Don’t Put Your “I” Out!


Project managers can’t afford to be overly timid or self-effacing. They must be self-assured and determined in order to be successful leaders. However this sometimes leads to one of the most ghastly self-inflicted wounds of project management, that is the project leader who hasn’t yet learned to use “we” and avoid the word “I” in conversations. As a young and foolish project manager I persisted in referring to MY project, MY team, what I was doing, and how important I was to the future of the project. While I’m sure I sounded like a self-important boob, I was under the illusion that this behavior sprung from my total and passionate commitment to project success. It was only after my very dear friend took me aside and pointed out how arrogant I appeared that I started to shift my vocabulary in a more inclusive direction.

Our language shapes our reality. Watch out for these early warning signs of imminent “I” injury:

  • You use “I”, “me” and “my” when “we”, “us” and “our” could be graciously substituted.
    • While at first you may feel a bit odd substituting the we-centered words in your daily speech, I assure you that you will start to feel differently as a result, and others will respond positively to this subtle shift in focus.
  • You take credit for what is accomplished in the project.
    • Even if you can make a good case that you are totally responsible for some particular feat, it will endear you to the hearts of your colleagues if you insist on sharing the credit with anyone who made even a minor contribution. People tend to overestimate their role in any positive outcome, so you run little risk of offending people for being too generous in giving credit where credit is due.
  • You are the person who talks the most in project meetings.
    • Project meetings are critical to increasing the peripheral vision of team members. The meetings are where people become aware of, and sort out, critical interdependencies and possible areas of synergy. Meetings should be a rich sharing of among the team, not a monologue from the project manager with a peep now and then from the team responding to status requests.
  • You are the only person who makes presentations at project review meetings.
    • Project review meetings provide an excellent opportunity for professional development as well as a way to get visibility in front of senior executives. Rather than having the project leader make the presentation, each person on the team should present the status of any portion of their work worthy of including in such a review. And, in general, the whole core team should be present for the review so that they can see how the management team operates, raise any issues, and answer any questions immediately. This saves time and also assures that the team is aligned on what the executives expect from them.
  • At the end of the project, when senior executives who are clueless about the hazards of rewarding individuals for what a team has accomplished give you public recognition for leading the team to success, you actually think that you deserve it.
    • Lance Armstrong, a famous repeat winner of the Tour de France team bike race, said that he was actually embarrassed by being chosen as “individual athlete of the year” for his role as team leader. Projects are tackled by teams specifically because they are too complex or demanding for one human being to accomplish alone. Although people are tempted to credit the leader of a successful team, be warned: your team won’t buy it, especially if you truly are a great leader. Lao-tzu said, when the work of a great leader is done the people say “We did it ourselves!” Ideally you should arrange in advance for a team-based public celebration that rewards the whole team. Any individual rewards should be carefully awarded in the privacy of a 1:1 conversation rather than rubbed under the noses of the many people who devoted themselves to the project. By the end of most projects there have been hundreds of little miracles worked by dozens of people, some of whom seem quite peripheral to the project. Publicly recognizing only the leader does these miracle-workers an injustice, and is to be avoided, or at least deflected, by the project leader who wants their team to be motivated to follow them in the next big hairy audacious project.

Even project managers are human, and do need a bit of credit now and then, a morsel of appreciation here and there. Just don’t take your bite of recognition out of the hide of your team members!

– Kimberly Wiefling, Author of Scrappy Project Management: The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces, hovering among the top project management books in the USA since launch last fall.


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