The 8 Behaviors That KILL A Project Manager

I’m not sure what the attrition rate is for Project Managers – I suspect it’s fairly high. I’ve seen all sorts enter the field usually with high aspirations, strong credentials and good intentions, only to flame out after a short and painful period of time. Sometimes, I feel bad for the ones who do not make it; most times, the damage is self-inflicted. Often a good sponsor or mentor can help guide a struggling project manager over various hurdles, but there are those that simply cannot make the needed adjustments.

The key behaviors and traits that I’ve observed that KILL the credibility, performance and careers of Project Managers are:

  • Don’t listen: Good project managers get people to talk; great ones know how to listen. Listening is more than being quiet and nodding your head once in a while – it’s about being an active participant in a conversation, eliciting important stuff, filtering out the noise, and efficiently managing the communication process. Listening requires that you get others to talk in a way where they feel good, and they want to give you information. This is the ultimate “win-win” for Project Managers.
  • Fail to immediately correct bad team behavior: When working in a collaborative environment, it is important to agree on a set of rules that maps out how the team will communicate, interact, and resolve disputes. These rules are the foundation of team dynamics. When a rule is broken (say a team member acts poorly towards another), the Project Manager must step in immediately and take corrective action. Allowing poor behavior to go uncorrected undermines team unity, creates mistrust, and results in the loss of credibility for the Project Manager.
  • Struggle with delegation: A project manager guides a team of people who complete the defined actions in a project plan. In large projects there are literally thousands of tasks that need to be completed in a specific sequence.  A Project Manager must learn to effectively distribute the workload and empower others to take ownership of their share of the work.

Read my award wining post, “The 7 Things They Don’t Teach You In Project Management School,” by clicking here.

  • Bad follow-up skills: Oh boy, this really is a killer. Project Managers run complex initiatives that have many moving parts. To insure that nothing gets missed, a Project Manager must have a good system for follow-up. Over the course of a day a Project Manager may have hundreds of details to check on – and, without a good system of follow-up, important items often get lost.
  • Don’t interact enough with their team: A Project Manager needs regular and constructive interaction with their team members. It is critical that a Project Manager is visible, available, approachable and interested in the actions of the team. I like to touch base each day with the key team leads and members. It can be a simple 5 minute coffee chat, but it needs to happen. This is especially true if you are working with team members who have other responsibilities. If they know you will be walking by asking about their progress, they will be more likely to actually make progress.
  • Know more than the project subject matter experts (SME): During a project, there are often complicated technical decisions to be made (like what technology architecture to use). On a project, the subject matter experts must guide the team through the technical options and decision-making process. A project manager should not be using a project to push their own technology agenda. Yes, a Project Manager needs to be an active participant in these discussions, but he/she should never undermine the credibility of the SME’s on the project team.
  • Not serious about risk planning: I seem to talk about risk planning just about every day now. Understanding what can go wrong, planning for it, and creating visibility when it happens are an important part of being a project manager. An example of this – you are at a key project juncture, and a major supplier advises that it will be late delivering a component. If at the beginning of your project, you had not identified and created back-up plans for this risk, you will be forced to operate in crisis mode where costs and schedule are negatively impacted. A hint here – something usually goes wrong during a long, complex project. You had better be ready. Take risk planning seriously!
  • Not celebrating wins: Project work can be hard, thankless, physically taxing, and career challenging. During a project, I like to set-up milestone celebrations where the team can blow off steam, enjoy a non-working moment together, and just celebrate success. For example, after a successful gate meeting, you take the team out for a celebratory meal. During this event, you thank the team for their efforts, talk positively about the future, and let them enjoy the success. Sometimes, you need to have some team fun!

Now of course, the short-comings above are not necessarily fatal. Good project managers learn and quickly adapt. Often, it takes time to simply figure it all out.

You have the skills to be successful, I know this is true. Stick around, work hard, make adjustments – and, don’t flame out!

What do you think? I’d like to hear from you.

 “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts”~ Winston Churchill



About Dale Myers

A San Francisco Bay Area Project and Program Expert
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19 Responses to The 8 Behaviors That KILL A Project Manager

  1. Nice points Dale. You didn’t touch a major point of politics. That is one of the killing point in PM world. Many people give it up due to bad political environment within EPMO.

    • Dale Myers says:

      Thank Ram. Yes, politics are a killer for a Proj Mgr and team. Unfortunately, they are part of the equation and the best Proj Managers understand how to navigate through these waters. It’s all about knowing how to manage your sponsor and the stakeholders. Sometimes it is really hard. Thanks for your time. DM

  2. One thing I have to observe…many effective PMPs get promoted out of project management. As soon as I passed my exam and put it on my resume and profesional profiles, I started getting calls for Directorships. I got my PMP to add to my value as a program manager in the DoD contract market (it’s becoming a baseline requirement), and my percevied value flew past that demarcation immediately.

  3. toddloeb says:

    Hi Dale,

    Great post…I might add one more trait that would KIll a PM – Lack of a Sense of Humor. With all the stress we’re always under, sometimes you just have to laugh…and help others to laugh as well!!!

    • Dale Myers says:


      Thank you for reading and commenting. You make a great point – humour can go a long way sometimes. Thinking back, my best projects were the ones where we worked incredibly hard, yet laughed and had fun. I think there is a correlation between fun, laughter and success. I wish you all of these!

      Dale M.

