positional authority is very low since both sides are working together to find that one common, acceptable solution. This technique does take more time, but provides a final resolution for the conflict. Collaboration is useful when gaining commitment on the resolution is important, for resolving interpersonal conflicts, and when the participants bring different perspectives to the issue.

The analytical personality style likes this technique because of the data and facts used to resolve the conflict. The amiable personality likes this technique because of the people interactions and taking time to find the right solution. The expressive and driver personality styles can also work this technique very effectively, but may get frustrated with the amount of time needed to bring resolution to the conflict.

Note that with the five conflict resolution techniques, only forcing really requires a high amount of positional authority. The other conflict resolution techniques require little or no positional authority; what this means is that project managers have lots of methods to resolve conflicts that do not require a high amount of positional authority.

Conclusion

While having a project manager who is a good leader is highly desirable, the manager function is more critical in order to successfully implement the project, and many project managers are very successful “doers.” In addition, complaints by project managers that they do not have the “authority” to do their jobs are not always well founded, since they are based on the assumption that only positional authority provides power. Project managers can elicit top performance from project team members by using many other available power sources, including knowledge, skill, obligation, trust, self-determination, and emotional intelligence. What will become more common in organizations in the future is a shift from power based on “formal” authority to these other types of power.

Project managers would be well-served by focusing on the five components of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill. The better you are at adapting your personality style to those of others, the more successful you will be as a project manager. Getting results, resolving conflicts, and successfully delivering projects can be accomplished by having a high emotional intelligence, even in a low authority environment.

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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.

©2010 Janice Lukas & Joseph Lukas
Originally published as part of Proceedings PMI Global Congress 2010 – Washington D.C.

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