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Are some project managers more psychologically equipped for success than others?

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Projects are carried out by people and have an impact on people, so it is no surprise then that a number of the success factors for projects are around managing people and relationships. The way, in which we interact with others, build relationships etc tends to be personality related and therefore genetically determined to some extent. The research into personality has identified five main factors which impact on how we do things i.e. extraversion/introversion, agreeableness, emotional stability, openness and conscientiousness.

A project manager with a degree of extraversion is more likely to build strong working relationships with the project team and stakeholders. An introverted project manager on the other hand, may still be able to do this but he will have to work a lot harder as it is not a natural preference for him and will feel less comfortable.

The factor of ‘agreeableness’ is also relevant to success, in that, project managers who score above average on this scale are likely to be friendly, empathetic and sympathetic. This means that these Project managers are more likely to take people processes into account when planning and delivering their projects e.g. resistance to change. An empathetic project manager is also more likely to have an understanding of team dynamics and how each of the project team members relates, not only to each other but also to people outside the team.

The factor ‘emotional stability’ is also relevant to success in projects because this factor is about how we react to things. Project managers who score above average in emotional stability are likely to feel more relaxed in different situations and are more likely to react calmly when things go wrong. Given that projects can be very stressful and that sometimes, things do not go as planned, it is easy to hypothesise that an emotionally stable project manager is going to experience less personal wear and tear but is also more likely to be able to manage and maintain those vital stakeholder relationships when the chips are down. 

Openness to experience is about being open to new ideas and demonstrating creativity. This factor is possibly less relevant to the success of projects, although, an ability to produce novel or creative solutions to problems may well be an asset for a project manager. The final factor of ‘conscientiousness’ is interesting as scoring above average on this scale tends to be associated with success across all occupations. Conscientiousness is about being organised and persistently seeing tasks through to the end. It is easy to see how this would be advantageous for a project manager.

The research into personality, suggests that some project managers are likely to be more successful than others just because of the genetic hand that they have been dealt. Real life Performance, however, is always a complex mixture of personality, capability, experience and situational factors. Which brings us back to the question of whether successful project managers are born or made i.e. are some project managers more psychologically equipped for success than others?

Further reading:

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  1. Sharon De Mascia
    Sharon De Mascia 11 April 2014, 05:11 PM

     A focus on softer skills is wider than just emotional intelligence and encompasses other aspects of our personalities, however, a coaching approach works very well for further developing these types of behaviours. I am surprised that any company would use Myers Briggs as a selection/pre-selection tool as it as a tool for development and not selection but I have to confess to being curious about which style they preferred. 

  2. Peter Parkes
    Peter Parkes 10 April 2014, 07:28 PM

    Since Daniel Goleman's book on emotional intelligence is now 20 years old, I think it is getting to be 'old hat' now to say the focus needs to move to 'soft skills', especially since the exercise in 'Re-thinking PM' led by Mark Winter (Manchester) was ten years ago.  Sure, the education system is set up to offer foundation level method based training such as PRINCE2 as these are very easy to deliver in volume, mark on-line, pass and get a piece of paper saying we are a PM 'practitioner', but most individuals and organisations I talk to recognise that excellence in delivery is achieved through behavioural competences. Thankfully, higher level qualifications such as APM's RPP and equivalents, ie IPMA levels A & B, do assess behavioural competences.  As with Goleman's original book, however, the problem is not in recognising the need to develop behavioural flexibility but in having the resources to do something about it.  Hence, not many people progress to those levels.  The 'knowing-doing' gap is what prevents things from happening, but conventional training is geared up to deliver only knowing.  As the dean of one business school delivering Masters level courses in PM said, 'But we can't deliver behavioural change in a classroom'.  He might not be able to, but some of us can, albeit with a change in approach from pedagogy to group coaching (as espoused by Kets de Vries from INSEAD business school).  Maybe we should focus on that knowing-doing gap.PS  One prominent PM training and consultancy organisation used to pre-select consultants based on a their Myers-Briggs profile.  Can you guess which one they preferred?

  3. Sharon De Mascia
    Sharon De Mascia 07 April 2014, 03:13 PM

    PatWI agree that we can all further develop our skills in order to be more successful. Perhaps there needs to be a greater recognition of the importance of these softer, relationship focused skills. In which case, project managers may be more curious about the extent to which they are using them successfully and perhaps more willing to invest in developing them further.

  4. Patrick Weaver
    Patrick Weaver 07 April 2014, 10:54 AM

    EQ and SQ are important but they are learnable skills, as are the ability to motivate and lead. The challenge is being willing to develop and then learn to use these soft capabilities far too may PMs are focused on technology and believe command and control styles of management are still useful 50 or more years after their use-by date.  The simple fact is we are all emotional characters and respond accordingly, see: