3 Expectations for Project Managers

How to self-actualize as a project manager?

Project managers spend their days task tracking, estimating, planning and monitoring, and they also spend a fair amount of time managing other people’s expectations. But what do project managers expect of themselves? This article explores ways project managers can go beyond project planning and begin to actualize the expectations they have of themselves.

Abraham Maslow published a paper in 1943 entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation” which explained that there are certain fundamental basic needs that all humans must have to survive. These basic needs include breathing, food, water, and sleep. This hierarchy of human needs then transitions from basic physiological needs up to the point of self-actualization.

Picture a pyramid with a base labeled physiological needs. These include the physical needs mentioned above. Then, safety would be the next tier. This includes security of body, employment, resources, morality, health, and the family. Love and belonging is next which includes friendship, family, and sexual intimacy. The next tier is esteem which includes self-esteem, confidence, achievement, and respect of and by other people. Finally, self-actualization is at the top of this pyramid where creativity, spontaneity, and problem solving reside.

Maslow theorized that a person will spend time on Maslow's hierarchy of needs is an interesting lens for project managementeach layer of the pyramid until those needs are realized. For example, somebody is not going to be concerned about love and belonging until their needs of safety have been met. Likewise, they won’t be too concerned about their esteem if they are not included and attached to a group of friends and family. The top level of self-actualization would be considered quite an achievement for most people. It means that a person has reached their full potential and feels as if they have accomplished all that they can accomplish.

Interestingly, I’ve seen this hierarchy of needs play out in the microcosm of my own project management career. For example, I used to work for an automotive company that had a number of distributors in the field who would perform various services at automotive dealerships. When the company first started, distributors had the most basic of needs. They needed to know how to do the work, how to bill for the work, and then how to get paid for the work. That was it. Everyone was at the lowest rung in the company’s hierarchy of provision.

Time passed and people were able to get their most basic needs satisfied. They could accomplish the work, bill for it, and get paid with no problem whatsoever. So, they began moving up the ladder. They wanted more training to be able to offer more services. They assembled as small groups to combine their buying power. They influenced the corporate office to adjust their pay more favorably. All of this was able to be accomplished because their most basic needs were met and subsequent needs as well.

Another theory that goes hand in hand with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is the Theory of Rising Expectations. It basically says that humans aren’t ever satisfied with what they have. They constantly yearn for more. Once they obtain what they are looking for, they immediately turn their attention and focus on the next achievement or possession. We’ve seen this time and again with rich and famous people brought down by one greedy scandal after another.

What does that have to do with being a project manager?

We too have certain expectations that we expect to be met and those expectations change over time. Think back to when you first started as a project manager. You were thrilled to have a new laptop, a place to plug it in, project management software, and a starter project to sink your tooth into. It didn’t take too much to make you happy back then. But it wasn’t too long before you became bored with the same old projects. It seemed like you were always given the projects that nobody else wanted. You began looking for more challenging opportunities to express your project management skills.

Your expectations continued to rise.What do project managers expect of themselves?

Now, I’ve been in project management for nearly 20 years. I started with the laptop in a cube working on boring and routine projects. But, I’ve also expected more and achieved more throughout my career, which brings me to my list of project management self-actualization needs:

  • I Expect Things to Get Done When I Ask – Please take this, and the following points with the spirit in which I mean them. I’m not a dictator carrying a bullhorn and a whip, and barking out commands to everyone. I weigh my requests very carefully and always tie them into the context of the current project. With that mindset, however, I do expect what I ask to be done. This is primarily due to the fact that I work with professionals who also understand that there are certain things we all must do on a project to bring it to completion.None of us have the time to go around and follow up with people we’ve tasked with work. It’s reasonable for a project manager to expect to only ask once for something to get done. Now, if someone has questions, it’s also reasonable to expect that they will come and ask you rather than drag their feet and leave something undone.
  • I Expect Positive Attitudes – Attitude is everything. One thing that is high on my list of project management needs is that everyone has a positive attitude around me. A negative attitude is the catalyst of many self-fulfilling prophecies that only end in anguish and despair. Now, I don’t expect everyone to look at the world through rose-colored glasses and to not be realistic. There are going to be problems on projects. As a matter of fact, there are going to be BIG problems on projects that must be handled. But, there is nothing gained by looking at the negative side of everything all the time.I’ve seen people get upset over the fact that a solution only achieved 90% or 95% of its intended goal. They focus on the 5% or 10% that wasn’t reached rather than 90% or 95% that was accomplished. Everything is not going to be perfect all the time. But, if everyone has tried their absolute best then we should be able to feel good (and positive) about what has been accomplished.
  • I Expect Solutions – This 3rd expectation goes hand in hand with being positive. Problems will arise. Great. Come to me with a problem. But, also come to me with a recommended solution. This will at least chart a course for where the project needs to go in order to get the problem resolved. Some people take great delight in pointing out everything that is wrong with a project, team, department, or company. They then sit back and expect others to fix the problems. That’s not what I expect. If someone points out a problem, they’d better come with a solution and creative way to make things better.

I’m not sure if I’ve reached self-actualization as a project manager, but I think I’m pretty close. It’s good to do the type of work that has become second nature by virtue of experience. Life is more enjoyable and you don’t dread going into work every day. Keep an eye on where you are on the hierarchy of project management needs and you too will be able to have an enjoyable career as a project manager.

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