Positive Influence

Project Managers Build Project Cultures Directly and Indirectly—Whether or Not They Are Trying To

By Karen Smits



A primary purpose of project leadership is to create a project culture. Such cultures are formed first and foremost through the process of creating a small-group identity. Sharing the project's goal, understanding its mission and driving toward a positive result, the group is not just a handful of people working together—it is a team organizing to get the job done.

Project managers can and should lead the culture-building process. But in my experience, they often are unaware of how they influence culture. Direct influence comes through what behavior they model and what they talk about. Indirect influence comes through the work delivery systems and structures the project manager chooses to use—and how team members are rewarded and promoted.

If project managers are aware of the influence of their behavior and words, they can systematically leverage it to communicate messages that build a desirable culture. If they underestimate the power of their behavior or their behavior is inconsistent, however, team members will spend inordinate time and energy trying to decipher what their leader's behavior means.

It's an obvious point that bears repeating: What a project manager talks about signals to the team what is important. Even casual remarks and questions consistently directed at specific topics can be as potent as formal control mechanisms and measurements. The concerns and actions project participants see at the top trickle down to how participants behave and which problems they move with alacrity to address.


Mindful of all this, what kind of project culture are you building? And how does it align with and reinforce organizational values? What do you want to change, and how can you use your direct and indirect influence to achieve that change? Make sure you don't inadvertently deepen a problematic current culture. If people are passive but you want them to be active, do not make decisions for them—that only reinforces passive behavior. Instead, push them to make the calls themselves.

Reflect regularly. How will team members interpret your actions and behavior? And how have these actions and behavior been a reason for irregularities? After all, the most fundamental measurement of project leadership is not the project's outcomes—it is the culture a leader creates across the team to drive those results. Culture comes first. PM

img Karen Smits, PhD, is an organizational anthropologist working at Practical Thinking Group in Singapore. She can be reached at [email protected].
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