image of a coffee cup“This would be easy if it weren’t for the people.”  -Project Manager

I’ve been invited to deliver a talk to a group of project management professionals ostensibly around the issue of dealing with difficult people on project teams. The challenge with this topic is that one could mistakenly assume that there may well be some heretofore undiscovered leadership approaches that can take the “difficult” out of these characters who frequent our project teams in so many unique forms.

Newsflash: there is no known cure for the human personality.


We are complicated, confounding and wonderfully different people. The team or project leader’s responsibility is not to find a way to squash the variance in personalities, but rather to foster the right environment for people who are different, to come together and perform.

Here are a few key mistakes to avoid as you seek to align your collection of challenging personalities around your project and pursue great performance.

4 Key Project Leadership Mistakes to Avoid:

1. Just because you or your boss say it’s important doesn’t make it so. Having a “clear and compelling purpose” is critical to fostering team motivation and performance. Don’t assume that just because management has bestowed the mantle of “critical” on an initiative that your team members agree. It’s essential for you to work with the group and with the members on an individual basis to build understanding, answer questions and promote the idea of a compelling purpose. Sell the importance of the initiative with passion and integrity. Fail to do this effectively and those team members who who remain doubtful end up creating tension and contributing to performance challenges.

2. Don’t assume your team knows how to talk with each other. I see more performance loss on teams in the churn that surrounds most meetings and conversations than anywhere else. Good team leaders are effective facilitators. Great team leaders help their teams design productive conversations using a technique like DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats to help their teams focus together on one issue at a time (risks, ideas, needed information, assumptions etc). And great teams quickly learn that the time spent designing solutions while talking is much better spent than the typical time spent in arguing positions.

3. In the spirit of number 2, don’t assume that your team knows how to decide together. Much like the performance degradation that occurs from poor quality discussion practices, teams are prone to making big mistakes when it comes to deciding on core issues. While no one sets out to make a bad decision, the decision traps that bedevil us as individuals are amplified in group settings, where power distance, structure, personality, personal biases and so many other pitfalls are poised to derail otherwise well-intended professionals. Effective team leaders teach teams to frame decisions, leverage outside viewpoints, seek critical information and to evaluate risks in a manner that is clinical, objective and comprehensive.

4. Don’t skip the feedback. Of all of the performance tools in our  leadership toolkit, feedback is perhaps the most powerful. It is also the most abused, misused and ignored. Delivering feedback on performance requires the leader to have the courage to tackle a difficult topic with a group and/or with individuals, and we tend to avoid this perceived form of confrontation. That’s a huge mistake. Keep the feedback business focused and behavioral. Tackle it without indicting the team. Tie it to the business…ensure that it is behavioral and dispense it early and often. And of course, don’t forget ample helpings of any well-earned positive feedback.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There are few things in life or business more challenging than attempting to promote group performance. And there’s no post, article or even book that contains all of the right answers. There are however, some critical habits that you as a lifetime student of human and group behavior can promote as a means of quieting the dysfunction and harnessing the talent in front of you. Great teams don’t occur by accident or luck. They are the outcome of deliberate hard work.

Additional Reading:

I highly recommend the work of the (recently) late J. Richard Hackman…I like his book, “Leading Teams,” and fortunately, he left us with another 9 or so books and many great articles.

Leigh Thompson’s “Making the Team,” 4th edition is the best $100+ you’ll ever spend if building teams is your primary job.

More Professional Development Reads from Art Petty:

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