Project Management Institute

Nurturing human nature in projects (it's all psychobabble rap to me)


Too often project management is viewed as a clockwork mechanism: wind it up and watch it run! We attend to the nuts and bolts of tools and techniques when the undeniable fact is that little, if anything is done in a project without leveraging the efforts of other people. Despite the inclusion of the Human Resources Knowledge Area in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) and a continuing emphasis on “soft skills,” most project managers have very little insight into why people (including themselves) behave the way they do in projects.


This paper draws from the fields of behavioral and neuro-economics, evolutionary psychology, and APM (actual project management) to explore some fundamental and often surprising elements of human nature. We will examine the research behind each of these to discover its origin and understand its potential effects on team members’ mindsets and behaviors. Finally, we will propose strategies to accommodate and influence these tendencies, which will help practitioners better utilize their human resources and increase the likelihood of success in their projects.

Fields of Study

Evolutionary Psychology

This field attempts to explain human psychological traits as functions of species adaptation, just as evolution explains physiological traits. “Evolutionary psychologists argue that much of human behavior is the output of psychological adaptations that evolved to solve recurrent problems in human ancestral environments” (Confer, 2010). Since changes driven by evolution occur over extremely long time frames, one premise is that much of our current psychological makeup was molded by natural selection pressures that existed for ancient man. This could predispose us to hard-wired behaviors that are maladaptive or difficult to understand in a modern context.

Behavioral and Neuro-Economics

Behavioral economics uses cognitive, emotional, and social factors in order to better understand economic decisions. Neuro-economics draws from fields ranging from biology to mathematics to study alternatives analysis, optimal choices, and decision making in general. “Behavioral economics experiments record the subject’s decision over various design parameters and use the data to generate formal models that predict performance. Neuro-economics extends this approach by adding observation of the nervous system to the set of explanatory variables. The goal of neuroeconomics is to inform the creation and contribute another layer of data to the testable hypotheses of these models” (Wikipedia, 2011).

Actual Project Management

Experienced practitioners have acquired a body of anecdotal evidence over time that is often used to guide our interaction with and the direction of, human resources on projects. Many of these practices are formally addressed in the PMBOK® Guide (managing stakeholder expectations, management reserves) but may go by different names in real-world practice (poor-mouthing, artificial deadlines). Critical abilities for dealing with human resources are often referenced peripherally or are afterthoughts (i.e., Interpersonal Skills in Appendix G of the PMBOK® Guide). Not all challenging behaviors can be addressed by the scientific approach, but very few have not been seen, studied, or documented in our knowledge domain.

The Problems with Probability

The Eternal Optimist

It will come as no surprise to the average project manager that most people tend to be overly optimistic in their assessments. Whether reporting status, providing an estimate, or forecasting an outcome, the majority will err on the positive side. What may surprise most of us is that this is a hard-wired condition.

“Humans expect positive events in the future even when there is no evidence to support such expectations… across individuals, activity in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex was correlated with trait optimism… the brain may generate the tendency to engage in the projection of positive future events, suggesting that the effective integration and regulation of emotional and autobiographical information supports the projection of positive future events in healthy individuals, and is related to optimism” (Sharot, 2004).

There are many factors that contribute to this optimism (e.g., base rate, small sample, and conjunctive bias) but two in particular, which bedevil projects are anchoring and motivational bias. Anchoring is the tendency for previous values to become a reference point that can skew subsequent judgments or numbers. Initial estimates for an activity, component, or entire project can anchor expectations forever. As my colleague, Don Wessels says, “It leaves your mouth as a ballpark number and enters their ears as a set-in-stone budget.” To combat this tendency, we must educate stakeholders on the interaction between accuracy ranges and confidence factors and use techniques such as range estimating.

If organizations motivate teams to deliver ahead of schedule and under budget, they can motivate poor behaviors such as sacrificing quality and padding estimates. By rewarding “good” outcomes rather than good decisions they can even encourage the continuation of projects that should be terminated. Stakeholders must understand that “Successful projects need to deliver to the baselines, no less, and just as importantly, no more” (Kinser, 2008, March). Overcoming this involves a realistic give and take between the project manager and the involved stakeholder or team member. For project level numbers, we must indicate the preliminary nature of early estimates and the necessity of spending more time and possibly money to improving the reliability of the numbers.

