Solving people problems

six practical tools for today’s project manager



A project team operating within a global telecommunications organization was floundering. Deadlines were missed, project quality was suffering, and adherence to budgetary guidelines was beginning to look like an impossibility. The team had been given more than enough technical resources and skills to complete the job, but failure was looming around the corner.

An outside project manager was brought in by the sponsoring executive to see what was wrong with this project. She found that interpersonal communication among team members and stakeholders was poor, morale and motivation was low, conflicts were left to fester, and the project manager appeared to have little awareness of the different leadership roles he should be demonstrating during the project. In short, she found that the project leader and team members did not have the skills and tools available to solve the often messy and complicated “people problems” that can surface in any team environment.

Most individuals enter the role of project manager with sophisticated technical expertise and content knowledge, but are often not extensively knowledgeable or skilled in the “soft” skills that are necessary for project success and career advancement.

And without the skills to address the complex people issues in projects, those projects are often doomed to failure. The good news is that for a few years now, there has been a growing awareness that project management approaches that emphasize key business factors AND interpersonal skills will lead to a reduction in project failure. Indeed, a far back as 1999, the GartnerGroup (August, 1999) estimated that this combined focus on business factors and interpersonal skills will reduce the total number of projects that fail by 30% (.8 probability). The Project Management Institute (PMI®) also notes in its The Future of Project Management (1999) the importance of people skills as it states: “More focus must be placed on the people, human, and emotional aspects of project leadership” (p. 15). PMI further explains that the project management body of knowledge is expanding to further develop the important people skills that are part of general management. Then, in 2001, in The PMI Project Management Fact Book, it stated that in the coming years, the following capabilities will be most critical to those who are project management professionals: “leadership skills/vision and motivating others, people skills/getting along with others, and management skills/directing and managing others” (p. 14).

However, while such research efforts have documented the need for the interpersonal or people skills factors, few investigators or writers have taken the focus on the interpersonal to the next level. That level is the description of tangible, learnable interpersonal skills that can be practiced and refined over time. The current authors, writing on the subject of people skills that can be applied by project managers (Flannes & Levin, 2001), have taken the first step in defining and operationalizing these very powerful and important project management “people skills.”

This paper describes six different people skills that are crucial for project manager success and career advancement. These six skills are a selection of a number of people skills that the current authors have written about in their recent book (Flannes & Levin, 2001) on the subject of the development of people skills for project managers and technical leaders.

Interpersonal Communication Skills

The most important of the soft skills that the project manager should have is the ability to communicate accurately and effectively with all stakeholders. “Accurately” is defined as getting the message across in its intended form, granted the ultimate limitations that all humans have in being understood by another person. More important in the long run, however, is the ability to communicate “effectively,” which means getting your message across in a manner that affirms and strengthens the relationship between you and the stakeholder. This just makes good business sense: you will have more successes in your career if you have created positive relationships with those with whom you encounter. This does not mean that all interactions need to be pleasant, because at times there will need for confrontation and conflict resolution. But if you have created good interpersonal “currency” with your stakeholders, you will have something tangible to draw upon during tough times.

How does one create this positive interpersonal currency? There are a number of interpersonal skills that help make this happen. These skills include: the awareness of individual styles, the ability to hear what is not verbalized, a knowledge of the different types of communication, and a firm grasp of specific verbal skills that facilitate getting your message to your listener.

Exhibit 1. (From Solving People Problems: Six Practical Tools for Today's Project Manager, by Steven Flannes and Ginger Levin)

(From Solving People Problems: Six Practical Tools for Today's Project Manager, by Steven Flannes and Ginger Levin)

Every stakeholder in your professional life has a unique personal style that is a combination of personality, values, and cognitive style. Your job as a project manager is, to the best of your ability, to “see” the uniqueness of each stakeholder, and then to craft a communication approach that is tailored to the needs of each individual. One very popular system for viewing individual differences is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator system, MBTI (Consulting Psychologists Press, Palo Alto, California). Although many project managers have been exposed to the MBTI over the years, their exposure, unfortunately, has frequently taken place in superficial manners during a leadership training course or in a team-building experience. In reality, the MBTI, when used in a sophisticated and pragmatic manner, can offer the project manager a wealth of concrete approaches to use in identifying the best way to communicate with team stakeholders. Flannes and Levin (2001) present an overview of key implications for using the MBTI in communicating. Key points from their treatment of the Myers-Briggs are presented in Exhibit 1.

