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Power and Leadership in Project Management
By Jim Murray

Project Managers who are involved in enterprise-wide project management and are able to understand both business and IT requirements are highly sought after individuals whose compensation is well above the average salary of a professional employee. While being a Project Manager is an exciting and rewarding career choice because of the high profile corporate projects, variety of projects and the exposure to staff at all levels, it does have its drawbacks. At many companies enterprise-wide project managers are working on “make or break” projects that will either give the company more market share, increase revenue or it involves performing high risk activities such as moving data centers or employees to another building that could impact production and service level agreements. Because of the risk involved, a PM of these large projects must succeed as their head is on the “chopping block” if the project is not implemented on time and within budget. While PMs are performing these projects, they are faced with an enormous constraint, which is, most project managers have little to no authority over the staff that report to them over the duration of a project. Most companies are structured as a matrix organization, meaning the staff assigned to projects report to a functional manager who is responsible for their performance appraisals, salary increase and can terminate their employment.

However, the project manager is still expected to bring projects in on time and under budget without having authority over the staff reporting to them for the duration of the project, which can be over a year. In this article, we will discuss various methods of influencing a team to produce positive results during their tenure on the project.

A major difference between the functional manager and a project manager is the functional manager is in a position of authority and the project manager can only influence. The difference is authority, as defined by Webster’s dictionary, is the power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine. Whereas, influencing is defined as the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others. Influencing is the power held by the majority of practicing project managers.

However, while the Project Manager can and does influence the actions of the team that does not mean they do not possess any power – in fact, even without “official” authority, the project manager can still wield considerable control of the environment around them, including the behavior of other people. Let’s look how…

In 1959, social psychologists French and Raven developed a schema of five categories of power, which reflected the different bases or resources that power holders rely upon. The five types of power are:

Positional or Legitimate Power

Legitimate power is authority, it is what is held by the functional managers because it refers to the power of an individual because of the position they hold within the organization. In most cases, this is not the project manager and will not be the project manager unless some formal authority is given to the individual through out the lifecycle of the project (i.e., the project team members report with a “solid line” to the project manager).

  • TIP: Project managers who are working on long-term projects (e.g., 6 months or longer) should discuss with the functional managers the opportunity to provide input into the project team members performance appraisal, if the team members are dedicated to the project the majority of the time. This approach will be met with resistance unless you are an experienced project manager with a management background. However, with the proper metrics and reporting mechanisms in place, such as documented weekly one-on-one meetings with the team members and ongoing reports to the functional manager on the effectiveness and contributions of their employee to the project this can be an extremely effective mean of gaining authority. It is especially effective if you are managing a project using earned value and can quantify the individual’s performance to both cost and schedule.
  • TIP: Most people are not leaders, they prefer to follow, and by holding the title of Project Manager, people will look to you for direction and guidance. Assume you have positional power until you are told otherwise; you will be pleasantly surprised how much power your team members will give you, as the project manager.

Referent Power

Referent Power is the ability of individuals to attract others and build loyalty. It is based on the charisma and interpersonal skills of the power holder. It also is the result of affiliations made with various groups or organizations. Several examples of referent power are – Mahatma Ghandi, Oprah Winfrey and Susan Sarandon. Ghandi was a non-elected official but became a worldwide political and spiritual leader and inspired civil rights movements across the world by “practicing what he preached”, which was truth and non-violence. Ultimately, his referent power led to him lead non-violent demonstrations that assisted in reducing poverty, the caste system in India and ultimately the independence of India. In Oprah’s case, she has built a loyal following via her daily talk show to the point where she can influence the products that her audience purchases, this is especially notable when she announces a new book for her “Book Club”. The book generally rockets to the top of the NY Times bestseller list. Lastly, Susan Sarandon built referent power as political activist by being a celebrity. Ms. Sarandon has no political training, her degree is in drama, and has not been elected to a political office, but has used her “celebrity pulpit” to expand on her personal political views. In the end, she got herself named as the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and named to the advisory committee for the group Racism Watch.

  • TIP: While it might be perceived as brown nosing, aligning yourself with the upper management of various divisions of the company is an effective way to build referent power. This can be done through mentoring programs and volunteering for projects being sponsored by upper management. If your project team knows you have the ear of upper management, it will give you referent power.
  • TIP: Although not easy, improve your communications skills by becoming a more engaging and dynamic presenter. Ronald Reagan was able to parlay his communication skills as a sports broadcaster and Hollywood actor to the President of the United States.

  • TIP: Make it a priority to spend time building interpersonal skills and relationships with members of your team and potential members of your team. This can be done by incorporating the following into your management style: say thank you, ask for advice, offer written notes, praise individuals at meetings, smile, listen closely, ask for input, have an open door policy, solicit ideas and use the ideas, conduct rounds, give credit, involve your staff, keep staff informed. This is important, as a project manager who is incompetent, disliked, and commands little respect has little to no referent power.