Estimating Time versus Money

All projects must operate inside constraints, but why do more projects seem to be challenged with schedule rather than budget? It may lie in the differences in the ways we perceive and deal with time versus money. “Decisions related to time rather than money foster an enhanced use of heuristics. The two seem economically equivalent but are psychologically different” (Saini, 2008). Heuristics or “rules of thumb” can give us efficient guidance and solutions, but do not guarantee the best or most defensible result. Differences in the human perceptions of time can lead to inaccurate estimates and commitments in our projects.

“Many of us have accepted invitations weeks or months in advance… only to regret our decision when the time arrived to make the time investments promised. Viewed from a distance, the benefits seemed clearly to outweigh the costs. But when the time arrived, the costs seemed much more painful than we had anticipated. In our work, people exhibit temporal inconsistency in their preferences for expenditures of time. One might speculate that, for investments of time, people have a self-control problem when they are too far from events rather than too close” (Zauberman, 2005).

People understand that a dollar is a dollar and that there are tangible limits on the availability of money. Time is perceived more as an unending flow; additionally, the further out the time horizon, the less able we are to understand the constrained nature of the resource and the opportunity costs of commitments. Joint examination of an individual’s calendars and honest communications about the expected level of effort required are necessary. The more distant the assignment, the more crucial it is that we educate our stakeholders about this tendency. We should also create a robust communications management plan that increases the frequency of reminders about commitments as the time for involvement approaches.

The Challenges of Choice

Analysis Paralysis

All of us have experienced the phenomenon of teams or individuals getting locked into a loop of indecisiveness. It is axiomatic that the likelihood of reaching consensus is inversely proportional to the number of parties involved. Even for individuals, there is a psychological trait that can affect our ability to sort through too many options.

“Current psychological theory and research affirm the positive affective and motivational consequences of having personal choice. These findings have led to the popular notion that the more choice, the better—that the human ability to manage, and the human desire for, choice is unlimited. Findings from three experimental studies starkly challenge this implicit assumption that having more choices is necessarily more intrinsically motivating than having fewer” (Iyengar, 2000). If you have ever started to buy something in person or online and discovered a seemingly endless number of choices, then finally thrown your hands up and walked away from the decision, you have fallen prey to this tendency. Project managers should therefore conduct a thoughtful analysis of options and limit the number of choices we present to groups or individuals. In most cases, three to five choices is a reasonable limit.

Some work has been done to explain why individuals vary in their ability to accommodate many options. “Dr. Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College has written on…the differences between people who are “maximizers,” viewing each choice as a challenge to finding the very best option, and those who are “satisficers,” approaching a choice as a search for any option that meets some specific set of criteria. For a satisficer, Dr. Schwartz said, a wealth of choices is not a problem, since the task is merely to find one that works. “But if you’re a maximizer,” he said, “the more options there are, the more overwhelming it is” (Goode, 2001). Project managers and technically oriented people are more likely to be “maximizers.” We should be aware of our own and other’s mindsets and, where possible, try to decide based on specific criteria or metrics and if necessary accept a less than optimal solution.

Status Quo Bias

Because projects are temporary in nature and generate unique outcomes, we must search for new and better ways to achieving results, often running headlong into ADITW/NIH (always done it that way/not invented here). This status quo bias means that individuals, and by extension organizations, will resist change unless a compelling incentive is present. Status quo bias is linked with cognitive perceptions of risk and probability through loss aversion—people’s strong tendency to prefer avoiding losses to making gains.

“Status quo framing was found to have predictable and significant effects on subjects’ decision making. Individuals exhibited a significant status quo bias across a range of decisions. The degree of bias varied with the strength of the individual’s discernible preference and with the number of alternatives in the choice set. The more options that were included in the choice set, the stronger was the relative bias for the status quo” (Samuelson, 1988). This bias, therefore, also interacts with analysis paralysis as discussed above.

As project managers, we must rely on other people’s expertise, but often the more expert the person, the more likely he or she is to use an unconscious and sometimes rigid body of knowledge to intuit his or her way to an answer. Loss aversion ties to ego as well as economics; an expert has more to lose by being proven wrong occasionally than repeatedly proven right. Project managers must work to develop and maintain the “beginners mind,” as it is known in Zen practice, an attitude of openness to the new and innovative without preconceptions dominating our thinking. We should also challenge our SMEs (subject matter experts) to do the same to prevent returning to previous solutions without considering other options.

Many stakeholders will cling to the established way of doing things rather than accept the uncertainty of trying something new. Some organizations are so status quo oriented that the threshold for changing a process virtually guarantees that no improvements can be made. Project managers should educate themselves in becoming effective change agents and be able to explain the opportunity costs that may be sacrificed if new approaches are not rationally considered.

