The Project Manager as Psychologist


The purpose of this paper is to discuss some of the issues that the project manager faces in the quest to maintain team members’ motivation levels during a project. Further, this paper suggests a practical technique, grounded in human psychology, for the project manager to better understand team members and what they are thinking.
There are parallels between a project manager trying to understand what motivates team members and a psychologist engaged in dialogue with a client. The main similarity lies in the attempt to better understand what is going on in someone else’s head.

The project manager needs as much experience and as many techniques as possible in order to successfully manage project teams. This is due largely to the fact that people management is not an exact science – hence the project manager will benefit from gaining an understanding of human psychology and behaviour.

Playing Psychologist?

I have often wondered whether project managers are quasi-psychologists. What with all the people management (read cajoling) they have to do daily, not to mention finding new and effective ways to motivate project team members. As most experienced project managers will know, there is no one-size-fits-all method of motivation. Project team members, just like anyone else, require different things to motivate them and to produce the desired project results.

There will be some team members who only ‘open up’ when you talk to them one-to-one over a coffee, and then they feel they are part of the team. In contrast, there are some team members who communicate best during ‘team bonding’ events.

Clearly there are different factors that come into play in order to motivate team members so as to produce the desired project results. How well the team works together is largely dependent on how much the project manager appreciates the often subtle psychological differences between team members.

In my experience as a project manager I have found that team members respond best when they feel that you understand them, as opposed to treating them like just another resource in a project schedule. The project manager will benefit by being aware of this pitfall, especially where business representatives are seconded to be on the project team, as they are often unfamiliar with the nuances of project execution and, frankly, would rather be doing their regular job.

The best way to interact with such team members will be quite different from the interaction with other team members who have worked on multiple projects over several years. The problem is that people do not write on their foreheads how they want to be treated.

So how does the project manager find out what is going on inside their team members’ heads?

You might say one simple answer is to just ask them. How better to know what someone is thinking? However, that is usually where the simplicity ends. If you are fortunate enough for a team member to tell you exactly what they are thinking, you then need to be careful not to fall into the common trap of re-interpreting their comments in your own words. This trap is typically referred to as ‘observer bias’, where your frame of reference influences your interpretation of what someone is telling you.

Observer Bias

The challenge here is two-fold. First is to be aware that the trap exists, and second is to avoid falling into the trap. Observer bias has received considerable attention from the field of psychology. This is no surprise, considering that psychologists routinely engage in dialogue with clients, and endeavour to maintain an objective view of their clients’ behaviour, comments and demeanour.

Given the parallels between the project manager’s and the psychologist’s roles, it is worth further exploring this notion.

One area of psychology that I have found quite useful in addressing observer bias is George Kelly’s personal construct theory, which dates back to the mid-1950s. Kelly was an American engineer who became a clinical psychologist. His theory is based on the principle that we all try to understand the world by developing internal mental models called constructs. These constructs are, in effect, ‘our reality of the world around us’ or, in other words, the prism through which we view the world. Each person’s constructs will often change and stabilise as s/he gains further experience and evidence through life.

The point to note is that constructs are, by definition, individual in nature. As a result, my view of the world is not necessarily the same as my colleagues’ views. In fact, my view of the world is not necessarily the same as my siblings’ views, even though we had similar experiences growing up. However, I will expect to have some common views with my colleagues and siblings, since we have shared some basic experiences together.

It is an important part of the project manager’s role to identify where their views may differ from those of team members. Realising such differences helps the project manager to better deal with team members and their attendant idiosyncrasies.

What Your Team Members are Really Thinking

When managing large project teams it is quite easy to pigeon-hole team members as a way of coping with having to manage several people, each with unique personalities. While the pigeon-holing may be accurate for some team members, it invariably classifies members into groups identified by the project manager. Once again, the dreaded observer bias rears its head. In order to overcome this, an observer-neutral technique is required.

One of George Kelly’s better-known interviewing techniques is the repertory grid. He designed and used this technique in his attempt to gain an unbiased insight into an individual’s personality. I am not suggesting that the technique is used on project team members, however, understanding how the technique works will assist the project manager better understand their team members’ personal constructs.

The original application of the repertory grid involved the following steps.