The MBTI as a psychometric tool has evolved in sophistication and application, with researchers now able to describe subscales for the traditional preferences (i.e., “Extravert” and “Introvert”). Similarly, new computer-generated reports are available, which can assist the project manager in building teams and resolving conflicts among team members. This heightened ability to more precisely describe individual style and preferences makes it important to keep the MBTI tool in your project manager toolbox, even if you have taken or used the instrument in the past.

The “ability to hear what is not said” sounds questionable at first airing, but it is the ability to listen at deep levels and hear what the team member is saying without using words. This idea was first expressed decades ago as the ability to observe nonverbal communication, but the idea has more precise definition and application today. This ability to “hear what is not said” involves, based upon your knowledge of your stakeholders, your skill in being able to:

•   Observe mood (i.e., excited, anxious, angry, depressed), because mood states often flavor or exaggerate the intent of the person's message.

•   Assess whether the mood/behavior of the individual matches the content of his or her message. When this does not happen, there is a lack of congruence between these two sources of communication. An example would be the anxious, fidgety team member, with eyes directed at the floor, reporting that things on the project are “going well.” Is that true? Is the team member experiencing a personal problem that may account for this anxious behavior? Something is not matching, and as project manager, you need to be vigilant and pursue this discrepancy.

An important guideline for any project manager to remember is that all communication is intentional. And the intent of the communication may take many forms. These forms include the following:

•   Information questioning: The basic act of seeking facts, opinions, and reactions from another person. This is a good tool to use when first meeting new stakeholders, as it demonstrates your interest in their opinions.

•   Personal acknowledgment: Letting the other person know that you “see” them, whether this is a nod in the hallway or a comment in a meeting. This is the currency of relationship building and should be used even where there is no concrete business to conduct. In colloquial terms, this is known as “schmoozing!”

•   Providing information or feedback: A necessary aspect of managing people, but care should be given to ascertain whether the other person is open and available for the feedback. Timing is important here, and you want to pick you spots with care.

•   Teaching: This approach also needs to be used selectively, because everyone on the team may not be open to “teaching” from you, particularly if they perceive themselves as your professional peer. This approach is best employed after asking if the other person would value some additional input or information.

•   Crisis messages: In those moments where the project is at risk, and strong, directional comments need to be offered, “telling people what to do” may be appropriate. Hopefully, if you need to employ this approach, you have previously developed a productive relationship with the individual, a connection that will help you ride through these rough times.

In summarizing this section, it should be said that the sophisticated (and successful!) project manager will consciously consider which type of communication he or she is about to present to the stakeholder and will then craft the message carefully. “Knowing where one is coming from,” therefore, is crucial to initiating any communication in the best possible manner.

In addition to the types of communications that have just been described, the project manager must also think about specific communication “tools” that will be used. Three very powerful tools include:

•   Open-ended questions (“Please think out loud with me about the specifics for the software installation…”), which allow you to obtain a great deal of information while creating good will.

•   Active listening (“Sounds as though you believe A, B, and C about cost over runs…”), which allows the speaker the chance to make sure his or her message is getting through to you.

•   Reframing (“I guess another perspective on the problem would be idea B…”), which can be very helpful if you are dealing with someone with a complaining or negative approach to problem solving. This is a communication application of the philosophy of seeing the glass half full.

In closing this section on interpersonal skills, project managers will want to remember that everyone struggles with achieving these skills, particularly during crisis points of a project, but these skills can be obtained by all if one is willing to practice them and refine one's personal approach over time.

