Nine Destructive Project Manager Behaviours: Part 3 of 9

Nine Destructive Project Manager Behaviours: Part 3 of 9

This is the third instalment of my series on destructive project manager behaviours. So far, we’ve talked about abdicating responsibility (the Sack), and failing to maintain momentum (the Magpie). Both of these behaviours hurt the projects the project manager is meant to control. Sacks, under the guise of “delegation”, give away the one thing they can control, and leave it up to others to carry them. Magpies, using “multitasking” as an excuse, tend to abandon work that that needs their attention when they see something shiny.

When we get to the end of the series, I have a fancy summary I’m preparing that lines all these behaviours up for comparison, but until then, I bring you…

Bad Behaviours: The Deer Caught in Headlights

Image courtesy of jm999uk on Flickr.

3. The Deer in Headlights.

We’ve all been there. A boardroom full of people is talking amongst themselves and almost in unison swing their heads towards us looking for a decision. As we face down their hostile (in our minds) demands, we know we have to say something. For many of us, this very scenario is the basis for glossophobia, or fear of public speaking.

While glossophobia can be debilitating for some, it does no damage to a project. A speaker’s job is to communicate information, and any such needs a project has are transferable. What does cause damage is another phenomenon the above scenario can create: decision paralysis.

When presented with a situation that requires a decision, the Deer in Headlights (who I shall refer to as the “Deer” for the balance of this article) will do his or her absolute level best to defer the decision until some magical future time when he or she is prepared to make it.

You can immediately tell a Deer by excessive use of phrases, “When Do You Need to Know By” and “Can I Get Back to You on That”. Sometimes these phrases are appropriate. If the project manager needs vital information to make a decision, and that information is not present, the PM can’t choose without taking a big risk. If that information is present, however, using these phrases is merely a deferral tactic. The Deer has all the information required to make the decision; he or she just doesn’t want to.

So pathological is the Deer’s need to avoid decision, they may fabricate phantom reviewers who need to provide their input (reviewers who had never been mentioned before). They may even go so far to stall in the face of overwhelming expert advice by seeking out a lone dissenting opinion from a source with low credibility. Finding a dissenter means debate can continue and decision-making can be further delayed.


Destruct-O-Meter Level 5: SeriousI rated Deer as “Serious” on the destructiveness scale. The only reason I’m not rating them “Catastrophic” is because I’m reserving that for one particular type of behaviour that trumps all others. While Sacks may defer their decision making authority to someone else, at least those decisions are getting made. Deer, on the other hand, plunge a new nail into their projects’ coffin with every decision they try to duck.

Deer adversely affect every aspect of their projects. Decisions routinely need to be made around costs, schedule, change requests, scope, quality, human resources, risk, procurement, communications, and integration. These decisions aren’t one time events–they’re ongoing, and making them effectively is the fundamental force that drives a project forward. A PM needs to be strong in this area. An individual who cannot make a decision is not ready to manage a project.

This is a tremendous pity because while Deer can be criticized for so many things, they cannot be criticized for not caring. Deer care too much: that’s the problem. For the Deer, each decision means an ending.


In other articles in this series, I’ve tried to offer self-help suggestions project managers can seek to lessen the impacts of their destructive behaviour. Deer behaviour however, requires outside help and management intervention. The cost of Deer behaviour to a project is too great to allow it to slide by, and the cost to the PM directly when the dust finally settles can be substantial. The irony about this particular behaviour is, someone needs to take decisive action to save a project from a Deer’s indecision. If the Deer doesn’t take care of it, someone else will have to. That can have dire consequences for the Deer’s career.

Management intervention is a very touchy subject. So before steps are taken in that direction, the PM needs to recognize his or her own Deer behaviour for what it is, and then think very deeply about the following:

1) Do I behave like this because I’m not ready for this job
2) Do I behave like this because something else is wrong

A good checkpoint question for the foregoing is, “have I been an effective decision-maker before?”

If you find yourself exhibiting Deer behaviour, and you have previously been a high-performing project manager, I would advocate seeking medical help. I’ve been there (boy, have I LOL), which is why I’m so bold about saying this. An inability to make decisions can be symptomatic of non work-related, but serious mental health issues that we sometimes encounter in our lives. Mental health issues are no joke, but can be treated. Under the right care, decisiveness and high-performance can be fully restored.

Before you slough my advice off as nonsense, remember the consequences of not addressing your Deer behaviour: you will drive your project into the ground. It’s far better to seek medical help and find out that you just need a vacation to relax, than to do nothing, bury your project, severely damage your reputation, and find out that something far more serious is going on. While you’re thinking about that, I would advise reading Stacy Mosel’s excellent article on Indecision & Anxiety.

If you find yourself exhibiting Deer behaviour, and you have not been called on to be decisive before, then perhaps you’re just untested. And that’s okay! You don’t come out of the box having all the answers. Effective decision-making is a skill that takes time to develop, and some people will find an easier time of it than others. That being said, if your indecision is impairing your ability to function, you need to speak with your manager and ask for help before your project suffers unnecessarily.

In the table below, I’m including resources on asking for help, and resources on learning to make good decisions. If you’re already managing a project and exhibiting Deer behaviour, I’d encourage you to review these resources as a starting point to take action.

Resources on asking for help Resources on learning
decision making techniques

In many people, Deer behaviour can be a real hindrance to their jobs, but they can get by. For a project manager, however, Deer behaviour is a major, very serious warning sign that something is wrong.

Next up: The Hungry Vulture.

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I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.