If these are made a regular part of your management personality, you will establish referent power and will have no problems getting individuals to work effectively.

Expert Power

Expert Power is achieved by having skill and expertise in area that is important to the company. This type of power is highly specific making an individual extremely powerful on one project and a “nobody” on the next. For example, an individual may be highly versed in the intricacies of mainframe computers and be very valuable to a project that is relocating a mainframe computer to another data center. However, that same individual becomes less powerful when assigned to a project to build the infrastructure for a call center that involves VoIP technology.

  • TIP: Survey the landscape of your company by reviewing the company’s project steering committee list, past projects completed and core business to find out what skills are used most often within the company and then pursue these skills with reckless abandon. If you determine the most used skill in your company is being able to program in C++, and as a project manager, you don’t know anything about C++, enroll in a classes at your local community college, find a MOOC class or check on Khan Academy to learn the programming language, in depth.
  • TIP: Get yourself assigned to projects that involve key corporate skills. Even if you are a peripheral player on the project you will learn details that otherwise would not be known to you, thus giving yourself more authority on the next similar project.

Reward Power

Everybody possesses reward power, but most people don’t use it or recognize they possess the power. Reward power is the ability to confer rewards such as benefits, time off, desired gifts, promotions or increases in pay or responsibility. As a Project Manager in a functional or a weak matrix organization, you probably don’t posses the ability to give time off or pay increases, however there are other methods to distribute rewards to your project staff, such as company reward programs, thank you notes and gifts. Reward Power can easily be overused or misused, so if you choose to use the rewards and recognition throughout your project ensure the rewards are for only for desirable behavior and are rewards all team members can “win”. The managers who rely heavily on reward power subscribe to McGregor’s Theory Y which is individuals work well in a team and want to do provide great work for the company.

  • TIP: There have been countless Human Resource surveys that indicate employees want recognition from their bosses for a job well done, as the project manager you are a “boss” and should give your “employees” recognition. Schedule thirty minutes every Friday and send a thank you e-mail to an individual or group of employees for performing a certain task, going above and beyond or stepping up to a challenge – remember to :cc the employee’s functional manager.
  • TIP: Most project managers have input into developing the budget, therefore on large high profile projects ensure that a line item is included in the budget for gifts or bonuses. While this isn’t always realistic in today’s economic environment there are other ways to reward your employees that will not cost the project/company money, such as: allow flex hours if you are working on a large time consuming project, give them a prime parking spot, publicize their success, have a munchie day, casual dress, have a party at your house.

TIP: In one-on-one sessions with your project team members ask them what motivates them and then follow through and incorporate their suggestions to your project management plan.

Coercive Power

Coercive Power, most employees would consider “bad” power. It is the ability to demote or to withhold rewards and recognition. It is the least effective form of power and builds resentment and resistance. Individuals who manage by coercive power subscribe to McGregor’s Theory X, which states that employees are lazy and slackers, these types of managers tend to be labeled dictators.

  • TIP: Coercive power can be effective if used sparingly and at the appropriate times. For example, if a project team member misses a deadline and you determine the root cause is not a valid reason it would be perfectly acceptable to withhold rewards or have the individual removed from the project, if the issue was serious enough.

The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) has a process group titled – Develop Project Team, the various “powers” listed above would be considered the tool and technique called “General Management Skills”. However, besides using the above tools to gain authority of your team, there are other influencing methods a Project Manager can use to build teamwork such as:

  • Ground Rules are an excellent method to establish control of the team and build a sense of team by facilitating a ground rule-setting meeting where the team establishes acceptable behavior for the project. Additionally, this process of setting and discussing rules allows the team members to discover each others values.
  • Co-location entails placing your team in the same geographic location. A great example of collocation is setting up a “war room” for your project where everyone is in the same room working on the same project. Studies have shown that co-located teams deliver better performance when working on internal projects because the collocation increases the amount of face-to-face communication and “overheard” conversation that can assist in problem solving. However, co-location is not a panacea for increasing team productivity. There are situations where co-location can have a negative effect on team building. For example, in “war rooms” the noise level is higher than in the “cube farms” found in most offices, so if you have a group of programmers or animators who need to be head down in code and be able to focus without interruption, then a war room may not be the best solution.

  • Training not only enhances the competencies of the project team members it is an excellent way for team members to interact that may not interact with each other on a daily basis. While it is true that training and travel are usually the first line items to be cut from a budget, training does not have to cost money because it can be informal such as on-the-job training, mentoring and coaching.