Project Manager Roles

There is no one leadership style that is appropriate for all situations in the world of project management. The goal is to be aware of the different roles required of the project manager, and then having the focus to know when to deploy each role. These roles are defined in detail in Flannes and Levin (2001), and include:

•   Leading, which involves the project manager's ability to internally conceptualize the purpose of this project, often including the added value, and then being able to communicate this vision to the team members.

•   Managing, which involves creating the administrative processes and structure to keep the project moving toward achievement of the triple constraints.

•   Facilitating, which is the project manager's ability to provide resources and remove obstacles that hinder team member achievement.

•   Mentoring, which is the complex, challenging, and often subtle ability to provide intellectual and emotional support to the team member, helping that person marshal his or her resources to master a particularly sticky problem.

Motivating Team Members

Motivating team members may be the most difficult and ambiguous people skill confronting the project manager. In many ways, motivation is truly an art form. Experimental psychologists, leadership thought leaders, sales managers, and football coaches, among others, have grappled with this complex task over the years. Our experience has taught us that the following considerations and goals have proved successful for the project manager in motivating individual team members and the team as a unit. As you read this section, consider what you would add to this listing.

•   See the team member as an individual, with a unique personal style and goals. Do not assume that what motivates you will motivate them. Observe them, consider their personalities and previous work, but most of all, ASK them what turns them on in the professional world. “Asking” gives you important information, but it also creates good will.

•   Notice where the individual is in his or her career. Schein (1990) describes an interesting model for identifying the current career stage one is in his or her career, and knowledge of these stages serves as a useful tool for motivating individual team members. Schein's model, consisting of 10 career stages (entry into the profession, achievement of membership in the professional guild, resolving mid-career crises, career disengagement and retirement considerations, etc.), provides a unique window through which to view the individual team members. The project manager, with an understanding of where the team member is on Schein's developmental continuum, can craft motivation approaches that match the needs and goals of an individual functioning within the specific career stage.

•   Consider the values of the individual team member. Schein's work, described above, also involves a quick, self-scoring assessment tool that results in the description of eight values (Schein's term is “career anchors,” and some of these include: the values of challenge, general management, autonomy, service, etc.). The project manager can consider these values as they relate to his or her individual team members (obtained through dialoging with the team member or having the team member complete the assessment tool).

Addressing Performance Problems

A performance problem can be defined as a type of behavior from a team member than hinders the team member in completing an assignment or that hinders other team members in the completion of their duties (Flannes & Levin, 2001). These problems may be ones that concern technical competence, relationship management, time management and work habits, verbal communication, written communication, and the like. The project manager must address these situations proactively so that the work of the individual team member and the entire team are not adversely affected. Several approaches can be used including:

•   Preparing a performance improvement plan

•   Considering possible training and other resources

•   Addressing a work problem that may be caused by a personal problem.

Regardless of the specific situation, the project manager, who is addressing team member performance, is encouraged to consult with other key parties, provide clear feedback to the team member as to specific levels of acceptable performance, adopt a supportive but task-oriented tone with the team member that conveys a message of being fair but also firm, focus on the work issues and not become a counselor or psychiatrist, and follow-up at regular intervals with the team member, requesting examples of progress toward goals and providing suggestions for improved performance.

Resolving Conflict With Project Stakeholders

As greater focus is placed upon the soft skills required for project management, there is growing acceptance of the fact that conflict must be addressed actively and with a positive attitude. Indeed, there is much evidence from a variety of sources that suggests that the highest-quality product often is delivered from those teams in which there has been a healthy amount of conflict, actively managed by the project manager to facilitate the creative process.

Thought leaders in the area of conflict management are Thomas and Kilmann (1974). Thomas and Kilmann have identified five primary approaches to resolving conflict, and through the application of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, have devised a quick, self-scoring assessment tool to measure one's preferred method(s) of resolving conflict. Their approach is filled with wisdom, in that they acknowledge that in the real world, one must have a number of tools available for resolving conflict, and must have the ability to know which tool to use in which situation. In this current application, Thomas and Kilmann, would encourage project managers to develop skills in:

•   Competing, which is the ability to aggressively pursue your point of view, especially in situations of great significance where you are convinced that your point of view is correct and must prevail.

