The effectiveness of different power styles of project managers in gaining project support

Gary R. Gemmill

Syracuse University

and Hans J. Thamhain

General Electric

The results of a field study identify the leadership style that may optimize project performance in a project-oriented environment.

The relationships of a project manager's leadership style to the degree of support he receives from project personnel is examined and related to project performance and effectiveness as judged by general management.

The findings may help the professional manager in the field of project management to identify what type of leadership style optimizes the project performance.

The paper concludes that work challenge and expertise as intrinsic motivation factors appear to be the most important influence methods for establishing a climate of high support, while authority and penalty methods appear to hinder the development of such a climate.

Project management has become a well-established approach to the execution of work assignments in a project-oriented environment. It has created considerable interest not only because of its implications for organizationsl design but also because of its implications for those who manage projects. Although much has been written on project management, little attention has been focused on the problems project managers face in gaining the support and cooperation of project personnel. In a project-oriented environment a considerable portion of the role of the project manager consists of integrating, facilitating, and coordinating tasks that are essential for successful completion of the project. Frequently, it is necessary for him to move across various functional areas and disciplines to obtain services and resources from project personnel over whom he has little or no formal authority. Sometimes these personnel respond readily to his requests, while at other times they are reluctant to provide the desired level of support. Not surprisingly, our recent study in a large electronics firm found that the greater the support project personnel reported for the requests and recommendations of a project manager, the higher he was rated in performance effectiveness by top management [Fig. 2(d)]. Thus the ability to gain the support of project personnel appears to be a key factor in determining the effectiveness of a project manager.

The problem of gaining support from project personnel is compounded since project managers are usually not able to formally command the support of project personnel in other functional areas. Moreover, even in areas where they can use authority, its use can have a detrimental effect on the received support level. While several articles have been written on the “authority problems” of project managers, little research or analysis has been devoted to identifying the types of influence, other than formal authority, that project managers employ in eliciting support from project personnel.

The present paper reports an exploratory field investigation into some methods of interpersonal influence employed by project managers in gaining support from project personnel. In investigating the methods of eliciting support, a slightly modified typology of interpersonal influence suggested by French and Raven (see [5], [7], and [17]) was used as a framework. The typology identifies five basic forms of interpersonal influences that can exist between project managers and project personnel.

1) Formal Authority — The ability to gain support because project personnel perceive the project manager as being officially empowered to issue orders.

2) Reward Power — The ability to gain support because project personnel perceive the project manager as capable of directly or indirectly dispensing valued organizational rewards (e.g., salary, promotions, future work assignments, etc.).

3) Penalty Power — The ability to gain support because project personnel perceive the project manager as capable of directly or indirectly dispensing penalties that they wish to avoid. Penalty power usually derives from the same sources as reward power, with one being a necessary condition for the other.

4) Expert Power — The ability to gain support because project personnel perceive the project manager as possessing special knowledge or expertise; that is, he is perceived as possessing functional expertise that they consider important.

5) Referent Power — The ability to gain support because project personnel feel personally attracted to him or to the project.

Expert and referent power, unlike authority, reward, and penalty power, cannot be delegated by general management to project managers, but are earned through their relationship with project personnel.

II. Survey Environment and Methodology

The data for this investigation were collected as part of a larger survey conducted within several project-oriented business sections of a large electronic company. Replies from 22 project managers and their 66 project personnel, predominantly electrical engineers, were received and evaluated. The replies represent a 65-percent sample of 136 professionals chosen from specific work areas of approximately 1000 employees. For the 22 project managers evaluated, the distribution of “age” and “time in present assignment” is shown in Fig. 1. Sixteen out of these 22 managers (60 percent) are between 40 and 50 years of age with the mean at 43 years.

A questionnaire was used as the major method of data collection. The questionnaire was designed to measure the two major variables under consideration: 1) degree of support from project personnel, and 2) the relative importance of various forms of influence in gaining support. More precisely, degree of support provided by project personnel was measured by asking project personnel to indicate on a four-point scale (always, usually, sometimes, rarely) how much effort they usually exerted in meeting the requests and recommendations of the following.

1) Project managers who have functional authority over them and act as superiors (superiors).

2) Project managers who do not have this functional authority over them but have them assigned on a project basis (other project managers).

Similarly, project managers were asked to indicate on a four-point scale how much effort was usually exerted in meeting their requests from the following.

1) Project personnel over whom they have functional authority (subordinates).

2) Project personnel whose services they use but over whom they lack functional authority (interfaces).

The forms of influence used by project managers to gain support from project personnel were measured by asking both project personnel and project managers to rank nine forms of influence in terms of how important they felt they were in providing support for the requests of superiors and other project managers. For example, project personnel were asked to rank, in order of importance, the reasons why they usually meet the requests of a) superiors and b) other project managers on the following nine items:

Authority

1) I feel he has the formal authority.

Reward Power

2) I feel he can influence my salary.

3) I feel he can influence my promotion.

3) I feel he can influence future work assignments.

4) I feel he can influence the allocation of funds to my unit.

Punishment Power

6) 1 feel he can apply pressure or penalize me in some way.

