The Neutral Project Manager

This article is copyrighted material and has been reproduced with the permission of Project Management Institute, Inc. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited.

Abstract

Project managers who place high priority on “neutral” behavior maximize overall project effectiveness. We watch professional sports officials illustrate the importance of this behavior in every high-level contest. Both professions assure team member interaction consistency and optimize desired activity by being impartial. Time-proven sports officiating techniques and neutral management principles are very similar and an important part of project management.

Introduction

Project managers have no formal authority but are responsible for the quality of the overall project. They manage the interaction of several diverse groups (senior management, customers, line managers, other project managers, and project team members) - each with their own finite project success criteria that do not necessarily align with the other project groups. For example, some project groups are providers (e.g., Systems, vendors) while others are consumers (e.g., Operations, end-users).

During difficult times, there is a predictable tendency for each these groups to protect themselves – sometimes at a cost to the project need for inter-group cooperation. It is critical to provide a neutral project management “structure” that will reduce the temptation of any one group or member to succeed at the expense of others (e.g., “The operation was a success but the patient died”). To have groups work effectively together, during difficult times, they must have a minimum set of common project goals and expectations of each other. Project management provides that service impartially.

Neutral management methods discussed in this paper require passion for project management and self-development. We often associate passion with constructive assertiveness – competing effectively against group priorities outside the project and motivating team members. Passion is also expressed as forgiveness – accepting unplanned events and taking the necessary action to mitigate the impact and get back on the path toward the longer-range goal.

Neutral management methods also require passion but are less visible. It emphasizes consistent conduct of all team members toward the common project “good” and maximizing desired activity and flow. For example, team member conduct and activities include (a) timely/accurate communication, (b) timely identification/escalation of issues or bottlenecks, (c) effective change controls, and (d) effective mitigation/response of possible risks. Maximizing desired activity and flow means removing obstructions caused by negative distractions (inefficient meetings or project procedures) and delays (e.g., lack of investment capital, skilled people, time, authority, unexpected gaps to accomplish project goals).

Interestingly, professional sports officials’ impartial style in high-level contests personifies neutral project management. Their officiating style requires respect of the players/teams, the ability to run the game impartially and an in-depth understanding the sport. Their responsibility for the overall contest and relationship with the participants is taken very seriously. For example, below is a list of the typical officiating responsibilities:

  • Making sure that the game (project) proceeds within the context of the rules.
  • Interfering as little as possible, never seeking to become the focus of attention.
  • Providing an enjoyable atmosphere and show concern for the players.
  • Providing consistent structure that emphasizes flow, fairness and good sportsmanship.
  • Ensuring player safety (e.g., equipment, facilities, conduct, respond to injuries).
  • Administering games (projects) fairly and impartially.
  • Helping players (project team members) develop.

The important personal qualities and challenges of sports officials are also very similar to project managers, as can be seen by the two quotations below:

“Officiating can be challenging, exciting, and rewarding. On the other hand, officials can also feel frustrated, abused, and unappreciated. Whether we experience the positive or the negative rests on our mental approach to officiating. Most officiating books and instructional camps emphasize the importance of positioning, mechanics, and knowledge of the rules. Yet top officials identify confidence, judgment, rapport, and decisiveness as the qualities most essential, though more difficult to learn, for successful officiating.” (Weinberg & Richardson, 1990)

”…To be a good official, you need a blend of many qualities including courage, self-confidence, determination, and decisiveness. In each game that you work, you will be faced with many problems; to solve them all you will be asked to demonstrate the fairness of a judge, the skill of a diplomat, the authority of a police officer, and the understanding of a parent. Officials relish the opportunity to undertake a tough assignment and succeed at it. Officials must know the rules and proper positioning and mechanics (critical).” (Grunska 1999)

Before proceeding further on neutral project management, it is important to note that some of content in this paper is less important to functional managers (coaches) who are responsible for the individual performance (skill, knowledge, experience, and career) of their employees (players) – more time is required in the assertive and forgiveness modes. Also, it is suggested that project managers practice new skills/concepts in volunteer organizations before trying it at work. For example, demonstrating project manager integrity could adversely affect careers if it isn't done in an acceptable manner!

