Building the authority of the project leader – part 2

Grouchy, Weighty, Grouchy – these are popular characters from the Smurfs fairy tale. They are also surprisingly accurate descriptions of the most common roles in project meetings. The behaviours associated with these roles can have an invigorating or destructive effect on the meeting. Much depends on how the leader responds to them. Dealing with difficult behaviours during meetings is an important element in building a project leader’s authority.

Only some project managers seem to have the natural charm and ease to navigate the meandering relationships and unexpected behaviour of team members. Some project managers, however, need some time and practice to feel confident in such situations. And finally, there are those who take a long time to get used to distracting behaviour in meetings. If you are not happily in the first group, you will find it useful to have two tools to cope more effectively in meetings. The advantage here is that natural grace can fail spectacularly, and careful application of the tools actually has to help at least a little. Firstly, therefore, awareness, i.e. understanding the sources of participants’ difficult behaviour, is important. Secondly, thoughtful ways of responding should be used.

Where do difficult behaviours of group participants come from?

Most often there are two sources: one’s own past experiences and intrinsic motivations and the very fact of being in a group. The latter phenomenon was attempted to be explained by psychologist Bruce Tuckman1 in his theory on small group dynamics, i.e. groups of three to about 20 people. This fits perfectly with the situation of a new project team.

A team that is forming, with a goal to achieve, needs time to reach out and start working together effectively. This is a natural phenomenon that we all observe in everyday interpersonal relationships. Only the nature and intensity of this friction varies. This mechanism even applies to groups that partly know each other, but are joined by new people. In this case, the process can be faster. And lighter. The stages of group formation are as follows:

Forming phase

Participants get to know each other, try to find out what rules apply in the new environment, in other words look for answers to the question: What do I have to do? Who will I work with? What kind of person is the project manager? What expectations and standards does he or she have? This is a time when the participants in the meeting are more listening, observing than looking for contentious issues. This is a good time for the project manager to introduce himself/herself, the project assumptions and allow the team to get to know each other.

Conflict stage

This is the stage where some friction can occur, as participants begin to reveal their individual goals, express their opinions more openly, reveal their individual working styles and habits, and the roles they are most likely to play, displaying what are known as ‘ploys’, i.e. behaviours that may be perceived by others as difficult, confrontational. What the team needs is a firm and constructive response from the leader – in order to move on to effective work, rather than stopping to drone on about contentious issues.

The norming stage

This is the stage when the team has a sense of naming or negotiating rules, discusses openly and more calmly with each other. They can concentrate on the objective.


This is the stage when the project tasks are carried out and standard meetings are held to monitor the results.

Of course, the different phases may be more pronounced or less noticeable, they may vary in duration and intensity, and conflicts may appear with the cooperation phases like a sine wave throughout the project. An important note is that difficult situations are often a developmental element of the group and a constructive response by the project manager allows the team to communicate, without giving up individual goals (often unconscious!).

How to respond to difficulties?

One of the project manager’s tasks during meetings is to make sure that they run smoothly. The purpose of responding to difficult behaviour is not to show who has the power or to win an intellectual skirmish in the group. You can win the battle this way, but lose the war. The involvement of all team members is needed to realise the goal of the project. Nobody likes to be ridiculed in public. A person who feels attacked will tend to get defensive rather than listen to arguments. Moreover, he or she will subconsciously look for an opportunity to behave in accordance with one of the famous rules of social influence described by Robert Cialdini2 – the rule of reciprocity. Sooner or later, if she feels attacked – she will attack the project manager. And the point is not to ‘breed’ an enemy.

The aim of responding to difficult situations in meetings is to look for a formula that will help the manager to keep the debate flowing smoothly while keeping all team members engaged. What does he or she hear most often when communicating project assumptions? What behaviours does he define as difficult? What might be the individual sources of these behaviours?

Marauder vs. value-critic or “It can’t be done”.

One of the first ploys that most often surfaces in meetings can be categorised as “It can’t be done”. This manifests itself in phrases such as “With a budget like this you can…”, “The procedures don’t allow it” or “The Americans gave up on it a long time ago”. The range of comments can be as rich as the experience of the participants.

Where does this reaction come from? Well, there are at least two types of people in this group. Both tend to view everyday situations through the prism of ‘black glasses’, i.e. what can go wrong. One type is the classic Marauder – he starts torpedoing most likely because of such a habit or because he wants to wriggle out of participating in a project. The other type can be called the Value Critic. This is usually the person who uses his or her talent to point out the risks of a project – and is often right.

The manager’s role is to distinguish one type from the other and to redirect the energy of the ‘villain’ to a time when risks will be discussed.

So how to respond constructively? There are no golden rules here, there are guidelines. It is worth choosing a response that is not a corporate slogan, that the manager himself agrees with and that sounds natural in his mouth. Phrases like “If not us, then who”, “And that’s why we were chosen to do this project” – can sound artificial and build resistance rather than commitment.

To sound natural something we don’t know how to do needs to be tried, it needs to be tailored to us and rehearsed. That’s why it’s good to remember a few possible reactions in case surprising situations arise. Some possible techniques to use:

  • “And why can’t they?” (or “But why did they back off?”) – that is, the technique of concretising the allegations.

This question is designed to verify whether or not the objector is making substantive points. The sleaze often fails to identify a substantive reason and the discussion ends on its own. When substantive comments are heard, thank them and move them to the stage of the meeting where threats will be discussed. This allows the meeting to be guided by a set agenda rather than the prevailing energy of those in the room.

