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Ask a Project Manager #4: How Do I Make Sure My Team Adheres to Deadlines?

Posted by

Rachel Gertz

Published on

April 28th 2020

Digital PM trainer and Digital Project Management course instructor Rachel Gertz is our resident advice columnist for our 6-part Ask a Project Manager series, where we aim to get real, get deep, and get practical with your most burning questions about life and career in the creative industries. Have a question for her? Submit yours here. Today, Rachel writes about the difference between management and leadership, how to ask for and get behavior change from people and becoming an ally so your team can work together to get things done - on time.

Dear Rachel,

I’m a new manager and am finding it a challenge to enforce a clear schedule and communications expectations.

I’ve noticed that people forget or do not respond at agreed upon times. I’ve tried things like: “Please respond at appropriate times” hoping it will refresh the expectation.

Timelines consistently slip, even with communication. When I ask people about it, they always feel bad and there’s usually reasons for it but the behavior doesn’t really change. Obviously, if the behavior becomes persistent, that seems to indicate that there’s a root issue with the way I’m approaching things.

How do I re-establish timely communication and adherence? What consequences should a manager levy if communication is not persistent and up to expectation?

Signed, New Manager

Dear New Manager,

Stepping into a new set of shiny manager shoes can be an incredibly rewarding experience. It can also make your hair fall out in clumps as you deal with the stress of trying to herd your team in the right direction. It sounds like you have your hands full and are trying to be the dictionary definition of a proper manager. I want to dig into a few assumptions and then see if I can answer your question. But, first of all, I should mention: your question is not about deadlines at all.

We’re going to investigate the root cause of your team’s bad habits, and discuss the impact of scope creep as well as some strategies for overcoming it, but first, we’re going to talk about an awesome thing when used the way it was meant—your power.

From doing the work to managing people

As a new manager, your role has likely shifted from doing the work to leading a team of humans doing the work you used to do (while navigating their strange little quirks). The skills you’ve cultivated throughout your career are suddenly not as applicable. Sure, you can guide your team to work the way you learned to do them, but if they can’t, don’t, or won’t do them even with prodding, how can you as a manager keep people accountable? Well, much of management is about the squishy people stuff. And a lot of it is about power.

Power in leadership

The difference between a leader and a manager is this:

Leaders make you want to follow them.

Managers demand that you follow them.

It’s how people choose to wield their power that separates the good managers from the bad. In 1959, Social Psychologists John French and Bertram Raven laid out five bases of power (and added a sixth six years later).

  • Legitimate Power - inherent power due to role or title (e.g., president or chief)
  • Reward Power - external rewards for compliance (e.g., promotions for listening to the line manager)
  • Expert Power - power based on skill or knowledge (e.g., credibility given to an epidemiologist or lead full stack developer)
  • Referent Power - relationship based influence (e.g., a likable manager prevents people from quitting)
  • Coercive Power - power based on force or manipulation (e.g., punishment for breaking ‘no stories about dogs’ taboo in the workplace)
  • Informational Power - controlling others by limiting access to information (e.g., who gets a raise, how the quarter went, what happened to Becky at the summit)

This is an excellent Mind Tools article that breaks down the six bases of power.

Manager: a person who tells other people what to do. Not a leader.

So, while your title is Manager, and the temptation is to use coercive or legitimate power to get your way, your real goal should be leading through personal power. Leading is deeply connected to both expert and referent power, and it’s one of the reasons that people stay at the same company. In fact, according to a recent Gallup poll, over 75% of workers left their job because of a bad boss or supervisor.

Exercising your referent power means that you go to bat for your team, find out what they need to be successful, remove barriers for them, and help them achieve their goals. Basically: you become a servant leader and in return, your team respects you and works hard for you because you embody what it means to be present and be for them. Exercising your expert power means you know why things need to happen, how they need to be done, and how the team can rally around a common vision. Your team trusts you because of your domain expertise. Now, I don’t know your management style, New Manager—you may be doing a great job of that already. But what I do know is that many of the problems related to late schedules, ‘non-compliance,’ and a lack of follow through are directly tied to how connected you are as a team. So let’s talk about how to build that connection.

Being an ally

In our training, we talk a lot about ally building. To be an ally, you have to show up for your team and go to bat for them when they need you. This starts with getting to know them on a one-on-one basis. Not just swooping by their desks to check on progress or trying to force compliance for those lengthy Tuesday meetings. According to Dr. John Gottman, for healthy relationships, you need five positive interactions for every negative interaction. This should be no different with a colleague or teammate at work.

For example, asking your teammates how they’re doing before tackling project updates, taking them out for coffee and a chat once in awhile, or remembering their birthdays or their dogs’ names can go a long way to cement those positive interactions before you have to pull out the stick and do any reprimanding. But more deeply, being an ally also means that you listen to your employees when they’re expressing frustration, and suspend your judgement till you’ve given your team a chance to step up and explain. It’s about being wrong sometimes—and vulnerable. Being an ally is about redistributing the power you have and using your nurturing powers to propel your employees forward in their own roles. What kinds of things are you doing to get to know your own teammates, New Manager? Behavior change is a lot easier when your team trusts you.

Want to be a better ally? Better Allies has tons of great resources.

