As organizations try to do more with less, their people are really struggling. 

Project managers in particular are often caught between a rock and a hard place — with lots of responsibility for project outcomes, but little control over timelines, priorities, and their colleagues.

That difficulty filters down to many different areas of their work life. When I ask my project manager students about their biggest challenges, they say things like this:

  • Gaining the respect from staff as being a leader and a go to person
  • Undefined goals for a project
  • Unclear roles and responsibilities
  • Time and task management 
  • Working with difficult or upset clients
  • Not enough resources on my team
  • There are times when it is hard for me to find my voice
  • The multitude of projects and not having a clear framework for managing these
  • I often have responsibility without authority
  • Competing with other projects and priorities of team members 
  • Persuading other busy individuals to follow through on critical aspects of a project

Do any of those sound familiar?

Those are significant challenges — but they CAN be addressed.  It all starts with two mindset shifts.

Mindset Shift #1: Embrace Accountability

As a project manager, there are lots of things that are out of your hands.

But that doesn’t mean that you don’t wield any influence. 

When decisions are made without your input or issues arise that can derail your project, it’s tempting to throw up your arms and react emotionally.

But no matter whether that reaction is anger, frustration, or resignation, it’s not serving you well.

Instead, take a deep breath and get curious.  Ask questions, try to understand the bigger picture, build bridges with decision-makers, and look for ways that you can help create a better outcome for the whole organization.

It’s easy to get stuck in black-and-white thinking where you believe something is either under your control or not.  But there’s actually a lot more grey area than that.

What if you held yourself accountable for being fully proactive? What if you consistently sought ways to influence decisions, share your insight, and respond gracefully to pressure — in ways that prioritize the success of the team, the project, and the organization?  

Expanding the range of what you hold yourself accountable for empowers you to seek new solutions and take action in situations where you might otherwise hang back.

Not only does that feel better for you, but it will positively impact the working environment for your entire team.

Mindset Shift #2: Be a Leader, Not a Manager 

I often hear managers say that they have no leverage to hold people accountable.

And if you are leading a cross-functional team and do not have direct control over the priorities of team members who report to other managers, it’s true — accountability can be a real challenge. 

But I think we need to reframe that.  If we have a clear vision and purpose, and team members can see how their work directly aligns with the project goals and organizational goals, then they become invested in the team’s success.

If the team is invested, then they will hold themselves accountable.

Your job is to create an environment that fosters that accountability. In other words, you’ll need to be a leader, not a manager. 

Expand Your Locus of Control

Given how much is outside the control of the project manager, challenging situations will always arise. But if you believe that you’re a victim of those challenges, you’re overlooking the power of your mindset. 

When you believe that you can exert influence over your situation, then you can and will.

In contrast, if you believe yourself to be powerless, then you won’t take the actions that might improve your situation. That creates frustration and resentment and makes you an all-around less effective project manager.

Instead, step into your own influence, embrace the power you do have, and be an active participant in seeking solutions.

You’ll be surprised at how many of these challenges become manageable.

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