You’re likely embarking on your journey as a project manager, and you’re probably aware that your success hinges largely on one thing: your team.
Project managers are in a unique position. You’ve likely found yourself in this position because you were strong in a technical aspect of your industry. Suddenly, you’re managing not just a project (balancing cost, schedule, quality, and other considerations to deliver a product in a limited amount of time), but a team of people.
Managing technical requirements of projects is part of the job, but the real art and challenges lie in managing people. Technical aspects can be standardized. Processes can be automated. But people are emotional, unpredictable, and everyone has their own aspirations and desires.
Today, we’re going to discuss how to build and operate effective project teams. I read a lot of books, and I recently finished the very insightful book “The Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle. The concepts in this book will guide our discussion today. Definitely check out the book if you get the chance. You can find it on Amazon or wherever you buy your books.
Let’s dive in and see how you can foster a vibrant and cohesive team culture, even when you’re handed a team, rather than choosing it yourself.
First and foremost, let’s talk about building safety. The idea of physical safety is critical in construction, but emotional and psychological safety are departures from the traditional toughness narrative that’s often present in construction and industry.
In today’s culture, there’s a lot of rhetoric about the idea of “safe spaces”. The idea is used as a pejorative where people should be shielded from ideas they disagree with. But, this is not what we’re talking about here.
In this context of building culture, “safety” is about creating an environment where team members feel free to express their thoughts, take calculated risks, and make mistakes without fear of reprisal. If you’ve ever worked with someone who ridicules all ideas but their own, or a manager who insists that you “correct” a report to sound more favorable, you’ve worked in an environment that didn’t value safety.
safety produces better work
The power of building safety lies in its ability to foster trust and a sense of belonging within a team. Teams thrive on collaboration and the value of work produced together. Safety allows people to step outside their comfort zones, contribute ideas, and admit when they don’t know something without facing retaliation. The construction industry, among others, has often viewed strength as the unwillingness to show any weakness, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
According to Coyle, a strong culture is not built on an ethos of invincibility, but rather on an ethos of humility, mutual respect, and trust. It’s about being able to say, “I need help,” without fear of judgement or punishment, and knowing that your team has your back. This culture of psychological safety has been shown to significantly increase a team’s capacity for innovation, problem-solving, and productivity.
Now, this brings us to our next point – sharing vulnerability. You might be wondering, “How can showing vulnerability possibly help in a project management setting?” But it’s not about divulging your deepest secrets.
Sharing vulnerability in the context of a team is about demonstrating that it’s okay to make mistakes, ask for help, and admit when you don’t know something. It’s about leaders setting the precedent: if you’ve made a mistake or faced a challenge in the past, sharing this experience with your team can actually strengthen your working relationships.
This is even more crucial for industries like construction, where admitting mistakes or areas of uncertainty has historically been seen as a sign of weakness. In reality, it shows strength and integrity.
You probably know how it feels to listen to someone tell story after story about their personal accomplishments without ever admitting their faults.
When leaders share their vulnerabilities, it paves the way for others to do the same, creating an environment where everyone is learning, growing, and contributing to their fullest potential. So, sharing vulnerability isn’t about being weak, it’s about being human and fostering a culture of trust and collaboration.
When I took my first job after finishing my engineering degree, it was for a construction company building wind farms. I knew nothing about high voltage electrical, wind turbines, or even general construction principles. Engineering school focuses heavily on the built condition, and not on the construction process. So, I was coming in completely green.
I had a manager who was quite new (where you likely are now) who, despite what I can only assume were his best intentions, didn’t have the management thing figured out. I heard very little about his past experiences. He’d constantly check in on me to make sure my work was getting done (micromanagement, anyone?).
I didn’t know much about construction, so I made a ton of mistakes. The team was small and my boss was always swamped with his own work. I could see his frustration any time I brought poor quality work to him, but I was afraid to ask him questions, since interruptions were just as annoying to him.
My biggest insecurity when working my first job was the feeling that everyone else was just “getting it”. My manager was only 5 years older than me but he already knew so much. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this. Maybe it wasn’t for me. Surely these guys never made mistakes like this.
One Story is All It Takes
Then one day, a few guys from my team were grabbing drinks after work and invited me to come along. They’d all worked on a previous project together, and they laughed and reminisced about the struggles of their project together. My manager was mostly silent, though he’d add the occasional detail.
Near the end of the night, he jumped in to tell a story of a colossal mistake he’d made when he first started. His mistake was at a time in his career where he lacked the experience or authority to correct it himself, and his superintendent and project manager had to step in. I don’t even recall the exact details of the story. All I remember was that, for the first time, I saw him has a self-aware, flawed human being. He could make mistakes and move past them.
vulnerability is motivating
It would be easy to say this was a case of schadenfreude (deriving joy from another’s suffering). But, there was nothing negative about my experience with his story. I didn’t think less of him and I wasn’t happy to hear he’d messed up. But instead, I was happy to see him as a vulnerable person. Project management felt a reasonable goal and I could see my own career trajectory through his. I was currently making mistakes, and I was still learning, but in five years, I could be in his shoes.