Knowledge, both formal and experience based, is also another critical foundation of the topics discussed in this paper because it affects the wisdom of our decisions. Project Managers continually refresh and learn perspectives regarding scope, time management, activity and schedule management, quality, procurement, contract administration, human resources, team development, and communications management. The project management references listed at the end of the paper are recognized project management “rule books” and should be considered required reading for anyone who is a project manager.

Neutral project management skill sets / perspectives discussed in the paper include:

  • Self-confidence skills
  • Consistency skills
  • Concentration skills
  • Self-control skills
  • Communication skills
  • Conflict Management skills
  • Relaxation skills
  • Health

Each of the topics above contains two separate narrative sections. The first section includes time-proven advice provided by sports official experts. The second section identifies key neutral attributes of project management – often observable in highly respected executives. Providing sports officiating examples that we can all relate to makes the step to understanding neutral leadership concepts easier. They must be carefully evaluated in relation to our unique personalities and working environments.

Self-confidence / Integrity skills

Sports Officiating Perspective:

Sports officials require confidence to remain in control during adversity. They must believe they are genuinely good at what they do (i.e., especially to be able to admit mistakes). If they are not confident, the players, coaches and fans will take advantage of them. An effective official builds self-confidence through: (a) preparation, (b) by thinking/acting confidently, (c) visually imagining success, (d) acquiring valuable experience, (e) and keeping physically and mentally fit. Interestingly, high self-discipline is also a good self-confidence builder.

Courage, not arrogance, is important for officiating self-confidence. A game must be called in an unbiased, honest manner, regardless of reactions from others. Distractions such as the time remaining, the score, and prior calls do not affect their impartiality. The insure player safety and that the game fairness for both teams. Simply put, officials do what is right for the game.

Neutral Project Management Perspective:

The project manager who is centered and grounded can work with unusual people and critical project situations comfortably. Centered means the ability to recover our balance in any situation or action. Staying grounded means always knowing where we stand and what we stand for.

Emphasize selfless service, without prejudice, and be accessible to all. Prejudice violates neutral project management because it prefers to work with some team members but not with others. Do not think we own the people on our project or control their lives. Make sure we do not take all the credit for what happens.

Conversely, beware of overconfidence and self-righteousness. Do not impose a personal agenda or value system on the project team. When we think we are superior, ask ourselves who are we comparing ourselves with? Any form of egocentricity or selfishness distorts how we see things happening. Unstable managers can get carried away by the intensity of leadership, make judgment mistakes, and can become ill. Flashy managers can lack stability. Insecure managers will often promote themselves. Simply avoid being self-centered.

Consistency skills

Sports Officiating Perspective:

Sports officials achieve consistency by demonstrating good technique (skill), knowing the rules (knowledge), and maintaining a stable mental state (emotional health). They will anticipate the play, but not the call. Good judgment requires (a) focusing on the game, (b) blocking out distractions, (c) unconcerned about previous calls (and reactions to them). They must not let attention wane near the end of a contest.

Neutral Project Management Perspective:

Project management requires timely, high quality decision-making based on accurate perceptions and time proven techniques. To keep projects running smooth, act on emerging situations long before they get out of hand. Avoid complaining about our situation, about any person or any issue that we face – it is normally not constructive to morale. Always try to be fair, firm, friendly and frank!

Act effectively and consistently by being aware and unbiased. Being aware means knowing what is happening. Unbiased means acting in a balanced and centered manner – not rashly. Unbiased positions are always stronger than prejudice in both the short and long term. The project team members tend to be honest when they are being received non-judgmentally.

Concentration skills

Sports Officiating Perspective:

Anxiety reduces concentration and impairs decision-making. As anxiety increases, concentration becomes narrower and more difficult. Excess anxiety also makes them focus their attention internally (e.g., thinking about past or future, not being in the present) and affects their ability to shift attention focus (e.g., thinking too long about immediate situation). Interaction of anxiety with mental energy states creates a variety of emotional states that can either help or hurt concentration (Weinberg & Richardson, 1990, p 85):

  • No Anxiety + High Mental Energy = Alertness, Excitement, Happiness (high concentration)
  • No Anxiety + Low Mental Energy = Relaxation, Drowsiness, Disinterest (low concentration)
  • High Anxiety + High Mental Energy = Frustration, anxiety, anger (low concentration)
  • High Anxiety + Low Mental Energy = Boredom, Fatigue, Irritation (low concentration)

When free of negative thoughts of failure, it is much easier for them to concentrate on the task at hand. They can shut out stress, negative thoughts, fears, and doubts. To stay alert, focused, and energized, officials minimize thoughts that drain mental energy such as personal problems or major conflicts. They also must avoid negative emotions such as sadness, depression and being upset. The ability to rapidly refocus their attention on the immediate task whenever distracted (emphasis on staying in the present) is important.

