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I recently read a great article by Andy Jordan, of a Honduras based project consulting firm, on why project managers should tell team members what to do, rather than ask. The general premise is that he believes that project managers, generally speaking, have lost some of their assertiveness. And that projects need that assertiveness. I don’t disagree with Andy. Projects need strong leadership. But I argue here that effective project managers can differ in their leadership styles and for some of us, asking can be quite effective.

I recently read a book by Friederike Fabritius – The Brain Friendly Workplace. Dr. Fabritius is a neuroscientist who writes about leadership. In her book, she talks about the four neurosignatures that date to the work of Helen Fisher and her Temperament Inventory, developed in 2005.

To develop this concept, Fisher used fMRI testing to validate the inventory. According to Fisher, “I found that four biological systems—dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and estrogen/oxytocin—are each linked to a particular suite of personality traits. I found this not only in humans but also doves, lizards, and monkeys.”

What Fisher called biological systems, Fabritius calls neurosignatures. When managers can learn to help teams and individuals play to their strengths and nurture their neurosignatures, everyone benefits.

This question of assertiveness and the connected issue of how brain chemistry impacts leadership styles has been swirling around in my head for a few weeks. There are no magic formulas that answer the question about when to ask and when to tell a teammate or a stakeholder what to do. Or how assertive a project manager needs to be.  In this blog, I’d like to walk through some ideas that I think merit discussion in the never-ending quest to be effective project managers.

The impact of gender on leadership style

I don’t know Andy Jordan but I’m guessing that I have developed a more softened leadership approach than the one he uses. I could be wrong. But I am not wrong about the way that many female leaders have felt pressured to adopt a male style.

We learned to slap others on the back, speak in a lower voice, and sit and stand so that we have a larger presence in the room. And Fabritius talks about her similar experiences with this Lean In movement.

Businesses are so eager to close the gender gap and they want their female executives to be successful. We all want that. And yet, it’s a reality that women often have a larger role in running households in the US. And that takes time away from something else. There are only 24 hours in a day.

It starts with nursing babies. It’s hard to delegate nursing your child without pumping a lot of milk into plastic bags and storing them in the freezer. And from my perspective (and I did raise five children) schools seem to look to moms, more that dads – for help in the classroom.

There are plenty of great ways that dads and moms can support each other, but I know very few households where the work split is 50/50. (I do know men that take a larger role in parenting and household work, but they seem to be an aberration.)

It is also a reality that some men struggle with assertive women. Fabritius discusses the research of Joanne Lipman and Frank Dobbin on this subject. The research is clear. Some men are still struggling with assertive women. In one study published in 2018 by Newsweek, unconscious bias training worsened the situation. Men felt like they “would have to ‘walk on eggshells’ around women and minorities.” (p. 9 – in The Brain Friendly Workplace) Thankfully, the situation is improving, over time. In the meantime, some of us may find that we have to modify our leadership style to be more effective project managers.

The relationship between brain chemistry and leadership

According to Fabritius, “four powerful chemicals shape your personality: the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, and the hormones estrogen and testosterone. Together, they form four distinct systems that stimulate specific areas of your brain. These are your dopamine, serotonin, estrogen, and testosterone brain systems.” (p. 9)

She discusses these systems or neurosignatures: high dopamine, high serotonin, high testosterone, and high estrogen/oxytocin. Briefly, they are characterized like this:

  • High dopamine – Fun, autonomous and self-motivated, energetic, optimistic, curious, and future oriented
  • High serotonin – Stable, calm, organized, social, conscientious, patient, meticulous, and cautious
  • High testosterone – Competitive, bold, ambitious, analytical, and strong in math, music, and technology
  • High estrogen/oxytocin – Compassionate, empathetic, intuitive, cooperative, mentally flexible, and nurturing

Dr. Fabritius now works with Fortune 500 leaders using her brain-based consulting approach. Clearly, she finds correlation between brain chemistry and how we lead. I see it from my vantage point as a project manager with years of experience in multiple industries. I particularly notice it with high testosterone and high estrogen/oxytocin leaders. They are so very different in their leadership styles.

Leadership styles and the age and/or seniority of the project manager

I have lost count of the number of project managers that I have worked under. Some could tell me what to do. And others could not, to put it nicely. The seniority and competency of the project manager compared to those on the team was a critical factor. That email from the company owner indicating that the appointed person was in charge did not necessarily make me feel like I needed to take orders from a project manager when I disagreed.

