Why every project manager needs behavioural flexibility - and how to get it

by Ally Yates / 12/18/2017 11:48:04 AM

As a Project Manager you’ve no doubt read a lot about leadership; you can be an ‘Authentic Leader’, a ‘Facilitative Leader’ or an ‘Agile Leader’, to select words from just three of the recently published leadership titles.

Surfing through the pages of Amazon or browsing the shelves of your local bookshop, you’ll find a dozen more. But these descriptions fast risk becoming clichés. Some may have currency, others do not. What is true, however, is that there is no one, indisputable, formula for effective leadership.

But there is one aspect that is common across many of the contemporary leadership theories; successful leadership is built upon four practices. These are:

  1. Establishing a clear vision
  2. Sharing that vision with others, in a clear and compelling way
  3. Providing others with the resources to realise that vision
  4. Co-ordinating, the sometimes conflicting, interests of all stakeholders

A fifth characteristic, that’s often overlooked, is the need for leaders to be able to flex their style, dependent on the situation. A project running late and with its back against the wall, requires a different style to one which is enjoying a smooth ride, with just a few bumps in the road.

Adam, a senior manager in a utilities business, described a situation where his manager failed to adapt her leadership style. They had to deliver on a 12-week programme and were five weeks behind schedule. Adam told me: “She’s great at recognising where the problems exist, but she’s not driving the accountability for getting them fixed.”

His boss’s high-level view wasn’t enough. At this project-critical stage, she needed to grasp more of the detail – both of the project and of the dynamics in her senior team. She was missing at least three of the five leadership practices and wasn’t adapting her style to the changing circumstances.

As people move into leadership positions and up into senior management, as they take on bigger and tougher projects to manage, so they need to develop a wider set of skills. With each leadership transition comes a parallel shift in self-concept, for example, from an individual contributor to a team leader, or from a functional project manager to an enterprise-wide leader.

To be a truly outstanding leader you need a variety of capabilities; persuasion and influence; networking; negotiation; team leadership; team working; cultural sensitivity; valuing difference; coaching; performance management and development; assessment; coaching; conflict management; assertiveness; strategic thinking; resource allocation; presentation skills and humility. Quite a demanding list.

The higher you rise in the organisation, the bigger the team you manage, the more of these skills are required. The distinctive leaders set themselves apart, not by adherence to a particular leadership creed, but by the way they behave. The wider their behavioural repertoire, the more leadership capabilities they embrace, the more effective their leadership.

The good news about behaviour is that it’s within your gift to change it. Unlike personality, which is more or less hard-wired into your DNA, behaviour – here defined as what you say and do -  can be shaped, altered or radically redefined. Most of the time you have control over your behaviour and can exercise choice about how you behave. Furthermore, behaviour breeds behaviour, and so what you say and do shapes the responses you get from others.

Back in the 1970s a band of curious psychologists started to investigate the behaviours that differentiated skilled performers from average or poor performers in a range of business interactions. Their studies resulted in behavioural success models for a range of interactions, most of which are included in the leadership Bingo! list. Since then, a group of enthusiastic businesses and individuals, has continued to test and amend these behavioural paradigms. Their work has enabled leaders to master the skills of, for example, influencing and persuasion, by learning the six skills underpinning the two most common persuasion styles: Push and Pull.

Each style is behaviourally distinctive and each is appropriate for different situations. The Push style goes like this:

  1. I have an idea or opinion that I share with you
  2. I tell you the reasons why it’s a good idea and/or why I’m correct
  3. You agree and you move your position.

Behaviourally speaking, Push style is characterised by three specific verbal behaviours:

Proposing Content (suggesting an idea); Giving Information (providing the rationale); and Shutting Out (talking across others). The solution comes from the influencer and it’s the influencer who does most of the talking.

