Do you sometimes feel like you’re the only one who cares about your project?
You have spent hours putting together your project plan. You’ve missed endless lunches to fend off last minute disasters. You’ve had to make those uncomfortable calls to your partner to apologize for not being home in time for dinner.
The problem is that while you’re slugging your guts out, your team may not be showing the same level of commitment you are. This sadly means that without your constant attention the project would go nowhere.
Pushing people to work sometimes feels like herding cats. It drains your energy as you seem to spend all your time running about with very little to show for your efforts.
What’s more: your position as a project manager doesn’t actually include managerial authority. You can’t hold your people accountable, whether it be by setting annual goals, by deciding what goes into their review, or by handing out the bonus checks.
No wonder you sometimes find yourself asking: “What did I get myself into?!”
Pause. Take a deep breath. Help is on its way.
As a project manager for more than 10 years I have been in the same position as you are right now. I would get very frustrated when people did not complete their work in time, and it would drag me down for days on end.
Things changed once I had two realizations: firstly I had to accept that I could not change people, that I should care only about what was in my control. How I assessed and analyzed a situation and how I interacted with the team was crucial. The second thing I realized was that I could still exert significant influence on my team if I applied an intuitive understanding of human psychology to my interactions with them.
To save you hours of trial and error I would like to share my proven strategies with you. With a little practice you’ll be able to accept that you can’t change people, and instead focus your energy on influencing people.
Are you ready to make a start? Let’s dive right in then!
Be assertive and make clear requests
As first-time project managers, we usually make a very common mistake (I sure made it): When asking people to do some work for us, our request comes across as so weak that it actually sounds optional.
Something like this will sound familiar to your team:
“Could you maybe … please do <TASK> … if you have time?”
Would you feel obliged to act on such a request which feels as fluffy as an old wooly jumper?
What you are actually saying is this:
“Hey, sorry for interrupting you at work. I know I am getting on your nerves and I feel really stupid right now, but I need to ask you if you could do this for me. It’s kinda urgent but … you know … don’t feel obliged to do anything … if you’re too busy right now … AAAAAH!”
How can you do it right?
You have to become comfortable making clear and direct requests. If you’re uncomfortable saying something like “Please do <ACTIVITY> until <DATE>, and let me know once you are done”, go practice in front of a mirror until you nail it.
Using words won’t be enough though. The way you communicate through your facial expression, your voice, and your posture will have an even bigger impact. Increase the volume of your voice so that you can be heard even in a noisy office. If you are more of a quiet type of person this might feel like shouting, and that’s probably the right level! Also, remember to speak clearly and not to swallow your words.
Your body posture must exude a sense of assertiveness, even if you don’t think of yourself as an alpha type personality. Stand upright, tilt your head up so that your nose is not pointing downward, and look your team in the eye with reassuring confidence.
Always maintaining eye contact is key, but don’t behave like an intimidating jerk by staring intently at the other person.
Should you smile?
Be very careful here. If you come across as Mr Nice Guy or Mrs Nice Girl, you are not creating a consistent picture for the other person. Your words may sound firm, but a smiling face will signal that things are negotiable. Avoid this common over-friendly pitfall.
Remember that you don’t have to become friends with everybody. Your job is to make people work and ensure your project is progressing, this comes first and foremost.
Remove the barriers
This may sound naive, but I sincerely believe people want to complete the work that is delegated to them. What happens in everyday life is that other things get in the way:
- Too much competing work
- Lack of subject-specific knowledge
- Lack of focus and motivation
- Poor self-organization
While there is no quick fix for the two latter issues, you can definitely do something about the first two.
Perhaps some of the workload can be taken off your team member so that they can dedicate all their energy to what’s really important? Have a friendly conversation with their manager to see what can be done about it. In general, there will always be some tasks that can be pushed to the side for the good of the project
The cure for knowledge gaps is simple: proper training. Find out what your team member needs help with and then look for an expert who can help them improve.
Most importantly, speak to your team and find out what they are struggling with. Without asking, you won’t know that there is a problem in the first place.