•   Collaboration, where individuals of equal competencies work through a mutual problem-solving approach, with each party contributing valuable parts of the total solution.

•   Compromising, where a quick decision needs to be made, and the issue at hand is one where it is appropriate to “meet in the middle.”

•   Avoiding, where it makes sense to “let things slide,” incurring good will on a subject or issue that is not crucial.

•   Accommodating, which involves the action of deferring to the other person, allowing them to have their way. This approach also can create good will and allows the other party to have a “win.”

In addition to their contributions in describing the settings where these conflict resolution tools are best applied, Thomas and Kilmann also wisely point out the negative consequences when an approach is over utilized. For a more thorough description of both the negative and positive applications of these approaches, see Flannes and Levin (2001).

“Know Thyself”

Project managers have tough jobs: bring the project in under the triple constraints while operating in a matrix organizational structure, with no firm authority, but with lots of responsibility, and a myriad of stakeholders all pursuing their own agendas, often contrary to the formal mission of the project. This is a significant challenge!

Operating in such a demanding crucible, the project manager, in order to achieve excellence in the project AND manage personal stress, must be adept at “knowing thyself.” This sounds good, but what does it mean on tangible levels? We believe that knowing thyself involves a five-fold approach grounded in self-awareness and action planning. For us, this process of knowing thyself involves:

•   Knowledge of your personal style (obtained through feedback from others, personal assessment processes, and private reflection), including an awareness of your personality, your communication style, your method of resolving conflict, and your preferred decision-making style.

•   Ongoing clarification of your values and beliefs, addressing questions such as: what is your personal and professional mission? Why are you working as a project manager? How do you want to “make a difference?” What are your professional and life goals?

•   Achievement of work and life balance, addressing those messy and ambiguous questions of how you want to allocate your time in life, what do you want to do with family and friends, and what will be your contribution to the larger community in which you live? There's always less time in life than we think we have; how do you want to spend your available time?

•   Managing stress and seeking a healthy and robust life, (however YOU define this), which involves conscious attention to the body as well as the head. How do you “let go?” Is it through a positive channel, or is through a more negative channel (denial, overindulgence, Type A behavior?) that ultimately has reduced returns on our quality of professional and personal life.

•   Clarification of your spiritual and philosophical stance in the world. In other words, once the bills are accounted for, what is your real reason for getting up in the morning? What is your life really about? And, importantly, who are you away from your job identity?

It has been our experience that when project managers put time aside to consider the questions and goals of this five-fold approach to “knowing thyself” (20 minutes here, a few hours there…), greater professional efficiencies are achieved, personal satisfaction increases, and emotional and physical health are maximized.

Final Thoughts

We have attempted to describe some of the key skills that we have seen successful project managers use in different settings to address the often complicated and frustrating people challenges that can derail any project. An implied key thread that runs through this paper is that the project manager must be active in practicing these people skills. While some individuals have a more effective natural wiring for the application of people skills, everyone can develop and improve their own people skills. Three guiding principles for developing people skills are the ability and willingness to:

•   Take risks, experimenting with new behaviors and approaches.

•   Make it acceptable to not be perfect, as we all struggle at times in the people areas.

•   Seek feedback from colleagues, mentors, and confidants, as this helps redirect behavior as well as giving you a chance to celebrate your successes.


Consulting Psychologists Press, Palo Alto, California, Flannes, Steven W., & Levin, Ginger. 2001. People Skills for Project Managers. Vienna, VA: Management Concepts.

GartnerGroup Inc. August 11, 1999. What Skills Will Characterize Top Project Managers? Research Note Strategic Planning, SPA-08-7617.

Project Management Institute. 1999. The Future of Project Management. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Project Management Institute. 2001. The PMI Project Management Fact Book. Second Edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Schein, Edgar H. 1990. Career Anchors: Discovering Your Real Values. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Thomas, Kenneth W., & Kilmann, Ralph H. 1974. Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. Palo Alto: Xicom/Consulting Psychologists Press.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
October 3–10, 2002 • San Antonio, Texas, USA



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