Nine Destructive Project Manager Behaviours: Part 9 of 9

Nine Destructive Project Manager Behaviours: Part 9 of 9

And after almost three weeks, we finally come to the end of my series on destructive project manager behaviours. I hope you’ve enjoyed the series as much as I have. This has been by no means an exhaustive list. There are dozens of other behaviours we could evaluate, and if enough of you submit your ideas in the comments section, I may revive this topic and do another series crediting the behaviours you’d like to talk about.

Chime in below! Have you identified with this series at all? Recognized your own behaviour in places, or that of others you’ve worked with? Have you found this series constructive in terms of offering points for introspection? Or do you feel behaviour analysis really has no place in the realm of project management?

While you’re thinking about that, I give you the final chapter in the series…

Bad Behaviours: The Reluctant Puppet

Image courtesy of law_keven on Flickr.

9. The Reluctant Puppet.

Here we come to, what I believe, is the single most destructive behaviour any project manager can demonstrate. The Reluctant Puppet is a project manager who wants to run a project the way he or she knows how, but who allows well-meaning stakeholders, sponsors or their own management to railroad them into a different approach.

On the surface, this behaviour sounds fairly benign. Everyone’s well meaning, and everybody wants to get along. It seems very easy to give in once for the sake of keeping the waters smooth, but the problem is, it’s never once. Once the precedent is set, the behaviour becomes expected.


Reluctant Puppets sit on a vicious cycle of micromanagement and erosion. Every time they allow themselves to be steered out of familiar waters, they have to do a lot more work to be able to stay afloat. This causes the puppeteers to become irritated with the resulting lower performance, and start micromanaging. The puppet’s confidence starts to slip away, which causes the puppeteers start to lose respect for him or her, micromanaging even more intensely.

There is no happy ending to this cycle. The stakeholders, sponsors and management will become too exasperated with someone they will come to see as utterly incompetent. The project manager will come to question his or her own capabilities, leading to employment risk, and possibly some serious mental health issues. The project team will be directionless, and the project will either stall or have to undergo a massive makeover to enable it to continue.

Destruct-O-Meter Level 6: CatastrophicPrevention:

It may not seem like it, but the project manager is the only person who can prevent this from happening.

During the selection process, for whatever reason, the powers-that-be chose the project manager for the job. It’s possible the project manager misrepresented him or herself (that’s the first level of responsibility). But assuming the PM was genuine, he or she was selected based on the information available to the decision-makers.

Once the work starts, management will get to know the PM and will start to form better opinions. Maybe they don’t like the PMs methods or style now that they’ve seen them. Maybe they find they don’t even like the PM as a person. Their temptation to steer the project to a more familiar or comfortable direction will grow based on the amount of discomfort they feel. That’s their problem: the PM needs to remember that. There is no law that says a PM has to be universally liked to be effective. But the PM does need to stick to their comfort zone. With the massive quantities of unknown present on any project, the PM can’t afford to throw away the one thing he or she does know.

If flustered and nervous managers or stakeholders insist on pulling the PM away from their methods, the PM needs to sit down with them and be clear: “You’ve hired me to do a job, and I’m doing it the way I know how. If I step outside of my comfort zone to please you, the project will suffer. So we need to make a few decisions on how to get past this.”

That may mean the PM needs to walk away from the project. If that’s the right thing to do, my friend, I’m afraid that’s what needs to happen. But the vicious downward spiral that is the alternative will never get a chance to develop. At least not with you.

While it takes longer term thinking, the puppeteers will likely railroad someone else, and wind up with a struggling project. That PM will probably have to leave, so who do you think the puppeteers will come back to when they realize the prediction you gave them before you walked away came to pass?

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.
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  • steelray

    When I think of project managers like this that I know, I picture myself with your profile pic. Practically screaming in frustration! But they're so NICE – how can you get angry with them??? Aaarrgghhh! A PM has GOT TO HAVE BACKBONE! I know of one who plays the puppet occasionally and I tell him to push back. Push back, push back, push back. Keeping pushing back until you get the point across. It seems fairly common-sense to me that puppets get picked because they're puppets! Right?

