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How to change your leadership style as you progress through your project

Leadership StylesIf you’re a project manager who has managed teams and projects, you know that the project moves through different phases and that the needs of your team for leadership changes accordingly. But you may never have put that much thought into it or considered if you could be doing more to adapt your style appropriately to each stage of the project.

In this post we will have a look at which leadership styles are most effective as you start up the project, and how you should adapt them as the project progresses and the team gets more established. We will start off with an overview of some of the classic leadership styles and subsequently discuss when to use them. Note that some of the styles overlap.

Visionary – visionary leadership is about creating vision and direction. This style recognises that employees’ commitment must be earned. The visionary leader is able to clearly identify the goals that will lead the organization – or project – to success and allows employees to figure out the best way to accomplish these goals.

Directive – directive leadership is a commanding style where the leader determines what needs to get done and demands compliance to his or her instructions. In its purest form it can be very inflexible as it sometimes translates into “do what I tell you, or else’.

Pace setting – a pace setting style is one where the leader provides a strong role model and demonstrates the standard they want to see. Pace setters are different from directive leaders in that they show how to do things by rolling up their sleeves and setting a practical example. This style is often seen with technical experts who know how to complete detailed tasks.

Coaching – coaching as a leadership style is essentially about unlocking the potential in others. Leaders who use coaching help others advance their skills and create a positive workplace. Instead of telling them what to do, they ask questions and guide the individuals to find the answers for themselves. They provide a lot of encouragement and inspiration.

Affiliative – affiliative leaders value harmony and good relationships above tangible results. They ensure that there is a strong bond across the team and provide regular positive feedback which can have a powerful impact on performance. This is a very nurturing and non-confrontational leadership style.

Democratic – When using the democratic leadership style, the leader shares the problem with the relevant team members as a group. Together they generate and evaluate alternatives and attempt to reach agreement (consensus) on the solution. Here the leader’s role is more facilitative – like that of a chairperson.

From the brief descriptions above you probably already have a good idea of which styles work well in certain situations. A highly directive style, for instance, works well in crisis situations and in times when the stakes are high. In those circumstances it’s important that orders are precisely followed so that the issue can be resolved in an effective manner. It can also be a good style to use when working with very inexperienced staff who need direction on how project activities should be done. If this style is overused however, it can have a damaging effect, as it doesn’t value and recognise individual contributions.

A pace setting style can be very effective when working with a team – or with individuals – whose standard isn’t acceptable. It can be valuable in creating a high performing culture, but as with the directive style, it can have a negative effect if it’s overused. The reason is that the emphasis is on how the leader does things as opposed to empowering team members to finding their own solutions.

Let’s turn our attention to the initial stages of a project and the leadership styles that would prove most effective.

Project LeadershipImagine that you are a project manager and that you are in the process of pulling together a team for a new project. In most cases you will probably use a blend of individual conversations and team meetings as you address people. In order to understand which leadership styles are most effective during this stage when the team is being formed, try to see the situation from the individual’s point of view. The team member is thinking: what is this project all about? What is in it for me? Which skills will I be able to develop? Who are the other team members? What will my role be, etc.? As a leader the best you can do in this situation is to provide clarity, structure and inspire the team to contribute to the project’s ultimate objectives. You can do that by using the visionary style.

Depending on how experienced – or not – the team is, you will also have to make use of your directive leadership style early on in the project. The greener the team is, the more explicit you need to be about what you expect and how you expect it to be done. Many project managers assume that their teams know how to work together and are therefore not directive enough in the beginning. Don’t make that mistake. Make it clear what you expect from each role and lay down the ground rules. It is likely that you need be more directive at the beginning of the project than at any other point.

Relatively soon after the team has formed, it moves into a storming phase where positions, roles and objectives are challenged. Some members may feel overwhelmed by how much there is to do, or they are uncomfortable with the approach or the objectives. During this phase you should make use of your listening, mediating and conflict-resolution skills – in order words – the affiliative leadership style. Your role at this point is to make people feel safe, address their concerns and build relationships between people. The focus is on building trust and planning collaboratively so that the team can concentrate on the actual objectives instead becoming distracted by emotional issues.

At this point it can also be good to be more democratic in your style, as you need to build consensus and encourage the team to work together. Don’t use the democratic style all the time as that would mean renouncing your leadership role. Use it where the process of building consensus is more important than the outcome itself – for instance in agreeing how you will be tracking progress and which team meetings the project will have. In these circumstances it can be an advantage to take a facilitative role and hand over decision-making to the team.

Gradually, as the structure of the team is established, and roles and responsibilities are accepted, the team progresses into what Tuckman calls the norming stage. Team members come to respect one another and start to bond. Decisions are made in agreement and some start to show ownership and take responsibility. Your role in this phase is to support and guide the team and to encourage collaboration. Be mindful of each person’s talents and needs and gradually take a step back as individuals start to engage and take responsibility. What this means is that your need to be directive diminishes and should be replaced by more of a coaching style.

If you find that the team isn’t performing as well as you had hoped, you can act as a pace setter to increase performance. Roll your sleeves up and show how you would like things to be done. But be careful not to overuse this style as it can easily discourage the members of your team. The reason is that it can be seen as a way to micromanage people and not trusting them to do their jobs.

The next natural progression is when your team reaches the performing stage. Here the team is strategically aware and knows clearly why it is doing what it is doing. It works towards a common goal, has a high degree of autonomy and is able to stand on its own feet with little interference. In this phase you have delegated entire roles and work streams and observe the team from the sideline. You continue to inspire, support and challenge the team to think in creative and innovative ways, meaning that you predominately make use of the visionary and coaching styles. The directive, pace setting and affiliative styles should still be used as required – especially during times of crisis and conflict – but hopefully the need will be minimal.

To summarize your team’s need for leadership will vary as you move through the different phases of the project. Initially you will need to provide clarity, vision and direction, but as the team matures and becomes more self-managing you are able to take a less active role and move into the background and use more of a coaching style. At no point should you become an absent leader, as your inspiration, support and insightful questions will always be needed.



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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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