Project Action Principle #4: Eliminate Teaming Threats, Ruthlessly

Following on from the article outlining my five Project Management Principles, this article expands the fourth Principle:

Project Action Principle #4: Eliminate Teaming Threats, Ruthlessly

Project Action Principle #4: Eliminate Teaming Threats, Ruthlessly

Allow the first three principles to provide the environment for self-teaming to naturally occur, instead of forcing popularised team-building processes or activities.  Invest your time to identify and eliminate teaming threats that would negatively impact the self-creation of the team.

Also see “Additional Resources” at the end of this article for detailed strategies and techniques.

Why don’t we have better teaming?

I believe that people innately want to do useful and meaningful work. This was researched by Daniel Pink in his book “Drive”.

I also believe that people generally want to be proud of their work, and this requires taking on a level of responsibility and accountability for the work.   How can we take pride in something unless we are accountable for it?

And teaming is natural and extensive research tells us that people naturally seek out teaming behaviours.

“Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”  Vincent “Vince” Lombardi (1913-1970), Athletic Coach

For teaming not to be occurring in a project environment means something or someone is preventing it.  I believe that one of the biggest mistakes managers make (after not being sensitive to this issue) is trying too hard to make the team concept happen. This is not surprising as there are volumes of literature advising on teamwork. But it’s rare that books or courses recommend doing nothing: what’s the point of that? In order to justify their existence, most advice is about “doing things” to create a team.

A project is a different structure to a normal operational team; hence, there are factors in projects that make it easier and harder to create the team.

First, the application of the first three project management principles will improve teaming. Probably the best possible foundation for teaming is a group of people demonstrating aligned thinking, organised around a useful goal, and achieving outcomes quickly, even if there are problems.

Second, assuming we have the right foundation, don’t stop doing things to create the team, focus on the things that block the teaming process. When we see people not teaming well, we need to identify and deal with the threats or blockers to the teaming process.

Be ruthless, but do not be insensitive

Once we have identified the anti-teaming factors, we need to be ruthless in our efforts to eliminate them.

By “ruthless”, I mean that we should not hold back by concerns other than the success of the project.   We should not be deterred by factors such as managerial hierarchy, risks or actual impacts to a person’s professional career or reputation, or the fear that you won’t be “liked”.  These are concerns for other people (their line managers, HR departments, your managers and so forth).

But this doesn’t mean that the above concerns should be ignored because they are concerning you for probably good reasons.  We should never do anything that may impact a person’s sense of security or job without due care, and sensitivity and total compliance with company policies.

What I am suggesting is to use, promote, and instil the first three principles as the first approach, instead of resorting to extremely measures right away.

The more sensitive the action means the more help you will need to enlist, the more creative you need to be, and the more determined you will have to be to overcome and fix these blockers.

Teaming threats

There are many possible threats to positive teaming behaviour and it is critical that a project manager identifies and acts on these threats immediately and ruthlessly. Or the consequences could be irreparable damage and doom the project to failure.

I see three major types of threats to focus on.

Management threats

Look in the mirror! You could be the first threat! If your teams are not motivated or not doing the things that you expect, the most likely cause is yourself.

“There are no bad regiments; there are only bad colonels”– Napoléon Bonaparte

Some managers forget that the best way for people to behave in the way that is expected is to ask them to do it or set examples. And many managers don’t take the obvious step of telling their teams what’s expected of them, or provide the right indicators of acceptable or unacceptable behaviour.

While other managers are unable or unwilling to delegate, or feel that they have to have a hand in every little aspect of their team’s function.

Senior management can also contribute by sending conflicting messages about objectives and implementation, which creates confusion and dissonance in the minds of project participants.

An example might be a senior executive who endorses a plan, insists on keeping to the plan and will not accept changes from stakeholder groups; but they then introduces enhancements or changes to the plan themselves.

Anti-social behaviours

Bullying, intimidation or prejudice isn’t only found in the school yard, they are very prevalent in projects and the workplace.  Possible bullying behaviour on the part of one of the key or senior members of the team that is preventing teaming to occur.

Most organisations have formal processes in place to deal with this type of behaviour. Larger organisations will have resources (such as training courses or specific personnel in the HR department) to deal with this.  Many countries have legislative frameworks to give extra strength to actions.  Most modern employment contracts will include this as basis for disciplinary action and employment termination.

But sadly, this kind of behaviour still exists in many organisations.

In the present time, anti-social behaviour is more subtle, such as a person exhibiting the behaviour without them know it is wrong. People on the receiving end may be too focused on their reactions to the behaviour to be able to objectively identify it as inappropriate. Plus, there is also a reluctance to raise this subtle behaviour into formal complaint circles, but this step must be taken if necessary.

A project manager must keep their awareness sharp and watchful to the reactions and subtle behaviours within the project environment. Because they must not hesitate to address this directly with the person committing the offense.

Project Asshole behaviours

These are more subtle anti-teaming behaviours that are small thoughts or deeds that generate frustration or mistrust.  I call these subtle behaviours “Project Asshole” behaviours, after the book by Robert Sutton called “the No Asshole Rule”.

These may be simple things like an insistence on processes that are shown to be broken, or not providing people with the right training, knowledge or skills to use a process. It could be always being late to meetings, with feedback on documents, or with code deliverables.

For example, in one of my past projects, one team member was always late to meetings, sometimes by more than 50% of the duration of the meeting; however, the individual always insisted on being brought up to speed on what had occurred in the meeting prior to their arrival. Because they were senior and fairly critical to the project, it was often the case of either repeating part of the meeting, or having an argument in front of the attendees.  Despite discussions with this person and their management, this behaviour continued.  Eventually I reframed the operating rhythm to reduce the need for meetings.

A project manager must be able to identify interactions between team members and/or members of other teams that are not always positive or considered frictionless.

For a team to reach the highest levels of performance, these “Project Asshole” behaviours must be removed.

It doesn’t take much to be a Project Asshole but it can have a big impact!

Removing teaming threats in your projects

Having identified the threats, how do we go about eliminating them? Below are the summarised points to removing teaming threats. More details can be found in the strategy and micro-technique articles in “Additional Resources” below.

Management threats

Your own threats

Just stop!

Other manager threats

You’ll have to negotiate these just like any others.

Anti-social behaviour threats

Trigger the well establish processes that deal with this, but keep in mind that most enterprises and managers are reluctant to trigger these processes.

Project Asshole threats

“Conflict resolution” techniques

Use standard conflict resolution methods

Reframing the environment

If behaviour is taking place in a limited number of interactions, you have the option of changing the operational structure of the project to reduce or even eliminate this interaction.

The project charter

A charter focused on expressing the required teaming principles could be a good idea.

Try the <link>“No Asshole Project Team Charter”</link>


You cannot manage the development and operation of self-managing teams.  You just create the environment that nurtures teams to come together naturally.

What the project manager should be focused on is identifying “anti-teaming” blockers and potentially minor issues, and deal with them all “ruthlessly”.

Additional Resources