Theories Related to Project Management and Leadership


Project managers initiate, plan, execute, monitor, control and close out projects. Using processes, tools, techniques and knowledge defined in the Project Management Institute’s “Project Management Body of Knowledge,” these business professionals build teams and conduct management activities to produce products and services that enable companies to meet strategic objectives. Effective project managers use leadership theories to help them choose the best approach for fostering team work and solving operational problems.

Behavioral Theories

Behavioral theories describe how leaders conduct themselves. Kurt Lewin, a German-American psychologist, identified three types of leaders and their decision-making styles. Autocratic leaders make decisions without input from their subordinates. Democratic leaders encourage subordinates to offer opinions. Laissez-faire leaders allow subordinates to make their own decisions. Effective project managers use each of these styles to complete projects successfully. Typically, these project managers use the autocratic decision-making style when a quick decision needs to be made. They show democratic leadership skills when they form the project team and gather input from experts on the team about the schedule, requirements and resource allocation. When the project team is capable of working independently, effective project managers don’t need to provide close monitoring or supervision. Effective project managers adapt their leadership style to the team’s needs.

Contingency Theories

Contingency theories describe how situations influence leadership actions. The Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory created by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard encourages leaders to choose a style based on the capability of their subordinates. If new subordinates need specific instructions, effective project managers tell them what to do, typically by providing comprehensive step-by-step procedures. When team members know how to accomplish a task, project managers tell subordinates what needs to be done but spend less time communicating how to do it. If the project team members don’t require much direction, the project leader focuses on motivating the team to produce quality results. When a project team member can operate completely on his own, the project manager delegates authority to him. Using this theory, effective project managers select a style that fits the current situation to work most productively.

Leadership Attribute Theories

Trait theories list the personal characteristics of good leaders. When project managers exhibit qualities, such as empathy and assertiveness, they tend to be more successful. By developing leadership skills in key areas, such as time management, decision-making, influencing and negotiating, project managers work more efficiently to manage costs, deadlines and quality.

Power and Influence Theories

Social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven identified five types of power. Using legitimate power, a project manager demands compliance from subordinates because she has the title of project manager. By using rewards such as bonuses or other compensation, project managers encourage performance. Project managers who exert their authority based on their skills and experience use expert power. If a project manager influences others by exploiting her right to respect, she uses referent power to manage project tasks. When project managers feel the need to punish subordinates who don’t comply with their demands, they use coercive power to get what they want. By using their power effectively, project managers build relationships and develop an infrastructure that enables subordinates to complete project tasks successfully, get advice and guidance when needed and fix problems when they arise.

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