  • Team Building Activities can vary from an agenda item during a status meeting to an off-site, professionally facilitated event at a country club or at a high ropes course facility. Additionally, group activities such as training, ground rules setting meeting or work breakdown structure (WBS) exercise are great team building activities. Currently, where virtual teams are used frequently it is essential to have team building activities frequently. The key to building an effective virtual team is done through “celebrating consistent communication”. Be sure to celebrate team success, do it consistently, communicate to them to the point of over communication and then communicate more.

  • TIP: Have virtual team members post their pictures and bios on an internal project page, so everyone can put a face to the voice. By having a bio posted it will assist in rapport building conversation that is essential to team building.
  • TIP: Be sure the team building exercise is something the team will appreciate. For example, if you work with programmers or engineers they probably would not appreciate a “touchy feely” exercise, but they would probably enjoy an exercise where they need to find a way to drop an egg off a roof without breaking. On the other hand, a group of school guidance counselors would probably enjoy an activity that involves interaction that is more human.

All of the activities above assist in building a cohesive team, however if you have been on even one project you are well aware that everybody does not agree with everyone, all the time. However, don’t dread the conflict or be intimidated by it – conflict is essential to producing high quality results. Don’t fall into the trap that if people disagree with you that they are not being team players. In fact, it should be welcomed because it will improve the end result of the project. If you are expecting everyone on the team to agree with all the decisions made, you are either very new to the project management profession or a ruthless dictator. However, a team of “Yes Men” creates a fallacy of teamwork. Here is an example from The Philippine Times, September 23, 2008:

Sallie L. Krawcheck, a high-ranking executive at Citigroup, has been ousted after months of friction with its chief executive Vikram S. Pandit.

Krawcheck, 43, who led the global wealth management division, had disagreed with Pandit over the direction Citigroup was taking, its management structure and the settlement of claims over investor losses, the New York Times reported quoting unnamed Citigroup officials.

Instead of sacking her, India-born Pandit offered Krawcheck a senior advisory role – chairwoman of global wealth management – and she formally turned it down Monday. Krawcheck’s exit had been on the cards as soon as Pandit took over last December. Groomed by Pandit’s predecessors, she did not fit easily within the team Pandit put in place.

Among their disagreements, the Times said, while Pandit pushed for a new management structure based on geographic regions for quicker decision-making. Krawcheck believed it would create confusion and more bureaucracy.

The situation described above is all too common in corporations all over the world and it is a perfect example of the fallacy of teamwork. Based on the story, it is apparent that Pandit was not a believer in teamwork and would have preferred an individual who was a “Yes Man” that agreed to all of his ideas and didn’t rock the boat. A real team has disagreements, in fact, encourages disagreements because the problem solving that is generate by the TEAM is generally a better solution than the idea of one individual.

When there are disagreements, as a Project Manager, you have five choices that can emphasize team building that you have worked so hard to achieve to this point or tear down the team you have built and even worse question your credibility as a leader. The five choices are:

  1. Withdrawal (Avoidance) – this is avoiding the problem and not address it. This is the worst decision you can make as a leader, as it will derail your project and bring your leadership skills into question.
  2. Compromising (lose-lose) – In a compromise, all parties don’t get what they really want; they all make concessions in order to reach an agreement that is acceptable. If individuals are forced to compromise, many of their decisions the integrity of the teamwork will start to disintegrate and morale will go down.

  3. Forcing – Is a technique used by managers that are referred to as dictators and/or micro managers. The phrase, “It’s my way or the highway” can often be heard from these individuals. While decisions are made and progress continues on the project, it rips apart the morale and motivation of the team, as they have no input into decisions.

  4. Smoothing – The best example of smoothing is Rodney King’s quote from May 1, 1992.

  5. “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids?…It’s just not right. It’s not right. It’s not, it’s not going to change anything. We’ll, we’ll get our justice….Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out. Let’s try to beat it. Let’s try to beat it. Let’s try to work it out.”

    In a smoothing situation, the problem is not solved or even compromised – it is one-step above avoiding the problem. However, it has the same effect as avoidance as it will derail your project and ultimately bring into question your leadership skills.

  6. Confrontation (win-win) – is the best technique to use as a leader. It creates win-win situations for the entire team. As a project manager, there is a plethora of tools available to you to solve problems, such as SWOT Analysis, Risk Analysis, Pareto diagrams, Histograms, Scatter Diagrams, Box Plots and Stratification techniques.

The purpose of this article was to illustrate that Project Managers who typically don’t have direct authority over employees in terms of raises and performance appraisals can develop considerable power using various techniques and then enhance their role as a leader by building a high functioning team via various influencing techniques.

Jim Murray is an “Accidental Project Manager”. He is both PMI-RMP (Risk Management Professional) and PMI-SP (Scheduling Professional) certified. Additionally, he has an MS in Program and Project Management from Brandeis University. You can read more from Jim on his blog.

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