Make excuses impossible
This following situation occurs all too frequently in projects: you give somebody work to finish in two weeks for example. You hear nothing from the person from then on so you assume the task is being completed in the background. You witnessed the person nodding and agreeing to complete the work, and you view it as their responsibility to raise any issues they’re having with you as a matter of urgency.
Then suddenly three days before the agreed deadline as you’re checking in with your team member you get a response that drives you absolutely crazy: ‘Oh? I didn’t understand what you wanted from me.’
What? This is definitely not what you wanted to hear!
What is going on here?
Maybe the person really didn’t understand what to do and should have asked for additional information much sooner.
Here’s a different explanation: they procrastinated for a long time and then suddenly realized they were in trouble. As we humans don’t like to admit our own faults, the person searches for a way out where they will still look like they did the right thing.
In short, your team member is making excuses, the most common types of which are:
- I did not really understand what was expected of me.
- I did not know I was responsible for this.
- I had a different understanding of what was my responsibility than you did.
- I did not know you needed it already.
What can you do to prevent these kind of situations happening in the future?
First of all you should try to explain the task in a crystal clear manner that leaves no room for doubt. Ask your team member if there is anything unclear. To be absolutely sure the person got the message, ask them to repeat what is expected of them back to you.
Secondly, you can’t simply rely on verbal information. For any complex task draft an email that the colleague can refer to if they have doubts or points they wish to clarify later on. The email should comprehensively explain the task and include all relevant information arranged neatly in bullet points for ease of reading.
Thirdly, and this is very important, always mention the date when the job is supposed to be completed by. This provides clarity for all concerned.
Delegate follow-up and use the Sandwich Strategy
This is my favourite strategy and I use it frequently within my projects.
By asking your team members to work closely together and to meet physically when alignment is needed, you can take some of the burden for follow-up off yourself and inject a greater sense of urgency into your team.
This strategy works best when there are a lot of dependencies among the team members’ tasks and can help foster a culture of responsibility and accountability.
To see the strategy in action, take this example:
Paul works in Sales and is tasked with writing a concept for a new piece of sales software.
Sarah is a software developer, and her job is to implement the new software based on Paul’s input.
If everyone worked on their own, Paul might procrastinate and fail to submit the concept on time. For you as a project manager this would mean you wouldn’t know about the delay until your next follow-up with Paul, by which time valuable time and resources will have been wasted.
Everything would get delayed and Sarah would not be able to complete her task on time either.
What can you do?
As the project manager I would ask Sarah to schedule a meeting with Paul at the time he is supposed to turn in his work.
Every day he would see the upcoming appointment in his calendar and be reminded of the important work he is supposed to do.
What if he failed to meet the date? Not only would he make me unhappy, but also Sarah. That would just be too embarrassing, since he likes and respects Sarah a lot.
Why would I not ask Paul to schedule the meeting? It is because this would leave all control up to him. He could simply decide not to schedule a follow-up appointment with Sarah if he had not finished his job.
You could take this method even further and implement what I call the Sandwich Strategy. In the case where Sarah was not the only person dependent on Paul’s input, other colleagues could also be asked to check in with Paul. He cannot come to any other conclusion than: my work REALLY matters and I have to get it done on time.
Trading assistance for favors
Imagine that you’re at a critical stage of the project lifecycle and you suddenly realize that some unplanned work needs to be done by Monday morning.
Your developer is a great person to work with and you’ve had a fantastic working relationship for a couple of years now. You even once helped them move to a new apartment across town.
Can you depend on them to get the job done? Absolutely. Without any doubt.
They have always shown great respect for your work, and they clearly feel a strong desire to help you out because of all the support you given them in the past.
This is how the principle of reciprocation works: you have helped me, so I am going to help you.
Do you have to do big things?
Not at all. Even small gestures can be very important in the eyes of your team.
Here are some suggestions for you to think about:
- Buy someone a coffee or invite them to lunch
- Give praise to people for small contributions (ideally in the presence of others)
- Show a genuine interest in the other person and be a good listener
- Give advice on non-project related topics (e.g. career progression, sources of additional training)
These little extra efforts that you make work extremely well.