Officials must maintain concentration through both good and bad situations during the game. To do that, they cannot allow anything or anyone to get under their skin. Knowing what to watch for is a critical skill/instinct because errors often occur because of misdirected attention.

Neutral Project Management Perspective:

Feel present in all situations – minimize distracting thoughts about the past or the future when working with team members and groups. Attend and respond to what is happening here and now. A simple way to check that we are in the present is whether we can feel ourselves breathing.

Managers who lose touch with what is happening “now” cannot act spontaneously – to compensate, they often try to do what they think is right. Maximize being aware of what is really happening (trust but verify feedback) in the project teams and act accordingly. Learn to see things backwards, inside out, and upside down.

Self-Control skills

Sports Officiating Perspective:

Sports officials, in the first few minutes, set the tone of how the game will be played. It is important to know both the rules and their intent (i.e., avoid calling fouls unnecessarily that do not affect the player or team advantage). Whenever in doubt, common sense prevails.

When giving a controversial call, allow reasonable disputes. Realize arbitration is a part of competition. Listen before responding – but never allow a personal attack (e.g., name calling). Don't take things personally because coaches, fans, players see the game with their hearts. It is important that officials always see the game with their eyes.

A sport official's mental toughness is a practiced skill – they are not born with it. Overcoming adversity is considered the most important trait for both athletes and officials. While they cannot control the contestant's emotions, they are expected to control theirs no matter what the circumstances. As the game gets hotter, the officials must get cooler.

They enhance their body language / poise by remaining calm and poised, regardless of what is happening. During difficult times, emphasis is placed on being very deliberate and controlled (eye contact is required). They always avoid the appearance of favoritism. Last, but not least, they hustle but do not rush, set an even tempo.

It is important that they enhance their verbal effectiveness by always showing respect. When appropriate, they use encouraging words and simple praise (catch people doing things right). Bluffing is avoided, it is better to admit it if they don't have an answer. The general rule is to make explanations brief and to the point. Statements from others do not require answers while questions from others we may chose whether to answer. Officials can get into difficult situations when they say things that are better left unspoken.

Neutral Project Management Perspective:

A project manager's stillness is a very effective way to face an agitated project team – we must not get angry even if we are being attacked. When we are silent, the project team will remain focused. Do not force things to happen, but let things unfold and become visible. Yielding our position overcomes resistance and gentleness melts rigid defenses. Avoid fighting the force of the project team's energy.

The project manager must stay focused on the overall desired project outcome. Practicing neutral management allows us to be more creative and flexible to changing conditions – especially during difficult times (need is the mother of invention). Our thoughts/actions must not be poisoned or paralyzed by fear of perceived negative outcome probabilities. All personal fears must be faced pragmatically and courageously for consistent self-control.

Effective project management is a conscious, spontaneous response to what is happening here-and-now; without calculation or manipulation. Less effective management is trying to do what is right. It is calculated because it assumes what is right, and manipulative because it assumes what should happen. The least effective is imposed morality because it is both calculated and manipulative, and meets resistance with punishment. It sheds no light on what is actually happening and often backfires.

Communication skills

Sports Officiating Perspective:

Sports officials understand human nature and respect the political process. They hold themselves responsible for their decisions and actions.

When more than one is involved in a game, officials talk about each other's responsibilities to determine who is watching what (manage expectations of each other). Major problems can occur if they are not aligned – gaps and inconsistencies among them will hurt the game. They willing share their officiating strengths and expertise with other sports officials they work with. Conversely, they seek advice and assistance from others.

Officials are approachable and willing to listen to questions or complaints. They take the time to establish good rapport with both coaches and players by treating them with courtesy and respect (and also expect the same from them). They avoid showdowns and put-downs where it is felt that the more that is said, the less it means. It is better to be quiet and listen then effectively give honest feedback.