Fair’s Fair

The Blink Factor

Decades of study have validated that it is human nature to make snap judgments, yet from childhood we are cautioned to “give everyone a fair chance” and “don’t jump to conclusions.” Research shows that this tendency can cut both ways; there are times when we should go with our first instincts and times when we should dig deeper.

“Most people believe that they should avoid changing their answer when taking multiple-choice tests. Virtually all research on this topic, however, suggests that this strategy is ill-founded: most answer changes are from incorrect to correct, and people who change their answers usually improve their test scores” (Kruger, 2005). This is a case where common wisdom and an entire industry (exam preparation) continue to cling to a fallacy in the face of meta-studies that statistically prove the status quo belief is wrong. Many of us will extend this first instinct argument to decisions we make outside of a tested environment or in accepting an initial assessment of the root cause of a problem. Considered analysis of all options including, but not limited to, the intuitive choice is our best defense against this trap.

The flip side of this trait is when our first instincts are wrong and we fail to recognize or compensate for this possibility. There are however, ways to improve our use of this “adaptive unconscious” feature of the human mind. Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, looks at both sides of this issue and sets out to accomplish three tasks:

  • Accept the fact that decisions made quickly can be good ones
  • Answer when we should trust our instincts and when we shouldn’t
  • Most importantly, convince us that first impressions can be educated and controlled

“This is the gift of training and expertise – the ability to extract an enormous amount of meaningful information from the very thinnest slice of experience. Every movement – every blink – is composed of a series of discrete moving parts, and every one of those parts offers an opportunity for intervention, for reform, and for correction” (Gladwell, 2005, p.241).

Inequity Aversion

Project teams on the whole are staffed by ambitious, can-do types of people who are willing to work harder and longer than average. A high-performing team will have internalized the goals of the project and be operating on an altruistic, collaborative model. Those that take advantage of this can have a negative effect on morale and performance. “Evolutionary psychologists say that humans have psychological adaptations that evolved specifically to help us identify nonreciprocators, commonly referred to as “cheaters” (Gaulin, 2003, p. 342). “When they are given the opportunity to punish free riders, stable cooperation is maintained, although punishment is costly for those who punish” (Fehr, 1999). Managers need to be aware that this can lead effective team members to damage themselves in order to address an unfair condition.

Project managers should be mindful of inequity aversion in light of recognition and reward systems that may be available to them. The most critical aspect of these systems is the realization that they should be used to reward desirable behavior. “It’s important to understand that the employment relationship is not slavery, serfdom, or human bondage; it is merely a behavior rental agreement.” (Fournies, 1999, p. 23) The PMBOK® Guide presents some excellent guidelines for the use of recognition and rewards.

  • They should be based on activities and performance under a person’s control
  • They should satisfy a need, which is valued by that person
  • Zero sum rewards (those to a limited number of individuals) can hurt team cohesiveness
  • They should be used throughout the project, not only at completion

Of most importance is “team members should not be punished for poor planning and consistently unrealistic expectations imposed by senior management” (PMI, 2008, p. 234).

Rationalizing the Irrational

Parkinson’s Law

“It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil” (Parkinson, 1955). Most project managers have seen the effects of this “law” in practice when assigning activities and deadlines. Although originally formulated by Parkinson as satire, the principle has been studied and extended in general and project settings.

In a laboratory experiment, Aronson and Gerard assigned an identical task to two sets of students with different time allotments. They found that the group with the longer deadline took almost twice as much time to complete the simple activity. Even more disturbing was the discovery that the effect was “sticky”; subsequent assignments of similar tasks continued to take more time when performed by the slower group. “Our results indicate that people should be assigned a minimum of time to perform a chore. Excess time is not only wasteful in and of itself but leads to the continuous waste of time in subsequent performance. Thus, to go beyond Parkinson’s law, not only does work expand to fill the time available, but once it has expanded it continues to require excess time—even when time is not readily available” (Aronson, 1966).

The effect has also been studied in the project management domain as it interacts with tools and techniques such as estimating activity durations, PERT, and critical path. “Critical path analysis ignores work force behavioral issues, and fails to model behavioral implications about critical and noncritical activity durations, that subsequently may cause project delays. Ignoring behavioral issues in modeling project activity durations is equivalent to assuming that there is no relationship between the actual amount of work to be done, the deadline set for the worker to finish that work, and the actual completion time of the work” (Gutierrez, 1991). “This is why the ‘busiest man’ corollary exists; an individual will theoretically deliver in the shortest amount of time when they have the least time to spare. Only by imposing tight, but realistic deadlines on every element of the project, from meetings to final completion date, can we hope to overcome this aspect of human nature” (Kinser, 2008, October).