I don’t think he ever told me another story about his mistakes but it only took the one. If I had to think about it, I’m sure I’d discover that most of the managers I’ve respected the most were the ones who were honest about their past failures and their shortcomings. Conversely, the managers I struggled most to work effectively for were those who hid their past behind their current station.
The final principle from “The Culture Code” is Establishing Purpose. This is about setting clear, shared goals and values that act as the ‘North Star’ guiding your team’s actions and decisions. It’s not enough to have individual goals; your team needs to understand the collective purpose, the ‘why’ behind what they’re doing. This understanding can be incredibly motivating and can unify a team in a way few other things can.
On almost all projects, its easy to get caught up in secondary goals. Individuals on a project will be concerned about their personal accomplishments and compensation. But the purpose for a project-based organization should always be about understanding and satisfying the goals of each project.
A shared sense of purpose doesn’t just come just from high-level project objectives. It’s also cultivated through shared norms and values – the ‘how we get things done around here’ part of the equation. This includes the way you communicate, the way you treat each other, and the way you handle successes and failures. It’s a set of unwritten rules that everyone understands and adheres to.
purpose leads to team cohesion
All projects will encounter difficulties. But, when project team-members trust each other, and clients trust their contractors, working through issues is a lot easier. Everyone is focused on solving the problem for the benefit of the project.
Some companies stop at defining a mission statement or project goals. As important as it can be to have these in place, mission statements and project goals are often intangible and universally applicable. Establishing purpose is about creating a cohesive narrative that links your team’s work to a larger story. When your team members understand not just what they’re doing, but also why they’re doing it, it can boost their motivation, engagement, and ultimately, the team’s overall performance.
Now that we’ve covered the three key principles of team culture from “The Culture Code,” it’s time to discuss how you can put these into practice. Building a strong team culture can be time consuming, but there are steps you can take to get started this week.
The first step is to cultivate an environment of psychological safety. You can start by encouraging open communication within your team, allowing for and even praising the admission of mistakes, and asking for input from everyone, regardless of their role or seniority level.
Employees are often wary of open communication if there’s been a history of retaliation for mistakes or critiques. Its your job as a manager to address negativity. Try publicly praising team-members who provide meaningful commentary on the project plan.
To foster vulnerability, try sharing a challenge or mistake you’ve faced in your own career and how you learned from it. This can make it easier for others to do the same. The goal here is to normalize learning and growth over time, rather than expecting perfection right off the bat. Address mistakes with a mindset of learning rather than blame. Punishing workers for admitting to mistakes does not decrease their prevalence, but it does encourage hiding mistakes or assigning blame.
Lastly, to establish a clear purpose, make sure to communicate the ‘why’ behind each project your team undertakes. Have a team discussion about the end user of this project. Involve the client, if you want. Craft a narrative around what you’re building and who it is meant to benefit.
Keep the team updated on how their work contributes to the broader objectives of the organization. This sense of shared purpose will act as a powerful motivator and guiding principle. Encourage workers to remind each other (and you) why you’re there. Praise those who keep you and the team on track.
Remember, studies have shown that a cohesive team of “average” performers often outperforms a group of “geniuses.” This isn’t a shortcut or a silver bullet, but it is a proven approach that can transform your team’s effectiveness and the results they deliver. As you step into your role as a project manager, consider the immense benefits of building safety, sharing vulnerability, and establishing purpose within your team. You might just find that it’s the game-changer you’ve been looking for.
As you navigate your journey in project management, remember that your team is your greatest asset. The principles from “The Culture Code” – building safety, sharing vulnerability, and establishing purpose – aren’t just theories on paper, but practical, impactful, and proven strategies that can drastically enhance your team’s performance and job satisfaction. The traditional notions of invincibility and stoicism in industries like construction are giving way to a more nuanced understanding of team dynamics, one that embraces openness, trust, and mutual growth.
Stepping into a new leadership role, especially when you’ve been handed a team, can be a daunting task. However, by fostering a culture that prioritizes psychological safety, encourages the sharing of vulnerability, and is guided by a clear shared purpose, you’re laying the foundation for a highly effective, cohesive, and resilient team. You won’t always have control over who is on your team, but successful projects don’t require a brain trust of Ivey League educated individuals; a team of committed individuals who trust each other, learn from each other, and strive towards a shared goal will outperform every time.
Embracing these principles might require a shift from the traditional mindset, but the potential rewards are immense. So, as you move forward in your role, challenge yourself to put these principles into practice and witness the transformation they bring to your team and your projects. The success of your project management journey lies not just in the technicalities of the task but in the culture of the team that undertakes it.
For more details on establishing a culture built around psychological safety, vulnerability, and shared purpose, pick up “The Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle.
Until next time.