      • toddloeb says:

        Thanks, Dale…and same to you. I always try to inject a little humor into every project…and every day…

  4. Javier Cortes says:

    Excellent article, I will add a point: Not to have the right team, sometimes this happen.

    • Dale Myers says:

      Thank you Javier. Your point is a good one – not having the right team members on a project can be a killer. Sometimes the resources your want are not available – this happens to PM’s. They need to have a “wide net” of contacts and work with the sponsor and stakeholders to insure they get the resources they need. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. DM

  5. Michael says:

    Great article, Dale! Thanks for sharing your viewpoints with us.

  6. Brian says:

    Love the Churchill quote, your point on Risk Planning is well made and often overlooked in project management.



  7. Dale: Great blog. I think you’re right on with your 8 behaviors that mean bad news for program managers. You have to have new product/project launch experience to understand how important your points really are. In my experience, the 3 most important traits are: a) the courage to decide, b) the ability to prioritize (your team desperately wants to be led), and c) the fortitude to not be thrown off the critical path by temporal “urgencies”. Thanks for the thought provoking posting.

    • Dale Myers says:

      Tony – thanks for reading and commenting. You make a great point in C) not get thrown off course; which is crucual for Proj Managers. During projects obstacles appear (like magic out of no-where). A PM needs to lead the team over the obstacles – and not allow the resources to deviate or get thrown off track. This is really hard as the obstacles come from everywhere (including the senior management suite). Focus is a major key for a PM and project team. Thanks again. DM

  8. Geoff Warnock says:

    Risk, risk, risk, risk – there is the common thread not only in a lot of projects that could have been better but just outright failed. Looking back through the comments, with the exception of the necessary injection of humor (boy, do we need more of that in a lot of projects), they were all some unidentified risk aspect. Politics, other matters arising, incorrect team members (inappropriate resources), etc. are all forms of risk that needs to be dealt with. Great article Dale!
    While all areas of project management are important, the inability to realize and deal with risk to me is the greatest. Your comments were right on and so very important. I read some of them and actually cringed at some memories of how I could have done better in a project. They are all not only memories, but good experience now that help me be better at my profession. I wonder if I’ll ever be ‘there’? Has anyone ever managed the ‘perfect’ project? If so, how do you know you got it right?

  9. Curt Nordling says:

    Dale — very sound and complete list/article. Thank you.
    Do you have a good recommendation for documented set of communication ‘rules’? I can generate a list of common sense items, but I find that someone like you often has a good source of such things. If not, thank you for the insight!

  10. Patricia says:

    Good article, Dale. Excellent observations. As to G. Warnock’s questions, “Has anyone ever managed the ‘perfect’ project? If so, how do you know you got it right?”, I would first like to agree on what constitutes perfect. If being brought in as PM on a project one month after the startup and the startup itself was two months late with a hard constraint of a due date based on a governmental mandate and finishing successfully before the due date, then I got it right but was it perfect? The delivered product meets all requirements and is high quality. The Executive Sponsor and all stakeholders are ecstatic so it was a “successful project” and thankfully, I am still alive.

  11. bill says:

    One thing I need to raise and that is the honesty of the team members. I recently was working on a project and I relied on my SME to perform and handle the needed technical piece of the project. Weekly reports were given and everything was on schedule then all of a sudden they weren’t and the project schedule slipped big time. The project was already a behind schedule when I took it over and was a political hot potato. As the PM I was held accountable and released. Politics and dishonesty will kill anyone and not just PM’s. The question is how do you ensure your team is doing what they claim? But that’s another discussion.

  12. Dale, you made some great points in your article. Thanks for putting this together. One I would add is to be sure management has assigned the Project Manager the autonomy and authority to manage the team. The PM cannot be successful if their authority is being undermined by a higher ranking manager.

  13. Mark Nichani says:

    Great article Dale – all excellent points. I think there are a couple of subtle things some PM’s overlook. Since I am an IT PM, these are some of my observations from that perspective. But I think these points apply to almost any type of Project/Program.

    1. Ensure you invite only the “really” needed participants to your meetings. I’ve seen PM’s have several IT team members from various teams invited to status meetings with the Business teams, for no reason other than they can call them out, if an issue comes up. One has to be very selective on which resources should and should not be present at the specific meetings. Human Resources are generally the most expensive and scarce resources on a large-scale Project. Allow them to spend their time wisely and focus on the function they are supposed to be performing for the project. Obviously engage any team member, when absolutely necessary.

    2. Structure and schedule your meetings so there is an efficient flow of information from one meeting to the next. For example, prior to meeting with the Business team each week, schedule one with your IT teams – one a day earlier at the most so the information that is being shared or discussed is current.

    Hash out all disagreements, ideas, etc. at this meeting and as a PM summarize and get a consensus on what will be presented at the Business meeting. The PM should have gathered all of the facts and be the unified voice of the teams he/she is leading, before meeting with the business counterparts. As a representative of the Organization you work for, you should be prepared to present what has been learned from your “prior” meeting(s) with the resources that are working on your Project/Program. This not only gives you confidence that there is a greater chance of success for your Project/Program, it provides greater confidence to the team members on your side of the Organization as well as your counterparts.

  14. Dale Myers says:

    Mark – thank you for reading and leaving your comments. I think what you say applies to almost all PM situations. Structuring and managing meetings that are efficient, engaging, informative and inclusive are key for PM’s. In the end, it’s about valuing the time of the team members (and others involved with the work of the project). Thanks again for visiting. Have a great weekend!

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