Managing People

Read this section, which covers managing and leading people during project execution as well as how to build effective teams.

Managing People

It is not often recognised that a project manager must be a people manager as well. Often project managers come from a particular technical stream and they find themselves elevated to a leadership position without any formalised management training. Their first project may confront them with their first test in team leadership.

Most project managers therefore excel at the technical aspects of project management such as scheduling, design and testing. Many, however, are weak or uncomfortable with the core management disciplines which deal with 'soft skills'. This section will give an overview of some important people skills for the project manager.


Negotiation can be a tricky business for technical people, we tend to see the world as a black-and- white, binary environment. 'Techies' often believe that there is a right and wrong way to solve a problem, or that one technology or solution is the 'best' available. This is part of their drive for perfection but in truth there are many ways to solve a problem and each technology or solution has its strength and weaknesses.

Negotiation is the process of achieving consensus while avoiding conflict. Central to this is the understanding that the best solution to a problem is one which attracts the consensus of all those involved. A unilateral (binary) solution is by definition not the best solution since it alienates or disappoints someone. Finding the best solution will involve compromises and the project manager will be the fulcrum around which the discussions between different parties revolve.

Most people view discussions as a zero-sum-game. That is, in order to "win" or succeed, someone must "lose". For example a salesman might believe that he will "win" if he can convince someone to buy a product at a high price. This is a zero-sum attitude, the salesman has "won" and the customer has "lost".

A customer on the other hand might not care about the price and might be willing to pay it if the product has the right features. If the salesman can work out what the customer wants he might be able to sell him the right product. Further if a particular product doesn't have those features, the salesman might be able to drop the price or offer other incentives that will convince the customer to buy. If he achieves this then they both win.

This is the art of negotiation.

By understanding that problems can be broken down into a number of elements which, when handled separately, produce trade-offs by which you can achieve a "win/win" solution. This is a solution where both parties walk away happy. This avoids the dichotomy of a binary, yes-no problem and the situation where both parties hold equally strong views, resulting in conflict.

This requires a leap of faith. If you approach discussions with the idea that negotiation is some tricky way to beat people and get your own way, you will certainly fail. People are not stupid and most will be able to discern your intent regardless of your outward demeanour.

Negotiation must be undertaken from a basis of trust and if people feel you can't be trusted then it doesn't matter how clever your approach. Try it out for yourself. Approach a discussion with an open attitude and work through to a consensus. Afterwards evaluate how you feel about the solution; you may be surprised. If not, get a job as a used car salesman.


Understanding is fundamental to negotiation. You must understand the proposal under discussion and the options available. You must understand what each party involved in the discussions seeks to gain from the discussion. If the discussion is composed of groups of individuals you should understand the goals of the individuals and the goals of the groups (which may differ).

You must also understand what you bring to the table and what you are prepared to concede. By knowing what you have to 'trade' you can enter the discussion with an open mind and flexibility. Ideally you should know this before you enter negotiations but sometimes this isn't possible.


Empathy is understanding the emotions of those involved. Emotion can cloud communication or it can enhance it but it cannot be excluded. As human beings we react to things on an instinctive emotional level and, like it or not, this dictates much of our reactions. By understanding the basic feelings of individuals in a negotiation it is possible for you to appeal to them on a more direct level than simple logic.


Successful negotiations are built on trust. Without trust there can be no true compromise and therefore no solution. If the concessions you offer are insincere or grudging, then you will get an equally grudging response from other parties involved. Often it is the responsibility of the project manager, who holds a pivotal position, to take the lead by establishing a basis of trust between the parties involved. By setting the standards a project manager establishes the basis for negotiations and the tone in which they are conducted. This can often be done by a simple appraisal of the facts and an appeal for assistance to the parties involved. Something like "I understand we have a problem and I expect everyone here to contribute to the solution" often works wonders.


Once the fundamentals have been dealt with, a discussion of the problem usually ensues. The discussion should be conducted on a rational basis avoiding violent emotions. The problem should be clearly stated and agreed upon and solutions offered. During this stage of the discussion it is essential that all parties contribute. Silence is not acceptable. Comments should be sought from everyone, their concerns aired, addressed and hopefully resolved. Failure to do so will leave one or more parties feeling disenfranchised or disenchanted.


Once the various solutions have been discussed a possible solution can be proposed and if it is acceptable to all, taken forward. If not, some form of compromise must be hammered out and each party must be ready to conceding elements of their requirements in order to find a solution. Each party must then signify their willingness to accept the compromise and move forward.

Rolling over and sticking your feet in the air to have your tummy tickled does NOT constitute a win-win situation ! Don't enter into negotiations with the expectation that you will have to make all the concessions to reach a consensus. This will leave you feeling vulnerable and powerless.

This is known as a "win-lose" outcome.

You should enter into the negotiation with the expectation that everyone present will be able to give- and-take on their respective issues and work with them to achieve a suitable outcome. You should set your own minimum level of expectations and not be satisfied with the process until you have achieved it.

Building a team

Wince if you must at the title of this section, but one of the most important facets of project management is "team building". Rather than the fatuous team building games you often encounter at company days, I am referring to some more subtle people management skills.

Trust – Be Open and Honest

Projects, like offices, can often be secretive places with various levels of disclosure due to commercial or political pressures. However the project grapevine works just as fast as the office kind and you can be assured that if you are keeping someone in the dark or deceiving them, you will be on the short end of office gossip faster than you can say "voluntary redundancy".

Be as open and honest with your team mates as you can. Answer their questions directly and act as a conduit of information for them, not a barrier. If you feel you cannot divulge something, say so. Your team will appreciate your honestly and reciprocate by relaying information and producing honest and accurate estimates for you.

Equality – Be fair and even handed

One of the maxims I have lived with as a manager is "individuals can succeed but only the team can fail". Essentially this means that in public you should dish out credit wherever it is due but never criticism. Being criticised in public, in front of your peers, is not a motivating force for anyone.

If there is a project issue that needs to be addressed you can normally broach it as a subject for the whole team to address. By sharing the burden for issues, most teams pull together to solve the problem. By landing it on the shoulders of one or more individuals you often split the team and cause conflict. Open discussion of the problem will encourage the team to take ownership for the problem and solve it themselves.

Loyalty – Protect your team

You will have a split responsibility - on the one hand you have a duty to your client to see the project succeeds - on the other you have a responsibility to represent your team and to support each other. Usually these two aims should be neatly aligned – but not always!

In a situation where you have to choose between the two you need to take the difficult moral stance. Don't air your dirty laundry with the client. Discuss the situation with your team mates and come up with a solution, present this to the client instead.

Learn to delegate

The joke in armed forces often runs that the only order an officer ever need issue is "Carry on Sergeant Major!" Officers are expected to lead and leave the actual getting of things done to those more suited to the task, the troops. If you are dividing up work make sure you delegate properly.

Proper delegation entails laying out the task so someone understand its, so that it has reasonable and achievable goals and so that you give them all the support they require to get the job done.

It also entails giving them enough room to get the task done on their own. If you leave the execution of tasks to them they will, in return, leave you alone to get on with your job. If you spend you time looking over their shoulders it will only annoy them and waste your valuable time.

Source: Nick Jenkins,
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Last modified: Thursday, May 11, 2023, 1:22 PM