Neutral Project Management Perspective:

The fewer project management rules, the better. By giving the project team territory to operate by their own proven practices (that do not violate the overall project rules), they are more inclined to do what needs to be done. Stay in the background and facilitate other people's process – work through them whenever possible. Avoid non-value channeling (i.e. get out of the way) – it can create unnecessary bottlenecks. Conversely, don't let the team consume the project manager's time with administrative duties that they are responsible for but simply prefer not to do.

Try to be open as possible. By being open, the team members feel comfortable that any issue can be raised. Do not defend our position and show no favoritism. Know when to listen, when to act, and when to withdraw. If we can do this, we can work effectively with nearly anyone. Speak simply and honestly and intervene in to order shed light and create project team harmony.

Remain unbiased, clear, and earthly - do not intervene unnecessarily. Facilitate what is happening rather than what we think ought to be happening. Avoid promises that are not within our control such as rewards we are not authorized to give unilaterally or team member well being (they are responsible for their attitude and behavior in their environment).

Do not try to push or manipulate team members – it can create unnecessary resentment and resistance. Emphasize facilitating process and clarify conflicts. Emphasize common sense and traditional wisdom (based on pragmatism and experience). Settle for good work and let others have the recognition.

Conflict Management Qualities

Sports Officiating Perspective:

There are several proven officiating techniques to resolving conflict. A common one is having the other person talk without interrupting. Limit the discussion to only the immediate issue. Try to choose an optimal time to bring up and discuss problems. Judiciously avoid the other person's vulnerabilities or emotional sensitivities. Regularly touch base with the other person.

Non-verbal conflict management tools include (a) presence, (b) placing higher importance of how we do something than what we do (c) have a demeanor that says, ” I belong ”, (d) our body language, and (e) our verbal behavior.

Keep emotion out of our voice. Avoid threats. Remind everyone of a shared goal – avoid arguments. Tell the truth and don't trivialize.

Officials prevent conflict by (a) being aware – staying in the present, (b) knowing the participants, (c) staying objective, (d) understanding that most complaints are simple venting, and (e) understanding stress related events caused by the game intensity, close scores or time left.

It is important to make decisions when the action happens. Controversy can be avoided by making quick/decisive rulings too quick. The closer the decision, they know that being decisive becomes even more important. Avoid knee-jerk reactions. They avoid “phantom calls” – do not call something that is not there – especially at critical moments. In these situations, it is better to have a good “no-call”.

Officials recognize early conflict signs from players such as (a) poor performance causing frustration, (b) facial expressions and body language, and (c) how the players are talking to their teammates and coaches. They respect reasonable coaches and player questions but do not let them affect the flow of the game (e.g., avoid long debates). If someone presents a serious challenge – a good practice is to ask the challenger what he or she saw first. This switches the official to empathy mode and also assures that all decision-related information is available.

Neutral Project Management Perspective:

Do not interfere with the project team process by instigating issues or eliciting emotions that have not appeared on their own. If we stir things up, we may release issues before their time and under needless pressure. Run an honest, open project. Our job is to facilitate and illuminate what is happening - interfere as little as possible. The “phantom calls” in officiating are equivalent to project managers reacting to situations they think might occur but are simply not present or are very low probability.

Always try to avoid and do not seek encounters, but be open and respond while it is still manageable - difficult situations become simple if approached in a timely manner. There is no value in delaying until heroic action is needed to set things right. If attacked or criticized, respond in a way that will shed light on the event. This shows balance and understanding that an encounter is not a threat.

Do not look for a fight. If it comes to us, it is better to step back than overstep ourselves. Our strength is good intelligence and awareness of what is happening. Advance only where no resistance is encountered. If we make a point, do not cling to it. If we win, be gracious. Yield our position gracefully – focus on facilitating what is happening.

Mediate emotional issues without taking sides or picking favorites. Never surrender our compassion or use our skill to harm another needlessly. Do not pretend to compromise while withholding our true feelings. Do not place high importance on being right or winning arguments or finding the flaws in the other person's position.

When neutral, impartial project management fails, intervene powerfully, suddenly or even harshly – but realize it always causes injury. It is normally a warning that the project manager is not centered or has an emotional attachment to whatever is happening. The victory is actually a failure.

Relaxation skills

Sports Officiating Perspective:

Sports officials perform in high-pressure arenas and are constantly presented with adversity. They must remain calm, relaxed, non-threatened, and confident. Avoid anxiety of any sort. Experience flow – either personally experience as a player or watching a video from the player's perspective.