If I’m a 30-year-old, newly certified PMP running a project with teammates who have more experience with what they are doing than I have with walking, you’d better believe that issuing orders may not work well. That is not to say that issuing clear directives won’t work. It’s in how those directives are issued. And I’m sometimes okay with leaders who phrase instructions as questions.

I’m not convinced it’s the age of the project manager, as much as the experience level. Senior project managers would likely agree that it takes years of experience to develop the skills that are needed to effectively lead. And PMI has been churning out PMP certifications at a rapid rate over the last 15 years.

When I coach less experienced project managers, I often find that a softer approach, characterized by more questions and development of consensus works well. And I see people working harder on activities that they have chosen to do.  I typically ask my team members which activities they want to do. And I try to track what kinds of activities the team members are looking for. Some will want more analytical tasks, while others might want more people-oriented tasks. Some will want easier tasks while others might want more challenging tasks.

The impact of experience on the relationship with the project sponsor

I find that project sponsors need to be more involved when the project manager has less experience, especially experience in the organization. It is hard to underestimate the importance of the people relationships that develop over time in all organizations. When the project manager doesn’t have those relationships, the sponsor can be very helpful in making introductions, greasing the skids (so to speak), and helping project managers deal with conflict.

As effective project managers, anything we can do to support the people on our teams, is helpful. And in this case, it may get you a more committed team member.

As effective project managers, anything we can do to support the people on our teams, is helpful. #business #projectmanagement #management #careers #smartprojex Share on X

Culture and leadership style

In a paternalistic culture, woman project managers benefit from striking a softer stance than men need to do. I have found the need to adopt a softer stance in more male dominated businesses. I would bet that project managers who are in racial minorities feel the same way.

Over time, as the business world becomes more diverse, this should improve. But it will take time. In the meantime, it’s a reality that some people, white men in the US for example, have an advantage over others. And Joanne Lipman in her book, That’s What She Said, uses scientific research, together with her storytelling abilities, to advocate for men to become involved in the fight to close the gender gap. And we all need to work towards more racial equity in our organizations.

In the meantime, some of us may find that we are more successful when we ask, rather than tell – and it doesn’t mean that we can’t be strong leaders.

Where is assertiveness most critical?

In moving projects to the finish line, many project managers are judged on how they juggle the triple constraint. Does the scoped project come in within the budget and on time? No two project managers will get there in the same exact way.

Since the development of agile thinking, the need for a fixed scope has been debated. And since all projects and clients are different, it’s essential to determine what is most important to the client, i.e., costs, scope, schedule, etc. – on every new project and confirm that there hasn’t been a change throughout the project.

Unless a client tells me something to the contrary, I’m inclined to put risk management and cost management in the category of most important. And therefore, I’m inclined to be more assertive about those two areas.

Risk Management

I am vigilant about regularly taking the time to identify new risks and manage risks. And I’m quite assertive about this because I have found that this item will fall through the cracks if I rely on others to worry about it. Risks can span activities, and even projects. So this needs to be an activity that engages the team and key stakeholders. Only by getting different insights can project teams effectively manage risks.

Cost management

I am also pretty assertive about money matters. Even when a client tells me that costs don’t matter, that is an ethical issue for me, personally. Costs matter. Waste matters. And anything I can do to help a client manage costs, within reason, I will try to do. I rely heavily on my activity leaders to work within the budget for their activity. It can be quite easy for people to overwork something that just doesn’t deserve the work. Yes, there are clients who don’t care. But I consider it my job to understand when and why activities are coming in outside of the budgeted amount and to understand how that will impact the project. And don’t be surprised if your client seems uninterested in costs at the beginning – until things get tight in the economy. And suddenly, costs matter – and by then, it may be too late.

None of this means that I don’t pay attention to schedule or scope management. To the contrary. I just don’t assign a deadline on every single activity. I use target deadlines to keep an eye on the schedule and critical deadlines to ensure that the important deadlines are met. That way, I can be a bit more relaxed on deadlines when I know work is continuing at a reasonable pace. For more help on this, check out my blog on using activity deadlines effectively.

And in regularly communicating with the sponsor, the client, and the team, I can relax a bit about scope.

It is more important to me to keep a team highly engaged and energized than to badger them with insignificant failures. I like to focus on the achievements. By working in sprints, I can typically celebrate some kind of significant accomplishment every two weeks, at least. Effective project managers like to see good, continued progress on all of their open project over time.

To learn more about the Smart Projex leadership methodology and how it guides the project process, check out my 8 Lesson Crash Course ebook.