Lead by Fear and Intimidation or Lead by Positive Motivation… – Your Choice

Leadership by pedrosimoes7 via Flickr
Leadership by pedrosimoes7 via Flickr

As Project Managers, I’m sure we’ve all seen the kind of scenario where there is a project team member who is generally uncooperative or can’t seem to get the tasks done on time – and the different approaches you can take in order to solve this problem. You can take the dictatorial “Do as I say” approach and intimidate/shame someone into being productive or else – or you can try to build a bridge between you and your team member, and work together to get things into motion.

How many times have you either heard the tale of the non-productive team member on a team from one of your colleagues, or witnessed it firsthand on one of your projects?

It comes as a shock to me that Project Managers still frequently employ some kind of fear/intimidation tactic, without trying to at least further the relationship first. I realize that we may all have time and cost constraints, be jaded by having seen this crop up too many times, or just be plain tired from large Enterprise Projects which have long durations, but we’re forgetting the human factor, one of the most unpredictable forces of nature… and of projects in general. Other than that rare one-in-a-million occurrence that we fail to predict or account for, human beings provide one of the riskiest, most dynamic elements.

I once had a fairly curmudgeonly senior developer on one of my highly visible projects. He had tested and managed to get rid of the last two PMs off the project. The VP who was in charge told me in the hallway as he was bringing me in that “if you can pass Tom’s test, you’ve got a long career ahead of you at XYZ Company.” Yup, this was going to be trial by fire… and the adrenaline was flowing. Tom and I shook hands, and he looked at me expectantly; a gleam in his eyes of “Hmmm, another lame PM to toy with.” “Could I please see what you’ve been working on?” I asked. A big smile appeared on his face. None of the other PMs had ever asked to see his code, or even bothered to take a few minutes to get to know him. We spent the next hour with Tom showing me the code; explaining what it was doing; what the major challenges were for the project. I noticed a bag of spicy potato chips with jalapenos and some gourmet guacamole on his desk. I figured that was his lunch/snack of choice, and decided to test my theory.

A few days later, I went by his cube and left the same kind of chips and guacamole on his desk, when he was in a meeting – and then followed up a couple of hours later when he was back. “How are you doing?” I said. “Someone left me my favorite chips and dip,” he said wonderingly. We proceeded to talk about his progress (I was doing my MBWA – Management by Walking Around.) He finally figured out that it was me who put the snack in his cube, but only after the third time. I ended up getting rave reviews from him – “Lisa is the only PM I ever want to work with” – and the VP was satisfied – no more revolving door of PMs for the duration of this project. And when push came to shove, he volunteered to work weekends when our time line got cut short, due to a decree by Senior Management. His buy-in made the critical difference and galvanized the entire team into working their butts off and making the launch on time.

Setting the tone for an open and collaborative working environment is one of the most significant contributions a Project Manager can make toward getting the project done. You want people to want to work on your project; you want them to see it as a priority, and take pride and ownership in delivery. It takes time to do it right since you have to invest the time necessary to forge the relationships and create trust and work things out within the team. As my esteemed colleague Kimberly Wiefling has promoted in her book “Scrappy Project Management” and I fully agree – “Teams have shared goals and a commitment to those goals that is stronger than their individual motives. Teams care about their mutual success. Teams of people trust each other, and work together for the greater good, even when individuals have an axe to grind with each other.” To this quote, I would add, “As Project Managers, we not only lead the team, we are part of the team – and having the mantra of “All for one, and one for all” can take us a long way.


3 thoughts on “Lead by Fear and Intimidation or Lead by Positive Motivation… – Your Choice”

  1. Hi Lisa,

    Bribing has also worked for me in the past 🙂

    Working with team members who are involved in multiple projects simultaneously is another challenge. As a project manager I have felt helpless in such situations. This team member was always telling one project manager that he had an urgent deliverable for the other project. I still don’t have a good solution for this, let me know if you have any ideas.


  2. User Avatar

    Love this story. I will never understand why so many managers don’t get the simple truth that when people feel valued and appreciated, they will put out so much more than they ever would when ‘motivated’ by fear and intimidation. And, as Lisa demonstrated so well here, it doesn’t take much to show someone they matter.

    Unfortunately, intimidation does work for a short time, especially in these times when people can’t afford (literally) to be out of work. With so many great people in the unemployment lines, management can push people to the breaking point, fire them (or let them quit in frustration or nervous breakdowns), and go get a new crop. This works for a time until the company reputation becomes widely known, or the economy turns around and good people become once again hard to find.

    Here’s to the good ole days!

  3. Lisa,

    You’ve given a great example of putting the first of the agile values “People and Interactions” into practice. Great project results depend an awful lot on good communication. Communication happens best where there is trust and mutual understanding. These come from building relationships, sometimes with some good chips and dip.



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top