1. Interviewer asks interviewee to identify a number of people in their life, usually about 10, known as elements (e.g., partner, brother, sister, best friend, least-liked person, favourite colleague, etc.).
2. Interviewer randomly selects three elements, known as a triad.
3. Interviewer asks interviewee to identify a way in which two of the elements are similar to each other, and thereby different from the third element. This is known as a construct. E.g., with a triad consisting of the following three elements:
favourite colleague
least-liked person
the interviewee may identify the construct ‘fun – stays at home’ to distinguish their partner and favourite colleague from the person they like the least. In other words, the interviewee has grouped the two people identified as their partner and favourite colleague as ‘fun’ while the third person in the triad (identified as the least-liked person) is classified as ‘stays at home.’
4. Interviewer asks interviewee to rank all the remaining people identified earlier as elements along the construct using a scale usually of 1 to 5, where 1 is positive and 5 is negative. As a result, the interviewee ranks all 10 elements on a scale from 1 to 5 where 1 represents fun and 5 represents stays home.
5. Interviewer randomly selects another three elements and the process is repeated until interviewee has identified as many constructs as possible.

Each construct signifies a contrast comprising two opposing poles, rather than a direct opposite. So, in the above example the opposing pole to ‘fun’ is ‘stays at home’ rather than boring, dull, etc. This illustrates a key premise of Kelly’s theory that opposing poles are in contrast rather than just being direct opposites. In other words, the interviewee here is explaining that they consider people who stay home to be the ‘opposite’ of fun.

I have often applied this technique indirectly when getting to know my team members. I focus on the constructs they use when contrasting things during regular conversation. This gives me an insight into what is important to them, how they like to work, how they like to be rewarded, whether or not they like public recognition for their achievements, and so on.

In the above example you can see that the interviewee likes people who go out and probably likes going out too. Therefore, as their project manager, if I needed to organise a one-to-one meeting I would try to hold the meeting outside the office building. Further, if I identified that other team members had similar tendencies, I would arrange meetings with the group away from the office building where appropriate. This is not to say that meetings would never be held in the office – some team members will prefer the familiarity and comfort of the office – but the key is to be aware of team members’ subtle differences in personality and cater for everyone as much as realistically possible.

Maintaining Motivation Levels

Now that you have a better idea what is going on inside your team members’ heads, how do you use that information to maintain their motivation levels?

One of the key drivers regarding motivation is the ‘why’ factor. In other words, the team member asks “Why am I doing this?” or “Why am I performing this task, role, etc?” By posing such questions, team members seek to understand their position and relevance within the overall project.

It is usually the responsibility of the project manager to explain the ‘why’ to team members. Once team members embrace the ‘why’, the project manager is part-way through the motivation end-game. From a PRINCE2 perspective the ‘why’ is contained in the Business Case, i.e., the justification for conducting the project. Given that the business case is usually reviewed for its continued relevance at the end of each management stage, the project manager can use sections of the current business case to answer those team members asking the ‘why’ questions. The business case will provide the project manager with a foundation on which to build motivation levels for such team members. As a result the team members will more readily embrace the ‘why’, as long as the business case still supports continuing with the project.

Borrowing from the Business Rules Group’s business motivation model, motivation is viewed from the perspective of ends and means. Within the present context the ends are the ‘aspiration’ concepts (vision, goal, objective) while the means refer to the ‘action plan’ concepts (mission, strategy, tactics) of the project. Explaining the ‘why’ in these terms further crystallises the rationale of the project for team members and helps them better understand their position and relevance within the project.

The common cliché is that the end justifies the means, but in this case one could say that the means facilitate the end. As a result, the project manager is best served by ensuring that the entire team is motivated by the means in order to effect the desired end.

The project manager may extend the repertory grid technique by identifying team members as the elements and generating constructs, as earlier explained. By comparing and contrasting team members in this way, the project manager is able to identify which team members are more likely to collaborate best together. Such insight will prove useful as one of the factors for the project manager to consider when deciding which team members to place into work groups.

It is best to reserve this specific application of the repertory grid technique until a point where the project manager is quite confident that they know the team members very well individually. Otherwise there is the danger of falling into the observer bias trap.

I have applied the technique on a number of projects to help me identify and appreciate the similarities and differences between team members that are not immediately obvious. This was particularly useful in a case where there were twelve members on the project team, which made it initially difficult to gauge their likes and dislikes, working habits, etc.

The technique may not be a perfect fit for all situations. That comes as no surprise, since people management is not an exact science. However, I have found the technique very beneficial in minimising my observer bias and in understanding team members better in general.


My first exposure to personal construct theory was while I was studying for my Masters degree, where my thesis involved a knowledge acquisition method that I derived from Kelly’s work.

The repertory grid technique has been adapted into a number of software applications used for knowledge acquisition and interviewing, predominantly in the area of knowledge management systems. There are a number of reference sources on Kelly’s work, but a good starting point is the website of the University of Calgary.

By Dayo Sowunmi
This paper has been published at: – website owned & managed by APM Group – official PRINCE2 accreditation company based in the UK. (Editor: Tony Kippenberger)

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