Push style persuasion is the most commonly used. It works well in conditions where the influencer has positional authority, as is the case with senior leaders. It’s also useful in an emergency, or where time is of the essence. As a project deadline is looming, for example, and the PM needs to galvanise the team, Push can be very effective.   And yet it’s only effective around half the time. Sometimes this is because you may be an apologetic or aggressive pusher. Another weakness is being a misjudged Pusher, where you reveal your solution early. In so doing, you under-estimate the strength of resistance you will encounter.

Take Jason for example – a middle manager in a multinational business. He needed to create a new direction for his team. In doing so, he articulated a clear, coherent plan and instructed each of his team as to who would do what, and by when. For him, the logic was clear, the detail was exemplary and he was in charge, so the team was bound to agree. Push style was a no-brainer. However, Jason had overlooked a fundamental question: How important was it that he gain everyone’s commitment to the plan? If engagement is essential, then a Pull style is much more likely to work.

Pullers use three behaviours in particular: Seeking Proposals (e.g. How should we best do this?) Seeking Information (e.g. Who has the relevant experience?) and the rare but highly prized skill of Building – extending or developing a proposal made by another person. Building is used much less frequently than is warranted. This is usually because the persuader is much more interested in his own ideas and fails to harness the suggestions of others. If Jason had focused on engaging his team, he would have used a Pull style, rather like this:

  1. Jason asks the team for their ideas
  2. They offer some options
  3. Jason then asks questions to explore their suggestions
  4. Jason builds on their suggestions
  5. Together, Jason and the team agree a way forward.

In this way, the level of commitment of the team increases in line with their engagement.

Pull style can also be effective in fostering collaboration and in coaching others to use their resources. This is critical to successful project management, both within the team, and influencing people in the wider business over whom you have no direct authority.

Pull might take a little longer but the rewards outweigh the costs. For example, in a recent performance appraisal discussion, Sara wanted to convince Ben of the need to work on his presentation skills. If she had defaulted to a Push style she would have told Ben what she wanted and why. Instead, using a Pull style she was able to get a better understanding of why Ben’s presentation skills weren’t where they needed to be – the underlying need, not the presenting issue. They explored various options for addressing the shortfall and Ben was committed to the outcome. The effort was worth the gain.

The starting point for developing behavioural flexibility is to understand and practice what are known as “General Interaction Skills”. This is a collection of 13 verbal behaviours identified from research into effective team and group work.

Given that most projects fail because of the human issues, developing these interactive skills is essential. As a result, PMs are better able to manage meetings, develop solutions, work collaboratively, positively impact the climate, lead with questions, ensure shared clarity and manage participation from across the group.

The 13-category model is the basic building block for behavioural flexibility. Developing behavioural flexibility is not just about knowing what to do and exercising those behaviours skilfully.  It’s also about knowing what not to do and avoiding potentially costly mistakes.

When asked how he learned to be a leader, Antoine de Saint Affrique, the CEO of the world’s leading cocoa and chocolate manufacturer, Barry Callebaut, replied: "I made sure I learned not only from the great leaders I was lucky to work for, but also from the less good ones. From them, I’ve tried to learn what not to do."

The humility required to reflect on your own and others’ behaviour as a leader and to then change and flex as required is the single most important element that a successful leader should never be without. 


Ally Yates is author of ‘Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business’ and an expert on Behaviour Analysis and the interactions that define us. She combines a deep understanding of people and how to achieve results, based on her many years’ experience working with large corporate clients around the world.

Since 2000 Ally has been working as an independent consultant, facilitator, trainer and coach. She has collaborated with international business schools and has received national and international training awards.

Ally’s approach is grounded in a sound understanding of theory, trends and practice in learning and development, business development and leadership development. Clients value her insights, pragmatism and influence.

She is passionate about family, rugby union, travel and learning.

Web: www.allyyates.com

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ally-yates/

Twitter: Twitter.com/Allyyates_UC

Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Utter-Confidence-influences-effectiveness-business/dp/1784520985/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8


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