As you advance in your career your network of people will automatically grow with you as you move up the ladder. If you consciously provide value to others, not just in a professional sense but across a wider range of personal, the long-term payoff can be very high indeed.
Did you ever commit to something in the presence of somebody else and later felt obliged to stick to your plan even when you wanted to give up?
This happened to me when I joined the local gym. While we were figuring out a training plan my physical trainer asked me how often I intended to exercise. My response was: “uh...twice a week”. Funnily enough I still feel like I have to strike off two visits each week.
Why is that so?
We’re programmed to maintain consistency in our behavior. What we have said and the way we behave in front of our peers is what determines our future behavior. In short, people’s opinions of us matter!
You can use this simple influencing method in relation to your work as well.
Let’s say there is a guy called John on your team. He is an excellent user interface designer, but he is not a hero when it comes to meeting deadlines.
Unfortunately you are running out of ideas how to make him work. You’ve tried to change him with all your power but its still same old John sat there on a Monday morning.
Next time, try this: instead of making your request to John with nobody else around, tell John in a group meeting what you expect from him. Everybody will listen, and John knows that. The chances of him completing his job will be significantly higher because you’ve influenced his behaviour instaed of trying to fundamentally change his personality.
Make individual work results visible
We’re very concerned about our reputation. We don’t want to be seen as lazy bones’ by our peers. Once people know their work results are going to be seen (and judged) by others they will definitely switch to a higher gear in terms of the quality of their output.
The easiest way to use this principle is to have your team members present their work to a wider audience. This can take the shape of a team meeting, quarterly division meeting, or even during a board meeting if the topic is relevant to all those present.
As a rule, the higher-level the audience, and the fewer familiar faces in the audience, the more commitment you can expect to see from your team member. Just make sure that the date is defined well in advance.
Does this sound too theoretical? Take a look at these examples to get things straight in your mind:
- John the introverted developer will present his new pattern-recognition algorithm at the next town hall meeting because developers in other departments will benefit from his insights
- In teleconferences you can have your team members show their work results on the screen. You’re not doing this to be mean, but to hold each person accountable for what they’ve done. With everybody watching, the contributors will give special attention to the quality of work they provide
- Amanda is investigating the failure of a new car model. The board of directors has asked her to present the results of her study at the next board meeting
What do these examples all have in common? All the people involved know that their work is going to be seen by a larger audience, and they don’t want to embarrass themselves by turning in mediocre work that doesn’t do them or their team justice.
Treat your team with something they enjoy
Did this ever happen to you?
You were stuck in work on a typical day at the office, not in the best mood. Then suddenly your boss walks into the office and surprises you with the following lines:
“I’ve got great news for you Jack! We decided to send you to the conference in Las Vegas next spring, if you manage to deliver your project on time.”
Boom! Your mind clears up immediately and you start to think: ‘hey, work isn’t too bad after all!’
Why do such carrots work so much better than the stick?
Generally there is nothing an employee personally gets from doing great work. Many employees who have been in the world of work long enough come to realize that the better job they do, the more work they will get in the future.
A reward like a sponsored conference trip is a way of saying “THANK YOU”, and providing a real benefit to a team member who has really excelled themselves.
Think how you could suitably reward your team for their effort:
- An invitation for dinner at a nice restaurant
- Leaving the office early for a team bowling night
- An extended lunch break that takes in a soccer match
- Booking a more exclusive hotel when they travel (budget permitting)
- Attending a conference to network and socialize
- Send them home earlier to give them more time with their loved ones
Be creative in coming up with ideas. You don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of money. What matters is to pick something you know your team will enjoy. It’s about them and not about you.
What should you take away from this article?
My goal was to show you that you have much more power as a project manager than you think. The power to influence people and nudge them in the direction you want is an important tool to have, and one that will get you far further in your career than trying to assert your authority by changing who people are.
Which of the strategies you use in any given situation depends on the person you are dealing with. Some people respond well when the pressure is turned up, while others prefer a softer approach. Use your instinct and your ability to observe people to figure out which approach to apply to each of your team members.
Finally, here is what I’d ask you to do:
Tell me which strategy you are going to implement in the next two weeks. Post your reply in the comments!