Project Managers Should Value Honesty Over Loyalty in Team Members

It’s about results, not lip service

May 17, 2017 | Helen S. Cooke

There has been a lot of talk in the news lately — especially in the political arena — about picking leaders based on loyalty. It seems that sometimes, loyalty even takes the lead over ability and expertise. But then, that’s politics. What we’re concerned about here is business.

Project managers don’t often think about the trade-offs between loyalty and morality when selecting team members, yet it’s an important distinction. In this context, “morality” can refer to a team member’s level of honesty, trustworthiness, proven ability, and integrity. Oftentimes, choosing between loyalty and morality can mean the difference between success and failure on a given project.

In the world of project management, selecting reliable, competent team members is especially important because projects are short-term yet complex. Project teams function differently than, say, operations personnel. Project teams shift and change with every new project. Individuals from varied work environments and even different occupations are shoulder-to-shoulder in getting something done — often something that is quite unlike what has been done before. Part of a project manager’s job is to provide leadership and guidance on which tasks take precedence. Without that guidance, team members are likely to transfer behaviors and priorities from their prior job assignment to the project itself, and the dissonance can be disruptive to team results.

In this fast-paced, results-oriented environment of project management, knowing where the project currently stands, and what must be done next, is critical. It’s not surprising that in a major study of what is most important to a project manager’s success, senior executives clearly spotlighted “honesty” as a vital attribute in members of the team. Better to have bad news clearly communicated than flattering news that can distract the team from its hard, often time-sensitive, decisions. Honesty — diplomatically conveyed, of course — takes the ambiguity out of the process. Once team members understand what they must achieve and how it will be evaluated, each can then work independently toward the ultimate conclusion of the project’s work.

During this process, the project manager fulfills many roles: projecting work efforts into the future; gauging whether budget and timelines are reasonable and achievable; spotting potential problem areas before they materialize; replacing and renegotiating work roles and sponsor agreements. Team members must be trusted to carry out their assignments in a way that hands off finished products at key points so the team can proceed with the next phase of work. Practical results count. Quality counts. Integrity counts. Loyalty really doesn’t come into play as an important attribute for a project’s team.

Loyalty to the team’s leader is nice, sure, but when it’s not coupled with integrity and real know-how, then what’s the point? Loyalty implies “you will have my back whether I am right or wrong.” The rules of a project are the opposite: Speak truth to power. Point out if there are inconsistencies or emerging problems that the project manager needs to address. Put quality results that meet customer needs ahead of ego or personality, or relationship if need be. The focus of a project is on “morality,” not loyalty. If the right decisions get made for the right reasons, and if the core of team behavior is on doing right by the client, then relationships can always be smoothed over or mended after the project crisis is behind us.

In other words, character counts. Define solid values for your team. Enforce them.

Imagine what might happen if your “right-hand man” provided alternate facts instead of the truth? Or flattered your ego rather than providing an accurate assessment? It would become difficult to identify the errors that will trip up your team. It would become impossible to unravel the tangled cords of cause-and-effect that allow you to change direction when needed. As a project manager, if you don’t know the truth of a situation, how can you explain the reasons for a needed budgetary change to skeptical sponsors? The truth is, any team lead or project manager who is so fragile as to need loyalty from their team needs to go back to boot camp.

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  • About The Author
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  • Helen S. Cooke is a 20-year project management veteran with experience in Fortune 500 companies, universities, the service industry, manufacturing, government, military and defense. She is a PMP® and a PMI® Fellow, and an experienced management consultant. She has worked on five continents and was elected a Fellow of the Project Management Institute in 2005. Helen was a PMI officer and served six years on PMI’s Global Board of Directors.

    Helen led a profit and loss practice at Deloitte for 10 years, was a mid-level manager in the federal government, and was a university administrator. She headed the Project Management Center of Excellence at McDonald’s Corporation and implemented SEICMM Level 2/3 and a PMO at United Airlines. She has taught project management systems at the graduate level at Keller Graduate School and a PMO course at DePaul University in Chicago. She is the author of several books about project management and organizational project management maturity.