Our brain and body operate differently when we are happy - have fun and enjoy the game. Achieve a physical/mental/emotional high before the game. Being relaxed includes not being afraid to make mistakes, disappoint people, or lose control.

Mental relaxation techniques include (a) self-talk, (b) stopping stray thoughts, (c) cue-words to trigger desired mental state, (d) focus on the present, and (e) slowing down. Physical relaxation techniques include (a) breathing, (b) progressive muscle relaxation and (c) smiling.

Neutral Project Management Perspective:

Do not under-estimate the importance of daily relaxation. Avoid negative feelings such as being anxious, embarrassed, or afraid of being overwhelmed. Clarify our own conflicts. When at peace with ourselves, we do not spend energy in mental conflicts. Rushing gets us nowhere – slow down if we see ourselves making careless mistakes or poor quality deliverables (for some reason, there is usually time to do it right the second time). Trying too hard feeds insecurity and produces unexpected results.

Health

Sports Officiating Perspective:

“A strong relationship exists between the psychological skills and the physical performance of officials. Therefore, a referee depends on his or her physical abilities (e.g., conditioning for the demands of a particular sport, techniques and mechanics, visual skills) and mental abilities (e.g., confidence, concentration, emotional control).” (Weinberg & Richardson 1990)

Physical fatigue has a very negative affect on being in the right position, concentration, decision-making, and self-control. Staying healthy and preventing burnout includes focus on (a) physical fitness, (b) diet, (c) mental outlook, (d) relaxation, and (e) self-regulation (imagery, self-talk, goal setting).

Losing enjoyment for sports officiating because of intense pressures and the lack of appreciation commonly causes burnout. The following list contains the most common symptoms:

  • Physical (headaches, fatigue, decreased fitness, insomnia, hypertension, ulcer, illness)
  • Psychological (depression, anxiety, irritability, loss of temper, decreased feelings of self-worth)
  • Behavioral (rigidity, stubbornness, less efficient, increased use of drugs, complaining, isolation)
  • Family life (blurring work/home lives, increased anger, isolation from family, inability to relax)
  • Job (lower productivity, attendance, less responsible, increasing distance from others).

Neutral Project Management Perspective:

Monitor the group health and take the appropriate actions in a timely manner. We also must take care of ourselves to do our highest quality work. Do we remember the times we were in the best physical condition and what we achieved with all the energy? Capture and visualize that time and use it as a baseline to our present health. Conversely, remember the times we were fatigued – and its impact on our overall performance and those that depended on us. Watch out for similar warning signs. Health is the foundation of all our desirable project management qualities.

Summary

Neutral project management behavior, located somewhere between assertive and forgiving behavior, is needed for team member interaction consistency and optimizing desired project activity. Proven sports official's concepts are a good start because many people already have been on the receiving end of neutral management during fun sports activities. Volunteer to be an official in local community sports activities – it will be a very worthwhile experience (dealing with players, coaches, parents, and fans).

Identify a mentor at work that you respect and who will help you reinforce the neutral management principles on the job. When faced with a difficult situation, ask them what they would do and compare their perspective with yours at this time. Their feedback, based on acquired wisdom, is important for your professional growth (versus the school of “hard-knocks”). It is important to avoid major decision mistakes caused by inexperience.

Lastly, most importantly, periodically validate that the neutral management practices are achieving the desired results and constantly enhance them. Always place the highest importance on personal health and energy (avoid burnout).

Grunska, J (1999) Successful sports officiating Champaign, Ill: Human Kinetics

Heider, J. (1985) The tao of leadership: Lao Tzu's tao te ching adapted for a new age. Atlanta, Ga: Humantics New Age

Kerzner, H. (2001) Project management a systems approach to planning, scheduling, and controlling (7th Ed.) New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons

Project Management Institute. (2000) A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK®) (2000 ed.) Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute

Still, B. (1998) 101 Tips for youth sports officials Franksville, Wis: Referee Enterprises

Weinberg, R.S. & Richardson, P.A. (1990) Psychology of officiating. Champaign, Ill: Leisure Press

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.

Proceedings of PMI® Global Congress 2003 – North America
Baltimore, Maryland, USA ● 20-23 September 2003

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