Just One More Thing

Virtually every project faces changes to the competing constraints of scope, time, cost, quality, and risk. The general tendency is for them to be pushed in the challenging direction (i.e., scope and quality demands increase; time, cost, and risk decrease). The most dangerous words in project management are “While we’re at it, we might as well.” The seduction of a “can do” attitude displayed by most project managers is the tendency to say yes too often, whether the changes follow a formal control process or not. As with Parkinson’s Law’s stickiness applies here as well; this can be a self-perpetuating condition due to the effect of compliance.

The use of compliance tactics is an area of behavioral psychology that has been studied extensively and ranges from advertising to FITD. “The foot-in-the-door technique succeeds due to a basic human reality that social scientists call “successive approximations.” Basically, the more a subject goes along with small requests or commitments, the more likely that subject is to continue in a desired direction of attitude or behavioral change and feel obligated to go along with larger requests” (Wikipedia, 2011). In project terms this means that every time we say yes to “just one more thing” we increase the chance of it happening again the next time. Consistently exercising formal change management and analyzing every request independently of all previous ones is our best line of defense for FITD.

Most practitioners incorrectly think that scope creep is a change to a project baseline outside of a formal change control process. In fact, scope creep is “adding features and functionality (project scope) without addressing the effects on time, costs, and resources, or without customer approval.” (PMI, 2008, p. 440) This implies that scope creep can start before baselining since the customer may tell one to include something (approval) without allowing us to address impacts to the competing constraints. In effect, a project can fall prey to unattainable scope in the initiating phase because of poor customer behaviors. Lacking explicit authority over customers, it is only through the effective use of interpersonal skills that project managers have a chance of successfully defending their projects.


Increasing the Likelihood of Success

“What were they thinking?” is often our reaction to the baffling behaviors we can see in projects; however, people’s choices and actions are usually grounded in the way our brains are hard-wired due to the effects of evolution and culture. To effectively combat most of the issues discussed in this paper, we must:

  • Have an awareness of these traits and a willingness to learn more
  • Educate other stakeholders and communicate the potential results of these behaviors
  • Use tools and techniques from inside and outside the project management domain to improve behaviors
  • Be willing to challenge those in authority to act rationally and in good faith toward projects and teams

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Confer, J. C.; Easton, J.A.; Fleischman, D. S.; Goetz, C. D.; Lewis, D. M. G.; Perilloux, C.& Buss, D. M. (2010, Feburary-March). Evolutionary psychology controversies, questions, prospects, and limitations. American Psychologist, 65(2), 110–126.

Fehr, E., & Schmitd, K.M. (1999). A theory of fairness, competition, and cooperation. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 114(3), 817–868.

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Fournies, F.F. (1999). Why employees don’t do what they’re supposed to do and what to do about it. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Gaulin, S.J., & McBurney, D.H. (2003). Evolutionary psychology. Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York, NY: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company.

Goode, E. (2001, January). In Weird Math of Choices, 6 Choices Can Beat 600 New York Times [Electronic Version] Retrieved from

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Iyengar, S.S., & Lepper, M.R. (2000, December). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 995–1006.

Kinser, J. (2008, March). Why less is more: The backpacker’s approach to project management. PMI Global Congress 2008, Sydney, Australia.

Kinser, J. (2008, October). The top 10 Laws of project management. PMI Global Congress 2008, Atlanta, USA.

Kruger, J., Wirtz, D., & Miller, D.T. (2005). Counterfactual thinking and the first instinct fallacy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(5), 725–735.

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Parkinson, C.N. (1955, November 19). Parkinson’s Law. The Economist,

Saini, R., & Monga, A. (2008, April). How I decide depends on what I spend: Use of heuristics is greater for time than for money. Journal of Consumer Research, 34, 914–922.

Samuelson, W., & Zeckhauser, R. (1988). Status quo bias in decision making. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 1, 7–59.

Sharot, T., Riccardi, A.M., Raio, C.M., & Phelps, E.A. (2007, November). Neural mechanisms mediating optimism bias. Nature, 450, 102–105.

Zauberman, G., & Lynch, J.G. (2005). Resource slack and propensity to discount delayed investments of time versus money. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 134(1) 23–37.

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.

© 2011, John Kinser
Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, TX



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