  • Truer words were never spoken, Laura! Backbone is so crucial! I personally run into this problem very often as a freelancer now…when I was with my banks I never hesitated to speak my mind, dig my heels in or just plain say “no”. After having worked for a vendor, and now on my own, the playing field is a little different–stakeholders don't respond as well knowing that they can instantly replace you–that's where a lot of PMs I know run into problems, and I'd be lying if I said I never let it happen on my watch before.

    Rather than caving in though, I've learned to stop everything, come to the table and talk frankly. And while it's very, very scary sometimes, I will absolutely take my hands right off the project if my clients insist on continuing down a path I know will hurt them, despite my best efforts to convince them otherwise.

    I think, from a freelance / vendor perspective, the key piece that makes the difference is, if your stakeholders drive themselves straight through the fog into a brick wall, rather than pointing the finger and going “see? see? didn't I say so?”……you just quietly help them pick up the pieces and support them.

  • steelray

    I don't get this from the consultant angle – I see it happening in the corporate environment where these are consistent staff.

    Mostly, I see it where they're title is PM but they don't have any training, certification, etc. The problem is, these companies are in desperate need of profit.
    They could produce what's being asked of them, but it would cost more than what profit they would make. They rarely walk away. So a PM who really isn't a PM is responsible for the outcome. That's a lot of pressure, even more so in this economy.

    I hear what you're saying though. Proper push-back doesn't have to be harsh or aggressive. The advice I've given? When your stakeholders are IMPOSSIBLE – as in, making the same mistake over and over, my suggestion is to document everything. I mean everything. So next time, you can look at your lessons learned and go, “Hey, I love this idea. But we went this route last time and hit some serious snags. Here's what happened and here's what I think we can do to salvage this current project. It won't be exactly what they want. So let's go back to the drawing board before we make any more promises. Over time we can add component such and such and I think the customer would be really happy.”

  • As a freelancer I'm seeing more and more of the “Accidental PM” like you describe. I seem to be moving more into the coaching space with these guys. To be able to do what we're talking about above takes experience. Nobody comes out of the box understanding the consequences of trying to please everybody…and it's natural to want to do so.

    It's quite a vicious cycle: company doesn't want to spend more money on a seasoned PM, so the PM they select will be weaker, but cost less. Weaker means, not seeing as far down the road, not realizing the consequences of bad decisions until they're too late, or until it will cost a lot of money and time to undo. So the savings realized go back out the window.

    Combine that with the optimism that every project starts off with…it's a recipe for trouble. “Oh, we don't need to pay for that it'll totally be better this time. /facepalm

    I like your ideas about documenting, especially when it's a stakeholder who's making the same mistakes over and over. Those very stakeholders I've seen to be somewhat “revisionist” when it comes to the facts later on! hehehehe

  • derekhuether

    Wow, you couldn't have done a better job of describing the reluctant puppet! I knew and worked with that puppet a few years ago. I was expecting you to list him by name. It was as though you were a fly on the wall. It is a sad reality but very true that if the PM becomes Pinocchio, he or she needs to leave the project. Having a PM who does nothing but try to placate the puppeteers, rather than focusing on leading the team and managing the project, is both unhelpful and counterproductive.

    I'm going to now go back and reread your entire series. Would you consider publishing the collective work as an ebook?

    Best Regards,

  • That is a great suggestion, Derek! I absolutely might just do that! Thanks for the idea! I shall dedicate the book to for a whole bunch of great inspiration! 😀

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  • Swild

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this series 9 Destructive Project Manager Behaviours. Well written and entertaining. I appreciate being reminded of such quirks so as to always be on my guard against falling into these behaviours.

  • What a fabulous endorsement, Swild, thank you so much!! I'm thrilled you enjoyed the series!! 🙂