  • “What have we tried so far?”

This question seeks to verify that past actions exhaust the range of actions that can be done to solve the problem. Often it turns out that conditions have changed or that we have completely new ideas about a problem. The answer to this question can also give valuable advice on which path not to take.

  • “Who else in the company has a similar view? Let’s discuss this in a larger group. Does your manager share this view?”

This is already a strong response suggesting verification of the allegation among experts or potential intervention with the supervisor. It is a kind of ploy of last resort rather than the first weapon to reach for. In companies that promote slogans such as ‘Don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution’, few employees want to show up as a critic in front of their manager. This type of suggestion can also be seen as a kind of blackmail. On the other hand, if a participant in a meeting informs us that this someone is, for example, from the legal department, this is probably information that is worth checking and discussing legal considerations with experts.

The “I’ve got you” ploy

At meetings, there are people who tend to take on the role of attacking the authority of the leader. The way they speak – tone of voice, self-confidence – suggest a test of the project manager’s knowledge, which in corporate jargon is sometimes called a “challenge”.

It takes the form of taunts such as ‘And do you know what our specialists say about this’, ‘Do you have an accurate estimate of how much it will cost’? The questions sound less like a desire for support and more like a desire to catch the manager out for ignorance, lack of competence, lack of preparation. Where does this behaviour come from?

One reason is the desire to be appreciated. This is a common element at play in company meetings, especially if there are other important players in the ‘audience’ field, e.g. a project sponsor, a director of another department. Asking a substantive, difficult question (preferably about the budget) gives you a chance to be remembered. Sometimes the motive is simple jealousy – an employee who hoped to be the manager of this project but became a contractor may, consciously or not, question the validity of the choice made. Finally, there are people who are either bored and have this style of diversifying their time, or who have run projects themselves, experienced difficult situations and want to see how the current manager will handle them.

Whatever the reason for this behaviour, two tips are worth remembering.

  • Firstly, a project manager does not need to know everything.

And if, even in this role, he or she should know something and doesn’t know the answer, he or she can ask for time to be sure and inform you that he or she will provide the answer after the meeting. It is much better to admit ignorance than to get into a discussion about data you are not sure about.

  • Second tip: the manager can thank and appreciate such a statement.

Without exaltation or overreaction. Adequate to the situational context. Phrases such as “And that’s why I’m glad you’re with us on the project”, “Thanks, valuable remark” – uttered sincerely allow such a person to feel appreciated and noticed. This is often enough to prevent the rest of the meeting from being dominated by difficult questions.

If, on the other hand, the manager reacts in a confrontational manner, with sentences such as “This is irrelevant”, he or she runs the risk of escalating difficult situations or withdrawing the person from the meeting and the project.

A person of the Dragonfly type is also often an informal leader in the group. This means that the team listens more attentively to his or her suggestions – even if they are disruptive to the success of the project. All the more reason to have her on your side.

A “smoke screen”

There are some people at meetings who are genuinely happy to be at a meeting. Because they like the meeting participants, often acquaintances with whom they do not have time to talk to on a daily basis. Because they can break away from the monotony of everyday work and pass the time with jokes or company anecdotes. Because they can take advantage of a meeting and try to get their business done or discuss current events. They are often people with a pleasant demeanour, easily arousing sympathy. But, as you can see, their goals for attending the meeting no longer necessarily arouse enthusiasm.

Either of these reasons can be a frequent thief of meeting time. Dominating the discussion with topics unrelated to the purpose of the meeting causes it to drag on, failing to meet the objectives, and ultimately frustrating the team participants and risking the success of the project. Lack of effectiveness in meetings is the most common reason for reluctance to attend.

A good leader tactfully, but firmly, cuts off any threads that are not related to the objectives and agenda of the meeting. He or she may use sentences such as “Can we bring this topic up at the end of the meeting if there is time left?” to do so. Any firm response ultimately evokes gratitude from those whose prolonged meetings take time away from substantive work.

Note: you don’t necessarily have to react this way to every cheerful remark. Shared laughter also brings a group together; it is important that it does not dominate the meeting and that the team is effective in its performance as a result. It is worth appreciating Zrywus if it has improved the atmosphere, but temper it if a one-off cabaret success is not enough.

Does it satiate the colourfulness of the roles? Probably not, but these three are identified by project managers as being of most concern. Let’s remember, however, that despite being a source of challenges for the project manager, each of these roles is nevertheless important – and can often be useful. The Weighty type provides us with expertise, the Grouchy type reminds us of the risks, and the Grouchy type ensures a good atmosphere. The prerequisite is that they are properly understood and targeted. It is also worth realising that many situations of concern never happen….


Author: Sylwia Gutkowska


Sylwia Gutkowska

Development Manager at HR Development Sp. z o.o., ICC coach and trainer with many years of experience, specialises in the development of managerial competencies



1 C.K. Oyster, Groups. Social Psychology, Zysk i S-ka Publishing House, Warsaw 2002, pp. 82-93.

2 R. Cialdini, Influencing people. Teoria i praktyka, Gdańskie Wydawnictwo Psychologiczne, Gdańsk 1999.


Readers’ attention

In the previous issue of “Personnel & Management” you will find the first part of the article, in which tips for building the authority of the project manager were presented.

The article was published in the monthly magazine “Personel & Zarządzanie, Number 9/2015, Infor Publishing House.