You're managing a large project team full of diverse working habits, communication styles, and preferences. From night owls and early birds to planners and procrastinators, you feel like your team is one big melting pot of a dozen different approaches.
On one hand, you're grateful for the varying perspectives and fresh ideas this diversity brings to the table. But on the other hand? Well, you often find yourself presented with dynamics that are pretty tricky to manage:
- One team member wants to create an outline before moving forward methodically, while the other wants to roll up his sleeves and dive right in.
- One wants to be in constant communication via email, instant messaging, and meetings, while the other wants to be left alone to actually produce something.
- One prefers bagels while another wants donuts.
Let’s face it—the differences never end. And, ultimately, a successful project manager will know how to rally the troops, unite their strengths, and leverage their differences to create one cohesive, kick-ass team.
Who’s Who on a Project Team?
First things first, what is a personality, exactly? According to personality expert Professor John Mayor, as quoted in a piece on Fox Business, “Personality is the organized, developing system within the individual that represents the collective action of that individual’s major psychological subsystems."
Let's simplify that: "In layman’s terms, I like to think of personality as that inherent driver of how we act,” says Dr. Woody Woodward, author of the Fox Business article. “It’s that natural disposition we fall back on when all those other forces of the outside world are accounted for.”
Of course, this means there could be almost endless possibilities for the roles that people fill on a team. Think back to when you were assigned a group project in school, and the different, broad categories that your team members fell into:
- There was the doer—the person who felt it was their responsibility to stay on task and get things accomplished on time.
- There was the procrastinator, who rode on the coattails of every other project partner and didn’t seem to have any regard for the deadline until it was breathing down their neck.
- And then, of course, there were the misleading members of the group. “There are the people who say all the right things and give you confidence that they are on top of their work and then let you down at the last minute,” says Elizabeth Harrin, the project management expert behind the blog A Girl's Guide To Project Management.
The Problem With Project Team Personalities
With so many different methods, priorities, and preferences squished together on one team, you know that there’s bound to be some drawbacks and fallout. The biggest one being:
“Conflict!” says Harrin. “Differing work styles can create conflict simply because the team members have different expectations of each other.”
Hey, What’s the Good News?
Of course, that’s not to say that a diverse team is a bad thing and that you should make your best effort to build a group of like-minded clones. Along with the obstacles, there are plenty of benefits to having a team of different personalities and working styles—including one major one.
“If the team is too homogenous, there tends to be broad agreement about how to go about solving problems and delivering the project,” explains Susanne Madsen, Project Leadership Coach, Trainer, and Author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership.
“That might produce a pleasant working environment, but it may also mean that the team doesn’t challenge itself sufficiently,” she continues. “With different types of personalities, the team will be challenged to continuously find the best way of working."
How to Manage Different Project Team Personalities
How can you successfully manage these different people—ideally with as little crying, complaining, and frustration as possible? Here’s what you need to know:
1. Get to Know Your Team
You’ll have a tough time leading the charge if you don’t actually know and understand who you’re working with.
“If you understand how they like to work, communicate, do their tasks, be delegated to, contribute to meetings—basically, how they tick—then you can do a much better job of managing the individual quirks, smoothing out conflict before it starts, and leading the team,” says Harrin.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of assuming things about your different team members. Maybe you're jumping to the conclusion that two members will work well together, when in fact, they're too similar to really complement each other. Or perhaps you think that your frequent check-ins with a particular person are helpful, when in reality they only serve as a distraction from his or her work.
First Assess, Then Process
One of the best things you can do to truly understand the different individuals in your team is to conduct an assessment to identify everyone's strengths. From Myers-Briggs to the Lominger competencies, there are seemingly endless tools available to help you better comprehend the strengths of each member.
"I really like an assessment called StrengthsFinder," explains Sarah Shin, Head of HR at Wrike. "I find it to be the most accessible and not overly bookish."
The specific details of these assessments can vary depending on which you choose to go with, but the basics remain the same: team members answer a series of questions and then are given their profile or list of strengths.
In the case of StrengthsFinder, members discover their top five greatest strengths. It's more than just a formality—the reports that these assessments generate can truly help team members to better understand each other, and thus create a more productive group.
