[This article was updated in December 2018 with new additions to the list. It was originally published in 2014.]
Over the years that I have worked in the project management field, I’ve taken a number of courses, read a number of books, and have seen and utilized a number of tools that have all promised success in leading teams and managing successful projects. And as helpful as they were, I found that the greatest asset in leading teams and managing projects is not found in technical tools and procedures but in skillfully relating to people. You can have all the processes and procedures memorized, have all the certifications, be an expert in all the technical tools, and list out all the terminology without skipping a beat. But if you can’t skillfully manage human relationships and interactions, you will fail in your attempt to successfully lead teams and manage successful projects.
If you’re not the greatest natural leader since Captain America, I’m here to help out. I’ve listed 10 guidelines to help you improve your ability to lead. If you can master these, you will exponentially increase your ability to lead teams and manage successful projects. Keep in mind that you won’t always get these skills right away. You’ll make mistakes. I know I do. But that’s ok as long as you keep working at it and resolve that no matter what, you’ll be a better leader. You need to do this because so few people are, and this world is starved for good leaders. So without further ado…
1) Don’t criticize or complain about people.
The surest way to demotivate people is to constantly criticize them or complain about them. If they make a mistake, put it in perspective with the things they constantly do well. Accentuate the positive and utilize mistakes as opportunities for continued improvement. This leads us to our next item…
2) Praise improvement, even minor improvements.
Psychologists discovered long ago that when you positively reinforce a desired behavior, people are far more likely to repeat that behavior. Most people want to do the right thing, which means you will find far more success in leading a team if you focus on using positive reinforcement rather than negative actions like threats and fear tactics.
3) Give honest and sincere praise and appreciation.
All people deeply desire significance. One of the easiest ways you can help fulfill desire that is by offering honest and sincere praise and appreciation whenever possible. This is probably one of the greatest motivational methods you can ever employ.
4) Encourage other people to talk and be a good active listener.
People want to be heard, really heard, and not patronized. Oftentimes, instead of listening to someone in a conversation, people are really just waiting for an opportunity to speak. If this is an area where you struggle, one trick is to say “What I understand you’re saying is…” By repeating what you understand the other person to be saying, it forces you to really listen to what they are saying. And as a side benefit, it reinforces to the speaker that you truly are listening to them and respect what they have to say.
5) Be genuinely interested in other people and make them feel important.
Everyone’s favorite primary subject is themselves, its human nature. Social media at large and the “selfie” testify to this fact. Nobody likes to feel ignored and unappreciated, including you (see item 3). So go ahead and make an effort to be interested in people and you will win their gratitude and by extension a cooperative attitude.
6) Be sensitive to people’s pride and let them save face.
The simple fact is that all people are prideful creatures. If you call them out on being wrong about something and make them look bad in front of others, they’ll fight you to the bitter end. But if you can offer criticism or disagreement in a manner that allows them to save face, they’ll be much more willing to cooperate and work with you.
7) Be respectful of other people’s ideas and opinions. Try to see things from their point of view.
When you try to understand another person’s point of view you may find that you learn something. But even if you don’t, you will still find it much easier to respect the people with whom you disagree.
8) If you are wrong, be honest and humble enough to admit it.
Sit down for a moment, are you ready for this? You are not perfect, you are not always right; you can and do make mistakes. One of the greatest personality traits you can develop is that of humility. We all make mistakes, and rather than deny and repeat those mistakes, wise people admit their failures and learn from experience. In doing this the wise person is able to grow and continually get better. If you’re honest and humble enough to own up to your mistake, apologize to those affected, and work to avoid repeating your mistake; you will gain the respect of those you work with.
9) Set a high bar for people and let them know you believe in their ability to succeed.
In 1980, the US Olympic Men’s Hockey Team was set to play against the Soviet Men’s Team in the Winter Olympics. At the time the Soviet team was the undisputed powerhouse in men’s hockey. Nobody expected the US team to have any chance of beating the Soviet Team. The US team was a mix of amateur and collegiate players and the Soviet Team had won the gold medal in six of the seven previous Olympic Games. Before the game, the US team coach Herb Brooks read his players a statement he had written out on a piece of paper, telling them that “You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.”(Coffey, 2005). The US team went on to beat the Soviet Team and then Finland and secure the Olympic Gold. Set a high bar for your people, believe in them, communicate that to them and be amazed at what they can achieve.
10) Set Clear Goals.
Goal setting theory teaches us that goals are the primary drivers of the intensity and persistence of effort. Both for you, and the team you intend to lead.
Very simply: assigning employees difficult goals results in higher performance than easy goals. Further, assigning employees specific goals results in higher performance than general goals (such as “do your best”).
Goals organize and direct our attention by necessity. They require us to regulate our efforts. They increase our persistence. And they encourage strategy and planning.
If you’re looking for a concrete way to put this into practice, look no further than the classic SMART Goal framework.
11) Understand Equity Theory and Practice Procedural Justice.
How do we move motivation beyond just financial incentives? How does fairness or unfairness influence your work environment? And what steps could we take to increase intrinsic motivation in ourselves and those around us?
There’s a lot going on in this diagram, which is why it’s still taught in a lot of MBA classrooms.
Expectancy theory from Victor Vroom suggests that if you can:
- Set your team’s understanding about what is expected of them
- Set what the rewards will be for meeting or exceeding that expectation and deliver those rewards
- Offer incentives that they truly value…
You will dramatically increase satisfaction and both individual and team performance. Failing to live up the expectations you’ve set, whether intentionally or unintentionally, can have major negative consequences to morale and future performance.
12) Follow the greatest leadership rule ever given (IMHO).
If you wish to be a great leader, make it your focus to serve those whom you would lead. There are a lot of people that want the power, prestige and pay that comes along with leadership positions, but few want to do what it takes to actually be a good and effective leader. Great leadership isn’t about bossing people around; it’s about inspiring and guiding people towards a common goal for everyone’s benefit. Build your team up, give them credit for their work, praise their efforts and reward them when they succeed. There is a saying that states “Be the change that you want to see”, we can adapt that to this discussion by saying “Be the leader that you would want to lead you”.
*Coffey, Wayne (2005). The Boys of Winter. New York: Crown Publishers.