#214 from R&D Innovator Volume 5, Number 5          May 1996

Undercurrents in Leading Project Teams
by Gary Gemmill, Ph.D. and David Wilemon, Ph.D.

Dr. Gemmill is professor emeritus, at the School of Management and Dr. Wilemon is director, Innovation Management Program, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York.

In an article in the December 1994 issue of Research·Technology Management, we reported the results of a field study involving 100 project leaders in high-technology firms.  The study was designed to assess the “real” interpersonal concerns and difficulties project leaders experienced in managing their teams. 

We found that project leaders felt that low involvement, low commitment, and apathy towards projects among team members were their most frustrating and serious concerns.  Several leaders reported their teams wasted considerable time in covering the same ground, while trying to achieve a consensus on important issues.  Most team leaders also felt powerless and frustrated when they tried to influence both their team members and the larger organization.  Root causes of these frustrations stemmed from unclear organizational priorities, conflicting goals, and a lack of a coherent team or organizational vision. 

“You try to make something happen each day but our organization doesn’t move very fast.  A lot of people have a built-in resistance to committing to anything.  I get very frustrated when I need their help.”

Team leaders also felt that they take considerable risk when they deal with such issues as team apathy, detrimental power struggles, and overly dependent team members.  Much of this perceived risk centered on fears of worsening the situation or apprehensions about being too controlling as a leader. 

“I sometimes wonder if I’ll make matters worse if I try to change people’s behaviors.  I’ve often told myself that some performance is better than no performance.”

The most frequently mentioned fears were “dominating” the team, failing or appearing incompetent, and losing control of the team.  When asked to elaborate on their fears, the majority of project leaders worried that they might overpower less assertive team members; thereby, not realizing the full benefit of a climate for open exchange, confrontation, and healthy dialogue. They also feared getting compliance rather than wholehearted commitment on the part of team members. 

“I’ve learned that you need to be assertive and open—not controlling.  I’ve also learned to accept the contributions of others even though it may be done differently than I would do it.  The more accepting I’ve become of others, the higher the creativity we’ve experienced in my group.”

Many project leaders were also concerned with “losing control.”  To them, losing control meant being impotent in leading, influencing, or directing their team.  Some noted that such concerns led them to enhance their influence by gaining active support from top management; by dealing directly with key team members and functional departments; and by carefully planning the critical choices and strategic directions facing the team. 

“Perhaps the greatest fear a team leader faces is that you won’t be able to accomplish the project because, for some reason or other, you couldn’t maintain the support of your key people.  This is an issue that I’m always concerned about.”

Numerous examples were cited by project leaders where they “misread” important team issues; being unaware of conflicts between team members; being unaware of hidden agendas of team members; and not understanding the full meaning or context of what was said.  They also noted they were more likely to “misread the message” of team members who came from functional areas different from their own. 

“If someone told me that they’ve never misread a team or team member, I’d say they are totally unaware.  You never fully know what people are thinking about and wanting.  You can minimize this unawareness problem by being very observant, by asking lots of questions and listening to the responses; and by gaining high levels of team member involvement.”

We argue that recognizing fears and not allowing them to paralyze one’s actions constitute a significant step in developing a team culture that encourages openness, creativity, and innovative problem solving.  A powerful way for project leaders to deal with important issues is to take the initiative in developing norms that encourage group discussion of individual concerns.  Such norms can support the discovery and treatment of apathy, frustration, and abuse of power.  Project leaders need to demonstrate that these interpersonal and group concerns are discussible and manageable. 

“You learn to demonstrate the behaviors you want in a team.  If you want openness, you have to be open yourself.  If you want conflict to be handled well within your team, you’d better handle it yourself very well.  When problems develop within your team or group, address them quickly and efficiently.  Such actions and behaviors send a powerful message about you and your team.”

We also note that it’s important to consciously develop norms within a team on the acceptability and desirability of discussing difficult and sensitive team issues.  Developing such norms can create a team culture based on openness and a willingness to explore important human concerns.  The results can be team performance levels that are indeed noteworthy.

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©2006 Winston J. Brill & Associates. All rights reserved.