"Teams really respond favorably to it," Shin adds. "I think it's an additive connection point. You get to know more things about the people you work with, can connect with them, and then accelerate the business by understanding how they process information. Ultimately, that's the key to a really fun and high-performing place to work."
How do these tools and assessments help you as a manager? They provide a cheat sheet for you when identifying the right people for the right tasks. If you're looking to brainstorm, you'll know who to approach based on their strengths. But, you'll rely on a different pool of people if you need to get a project over the finish line in a timely way.
"It's the final loop," Shin says. "You don't try to take a salesperson and have them sit at a desk and crunch numbers."
2. Play to Their Strengths
On that note, if you’ve ever tried to disguise an elephant as a rabbit, you know that it almost never ends well. So, why would you attempt to do that same thing on your project team by forcing your most analytical member to handle all of the creative brainstorming, or that notorious procrastinator to keep a close eye on the project schedule for schedule variance?
You should instead develop an approach and a plan that plays to each of your team member’s individual strengths. Don't highlight their shortcomings! Use what you learned in the first step to form a strategy that brings out the best from each team member.
"A strength is defined as anything that produces 'near perfect' performance consistently and effortlessly in a given activity," writes Paul O'Keefe, President of Edge Training Systems, in a blog post. "An activity that drains, even if done well, is not a strength."
The Vast Majority of US Businesses Don't Focus on Strengths
Why are strengths so important? Data-driven management consulting company, Gallup, claims that it's much more effective to build strengths than it is to improve weaknesses. They developed the Strengths Orientation Index to put employers to the test and discover how many of them are placing adequate emphasis on employee strengths.
The index is made up of four statements that workers are asked to rate their agreement on—from strongly agree to strongly disagree. These are:
- Every week, I set goals and expectations based on my strengths.
- I can name the strengths of five people I work with.
- In the last three months, my supervisor and I have had a meaningful discussion about my strengths.
- My organization is committed to building the strengths of each associate.
The results: a measly 3% of participants said that they strongly agreed with all four index items.
"This low level of agreement shows that the vast majority of businesses in the US don't focus on helping employees use their strengths -- and this is a costly oversight," writer and editor Susan Sorenson writes in the post that accompanies the Gallup research. "When employees feel that their company cares and encourages them to make the most of their strengths, they are more likely to respond with increased discretionary effort, a stronger work ethic, and more enthusiasm and commitment."
Occasionally, this strengths-based approach to a project might even mean that a certain person will want to stretch outside of his or her normal job duties—and that's completely fine. After all, if your graphic designer also happens to know someone who'd make the perfect sponsor for that big event you're planning, why would you want to ignore that valuable asset?
"Once you know how your team members work, you can line them up to your best advantage." ~Elizabeth Harrin @pm4girls
“Once you know how your team members work, you can line them up to your best advantage," Harrin says. “Projects need all kinds of people to make them work and to best represent the end user groups. Make the most of the skills that you have.”
3. Nurture a Positive Environment
Want a happy, satisfied, and supportive work environment for your team? To cultivate that, you need to make it clear that disrespect will not be tolerated. The moment you start letting irreverence on your team become the norm, you’re setting yourself up for failure, conflict, and a severe drop in productivity and employee engagement.
A Harvard Business Review study that surveyed over 20,000 workers across a wide spectrum of industries found that those employees who felt their leader “demonstrated respect” reported 92% greater focus and prioritization, 56% better health and well-being, and 55% more engagement in their work.
Allow Them to Voice Concerns
In another study conducted by the authors of the New York Times bestselling book Crucial Conversations, a reported 95% of a company’s workforce struggles to voice their concerns to their colleagues.
That hesitancy to speak up will lead to unshared ideas and strained relationships on your team—which isn't what you're looking to achieve. That's not to say that criticism can't ever be offered. It just needs to be done in a way that's constructive, encouraging, and pushes the project in the right direction.
Remember, your aim is to foster a collaborative environment and positive culture of sharing where everybody feels comfortable and secure with what they bring to the table. Ensuring that team members feel empowered and supported will mean that they'll be that much more self-assured and engaged in the work.