Expertise

7) I feel that I can respect him and have confidence in his special knowledge and advice.

Referent Power

8) I feel that he has established a personal friendship with me.

9) I feel that the type of work is interesting and professionally challenging.

In the actual questionnaire, the statements were randomized. and the conceptual labels such as authority, reward power, etc., were omitted.

III. Data Analysis

The analysis of the data from the study is presented in three parts. First, the degree of support reported by both project personnel and project managers is examined. Next, an examination is made of the forms of influence project personnel report that project managers use and the forms of influence project managers report that they use with project personnel. Lastly, a correlational analysis of the relationship between degree of support and forms of influence is presented. All correlation figures were obtained by using Kendall Rank Order Correlation Techniques.

A. Degree of Support

On a four-point scale, the degree of support project managers reported receiving from subordinates ranged from 2 (low support) to 4 (high support), with a mean of 3.2 and a standard deviation (SD) of 1.3. On the other hand, the degree of support they reported receiving from interface personnel ranged from 1 to 4, with a mean of 2.7 and an SD of 0.8 [Fig. 2(a)]. Thus, project managers reported receiving less support from interface personnel than from their own subordinates.

As further illustrated in Fig. 2, the degree of support reported by project personnel to superiors ranged from 2 to 4, with a mean of 3.3 and an SD of 0.5. The support they reported providing for other project managers ranged also from 2 to 4, with a somewhat lower mean of 3.0 and an SD of 0.5. Thus, project personnel report providing a higher level of support for their superiors than for other project managers. In sum, interface personnel both report less support and are perceived by project managers as providing less support than subordinate project personnel. This suggests that project managers do experience greater difficulty in gaining the support of interfaces than they do for subordinates.

B. Influence Bases

Fig. 3 indicates the importance that both project managers and their subordinates attached to each of the nine influence bases in gaining project support. Four of the influence bases were particularly important for subordinates in complying with the requests and recommendations of their superiors — work challenge, formal authority, salary adjustments, and expertise.

The three least important influence bases for support were punishment, fund allocation, and friendship. Fig. 3 also indicates that project managers perceive the importance of the influence bases in gaining the support of subordinates in almost the same order as their subordinates. Expertise is one of the most noticeable differences between them. Whereas project managers considered expertise as the second most important reason for gaining support, subordinates considered it as only the fourth most important reason in providing their support.

The rank order is summarized below:

Superior Ranking     Subordinate Ranking
Work challenge     Work challenge
Expertise     Authority
Authority     Salary adjustment
Salary adjustment     Expertise

Fig. 4 indicates the effectiveness of each of the nine power bases perceived by both project managers and project personnel in project support. Four of the influence bases were particularly important reasons for interfaces to comply with the requests and recommendations of other project managers — expertise, work challenge, future work assignments, and friendship. For project managers, on the other hand, the four most important reasons they felt led to support from interface were work challenge, expertise, authority, and fund allocation. It is evident that there is some disagreement between project managers and interface personnel on the most important influence forms for gaining support.

First, project managers consider authority and fund allocation to be more important in gaining support than interface personnel do. Interface personnel, on the other hand, consider friendship and future work assignment to be more important in gaining support than project managers do.

The rank order is summarized below.

Project Manager    Interface Personnel
Ranking    Ranking
Expertise    Expertise
Work challenge    Work challenge
Authority    Future work assignment
Fund allocation    Friendship

A comparision of the influence bases project personnel consider important in supporting superiors and other project managers reveals some interesting similarities and differences.

1) Project personnel, in meeting the requests of both superiors and other project managers, consider work challenge and expertise to be quite important.

2) However, expertise is considered particularly important in support to other project managers where it was ranked first, while for support to superiors it ranked only fourth.

3) Another major difference between the two reporting relationships is that authority and salary are ranked among the first four in support to their own superiors, while future work assignments and friendship are considered among the four most important reasons for support to other project managers.

Friendship, however, appears to be the most controversial influence base. While 37 percent considered it as one of the three most important reasons for support, 32 percent considered it to be one of the three least important reasons. It is also of interest that punishment power is considered consistently among the least important reasons for support to both superiors and other project managers. Overall, then, it appears that project personnel respond differently to the form of influence used by their superiors versus influences used by other project managers.

Figs. 3 and 4 indicate, however, that project managers themselves tend to view similar forms of influence as being important in gaining the support of subordinates and interfaces. That is, they consider work challenge, expertise, and authority as the three most important reasons for the support of both subordinates and interfaces. They view salary as fourth in importance for subordinates and allocation of funds as fourth in importance for interfaces.

A comparison of the responses of project managers with those of project personnel indicates that for gaining support of subordinates, they consider the same four influence bases to be important even though they do not necessarily assign them the same rank (e.g., project managers ranked expertise second while subordinates ranked it fourth). In terms of the relationship of the project managers to interface personnel, however, the results are different . Both interface personnel and project managers rank expertise and work challenge as the most important forms of influence in gaining support. Interface personnel, however, consider future work assignments and friendship to be third and fourth most important reasons, while project managers consider authority and fund allocation to be the third and fourth most important reasons.