"The greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain," says Shawn Achor, happiness author, GoodThink Co-Founder and CEO, and TED Talk speaker, in a previous Wrike blog post. "The human brain at positive has an unfair advantage over that same brain at negative or neutral. When we are positive, we show a 31% increase in productivity, 40% increased likelihood to get a promotion, 23% fewer stress-related symptoms, 37% higher sales—the list goes on and on."
Watch Margaret Heffernan in her TED Talk below as she talks about superchickens (superstars) and how success is best achieved through social cohesion — instead of suppressing the productivity of others.
4. Ask Questions
Assumptions are a dangerous trap to fall into. You can’t just conclude that everything on your team is going well simply because you haven’t witnessed any screaming matches. Instead, you need to keep your finger on the pulse of your team by frequently checking in with them.
“To my mind, this is about fostering emotional intelligence and not just paying attention to the nuts and bolts of the project,” explains Madsen. “Whenever you have team meetings, spend a few minutes socializing and finding out how everybody is doing. Actively make sure that everyone feels safe to voice their ideas and concerns without being dismissed.”
In addition, Madsen suggests that project managers should also explore different questions with the entire team, including:
- How good are we at working together?
- What are our ground rules?
- How can we improve the way we communicate and make decisions?
An easy way to do this that isn't forced or uncomfortable is by kicking off each project team meeting with a brief temperature check. Keep it casual and allow everybody a chance to chime in and offer their thoughts.
"You can obtain a lot of information about a person by asking a few simple, open-ended questions and listening carefully to the answers," says writer and performance management trainer, Marcus Buckingham, in an article for Harvard Business Review.
5. Frame Differences Positively
Mindsets are an undeniably powerful thing. In fact, in a study of pre-med students conducted by a Stanford University Professor of Psychology, Dr. Carol Dweck, it was discovered that students who had a limited, “This is as good as it gets” mindset received lower marks than those who thought, “There’s room for improvement here”— also known as a growth mindset.
With mindsets being so powerful, you should make a concerted effort to frame the differences on your team in a positive light.
Instead of saying, “Jimmy can’t handle the spreadsheets, because he’s not so great at Excel,” say instead, “Since Jimmy is so creative, I think he should handle the design of the graphs we’re going to include.”
It’s a seemingly small change, but it can make a major difference in the overall attitude and outlook of your entire team.
6. Lead By Example
There’s nothing worse than someone who leads with a, “Do as I say, not as I do” mentality. Needless to say, that’s not a mold you want to fill.
Beyond demonstrating appropriate behavior on your project team, the way that you treat others can have a significant impact on the overall morale and productivity of your other members. Gallup research discovered that the behavior of managers directly accounts for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores.
If you clearly demonstrate that you're engaged, communicative, and supportive as a manager, other members of your team will mimic that behavior—and thus be more engaged and productive themselves.
“Remember, great leaders treat team members the way they want to be treated, even when they are different,” says Peter Barron Stark in his post about managing different employee personalities.
Managing Conflict on a Project Team
Even the most successful project managers know that, despite their best efforts, conflicts will arise on a project. As a matter of fact, according to a CPP Global report, personality clashes are cited as the number one cause of conflict in the workplace, accounting for a reported 49% of all professional conflicts.
“Remember that conflict isn’t always bad,” concludes Madsen. “It’s necessary in order to produce the best working conditions and use everyone’s strengths. What’s important is how you deal with conflict. The project manager needs to encourage people to come forward with their different views so that the team can respectfully look at the pros and cons of each option and agree on how to move forward.”
There’s no denying that successfully managing all of the different roles, personalities, and working styles that come into play on a project team can be a challenge. But, that doesn’t mean resigning yourself to a totally homogenous team or dealing with endless conflicts.
As a project manager, you must strive to understand your team, frequently check in on progress and temperature, and frame your team members' differences in a positive and respectful light. Check those boxes, and you’ll have a successful, productive, and diverse team—no crying, hair pulling, or screaming required.
Kat Boogaard (@kat_boogaard) is a Midwest-based writer, covering topics related to careers, self-development, and the freelance life. She is a columnist for Inc., writes for The Muse, is Career Editor for The Everygirl, and a contributor all over the web.