This suggests that insofar as project managers emphasize authority and fund allocation with interfaces rather than future work assignments and friendship, the level of support they received might be expected to be lower than if the emphasis was changed in the other direction. This finding will be further supported by the correlation analysis of the following section.

C. Relationship Between Degree of Support and Influence Bases

The relationship between degree of support and influence bases was examined by means of a non-parametric correlation analysis. More precisely, the personnel of each of the 22 project teams were grouped together, and a group mean was determined for both the degree of support they reported and each of the nine influence forms. This made it possible to correlate the degree of support and influence forms reported by project managers with those reported by project personnel.

Age and years of current assignment level for project managers in survey sample, (a) Age distribution of project managers, (b) Years of current responsibility (assignment) level of project managers

Fig. 1. Age and years of current assignment level for project managers in survey sample, (a) Age distribution of project managers, (b) Years of current responsibility (assignment) level of project managers.

Support to project managers for subordinates and interface personnel

Fig. 2. Support to project managers for subordinates and interface personnel.

Ranking of most and least important factors in providing support to superiors. Superior – subordinate relationship

Fig. 3. Ranking of most and least important factors in providing support to superiors. Superior – subordinate relationship.

IV. Project Personnel Perception of Support

A. Support to Superior

As summarized in Fig. 5, (τA), the level of support provided to superiors has its strongest positive correlation to future work assignments, followed by work challenge and managerial expertise. Thus those are the influence bases seen by project personnel as most effective in providing project support to their superiors. From the same correlation chart we find that penalty as influence base has a strongly negative correlation, suggesting a highly adverse effect on the degree of support given to superiors, a finding that is consistent for all categories of project personnel. Also interesting is the negative correlation of support to salary adjustments and authority, which indicates that subordinates who see their superiors as strongly authority- and salary-oriented reported less support in comparison to those superiors who are perceived as weighing salary and authority not so heavily.

Promotion and friendship did not appear to be related to support as perceived by subordinates.

B. Support to Other Project Managers

As summarized in Fig. 5, (τB), the reason for support provided to other project managers is seen by project personnel in a very similar pattern as support to superiors. Thus project personnel consider basically the same influence bases important for support to their superiors as they do for support to other project managers, with the exception of authority and work challenge. For support to other project managers authority now has a slightly positive effect and work challenge becomes the most effective influence base in providing the support to other project managers.

V. Project Managers Perception Of Support

A. Support from Subordinates

Column 3, τC, of Fig. 5 correlates the manager's ranking of influence bases to his perception of support received from subordinates. The similarities and differences between the perception of superiors and their subordinates can be studied by comparing column τA with column τC.

The correlation analysis reveals that the highest level of support was reported from project managers, who ranked managerial expertise and promotion as highly effective influence bases. Work challenge is seen by both managers and subordinates as an effective influence base for support. While the adverse effect of penalty is consistent with the subordinates’ perception, project managers also show a highly negative effect of friendship on the level of support.

B. Support from Interface Personnel

Work challenge high positive correlation of 0.36 indicates that the higher the project manager ranked work challenge, the higher is the degree of support from interface personnel reported by project managers. This finding, as well as the positive effect of authority toward support, is consistent with the interface's perception of τB.

While the adverse effects of penalty, salary, and friendship are consistent with perception of interface personnel, managers also reported a lower level of support from interface personnel the higher they ranked their own expertise. This negative association of -0.17 is contrary to the perception of interface personnel, who report providing increased support to other project managers who ranked high on expertise.

VI. Conclusion

The study indicates that work challenge is a very important factor in gaining the support of project personnel whether they are subordinates or interfaces. Work challenge constitutes an intrinsic motivation factor that is centered on the content of the project work itself. The findings suggest that project managers might well enhance the level of support they received from project personnel by stimulating interest in the project itself, finding out what project work their personnel finds challenging, and providing them whenever possible with such work.

Ranking of most and least important factors in providing support to project managers. Project manager – interface relationship

Fig. 4. Ranking of most and least important factors in providing support to project managers. Project manager – interface relationship.

Rank order correlation of influence bases and degree of support work

Fig. 5. Rank order correlation of influence bases and degree of support

The study also indicates that the use of punishment power, authority, and salary as the primary means of gaining support leads to a lower level of support to project managers. Thus it appears that project managers would be well advised not to emphasize punishment, authority or salary in attempting to gain the support of project personnel, either subordinates or interfaces. In terms of incremental reward power, such as promotions, fund allocation, and future work assignments, the study suggests that they have a minimal but positive effect in gaining the support of project personnel. Friendship as a basis for gaining support seems to have controversial effects on the level of support provided, and has to be analyzed for a specific environment. Expertise appears to be a more important factor in gaining the support of interfaces than in gaining the support of subordinates.

These conclusions are further supported by research on intrapersonal influence versus managerial project performance, as reported by the authors earlier [10].

Project managers who were rated more effective by their superiors were also those whose project personnel reported a higher level of support. As indicated by the strong positive associations to project effectiveness, again, expertise and work challenge seem to be the most pronounced attributes of an effective project manager.

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* Reprinted by permission from IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, May 1973.

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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