Let’s dig up those roots

Maybe you’re already doing a great job of being an ally to your employees, New Manager, so the next step is to figure out why this type of behavior is cropping up to begin with. Let’s dig around in the dirt to unearth the source. You mention the plural ‘people’ indicating this issue is tied to more than one person. Do you think this is a localized problem with just a couple of employees, or is it a systemic problem that impacts the entire organization? Watch for some clues:

  • Are there more active projects running right now than people available to run them?
  • Do people lurch around with glazed eyes and panicked steps or does drool puddle in the corners of their mouths during office chatter?
  • Is your organization meeting its targets or are things consistently being pushed out late?
  • Do directors and execs change direction rapidly or is your org’s mission clear and stable?
  • Are people getting stuck on outdated approaches or embracing new technologies?

Knowing how chaotic or healthy your organization is will give you a telescope view for whether this is a problem with your management or a problem at the organizational level. My guts says both.

Here’s a Future Backwards template we put together using Mural.co. Just make an account and you can try this one out with your team.

To know for sure, you have to diagnose the symptoms and un-peel them layer by layer. You may want to run a diagnostic exercise like Future Backwards. This is a handy workshop that removes causality and enables your team to talk openly about the steps that happened in a recent project and how they could have been set up optimally next time. Or you may want to have a sit down with each and every teammate to do a root cause analysis aka the Five Whys. When you find out a root cause, it often has nothing to do with the surface level problem, which is why it’s so important to be a human first and manager second.

Five Whys in action

Shaf doesn’t do his time sheets. Why?

He’s been distracted with other problems at home. Why?

He’s been stressing over childcare. Why?

He’s been looking after his toddler fulltime. Why?

His partner isn’t able to look after her anymore. Why?

She’s been really sick and unable to work.

Suddenly time sheets don’t seem so important…

We should always give people the benefit of the doubt. We need to remember that people are not ‘bad’ and don’t intentionally sit back on their butts. More often, they just aren’t clear on what they should be doing, are overworked and are burning out, or don’t understand how their role aligns within the organization’s mission. In other words, if you evaluate the root cause and you don’t see toxic behavior or malicious intent, it’s usually a case of organizational systems breaking down. And if systems are failing, this is often a process problem, not a people one.

A dash of hope creep

You mentioned that people are apologetic when you ask them not to be late. But then they do it again. So, are they faking their apology or are they incapable of stopping their behavior? A promise with no follow through is often an indicator of something we call hope creep: the belief that we can do the impossible.

This type of scope creep happens because of dauntless optimism and a lack of trust between stakeholders. Nobody wants to let anyone down, so everyone lets everyone down. Vicious irony. Hope creep ruins stakeholder relationships and leads to that d-word you never want to hear: disappointment.

Check out our scope creep guide to learn about the other types of scope creep that derail you and your projects.

Another way to determine if this is a systemic or localized issue is to find out from these individuals if they are getting blocked by other people or tasks. People won’t meet your deadlines if they have seven other projects to work on. They won’t come to your meeting on time if they are booked to the gills in other meetings. If you are only seeing one tiny part of their workflow, it may appear that they are simply choosing not to show up and then promising to change their behavior when in reality, they might be unable to stop. Maybe they are hiding the hours they work in the evening or on weekends. Maybe they fail to mention that scopes are being blown and that projects are dragging because they just don’t want to let you down. Hope creep is insidious because what starts as little white lies gradually turns into deception. So if you start noticing these kinds of behaviors, it’s time to call out what you see as a group and ask for change.

Asking for a behavior change

New Manager, from the sounds of it, you’re asking your employees to make some big changes and you should. But asking them to define how they plan to make those changes is even more important. Rather than stating “Please respond at appropriate times,” try encouraging your teammates to be autonomous. You can gain alignment through the practice of determining observations, evaluating the impact, and reframing opportunity.

First: state the observations you’ve been noticing and clarify how this has personally impacted you, the project, and the organization. Then ask your employee why this has been happening and what opportunities exist for them to change the process or the outcomes. When your employees are in charge of determining the time frame, the consequences, and the behavior changes themselves, the pressure is off of you to ‘dole out punishment.’ Instead, you’re encouraging your employees to grow and giving them an opportunity to set their own bar. You can tie it up with a bow by asking them what support they need from you to be successful. If they still aren’t meeting expectations after two tries, you can sit them down and deliver disciplinary action, but always give them the choice to refuse or accept the help you’re trying to offer.

Some real talk from Rachel

From the way you worded your question, I gather that you are very pragmatic person, New Manager.

In your question, you mention all of these words:

  • Enforcing
  • Appropriate
  • Adherence
  • Persistency
  • Expectations

I will be candid because maybe I’m the first person who has told you this (it’s my job to make sure that the people leading projects and people are set up for success). Great management isn’t about being rule bound. It’s not about enforcement, being appropriate, or demanding adherence either. It is about being persistent, consistent, and committed. It is about setting clear expectations, and giving your team room to grow into them. It is also about flexing your empathy muscle.

As a new manager, this is something you will learn over time. Leading with your heart is something that takes years of practice and I wish you a light hand and courageous heart as you carve out your approach. I hope these ideas help!

In solidarity,

Rachel

Ask a Project Manager #1: What Should Developers Know About Project Management?
Ask a Project Manager #2: How Do I Navigate Internal Politics to Get The Right Things Done?
Ask a Project Manager #3: I Don’t Have a Project Manager and I Really Need One!

Rachel Gertz is Co-founder of and a Dig­i­tal PM Train­er at Loud­er Than Ten. She trains appren­tices in dig­i­tal project man­age­ment so they can work full time while learn­ing to keep their com­pa­nies hap­py, healthy, and ready for the future. Rachel works on rais­ing tides that float all boats to ele­vate the tech­nol­o­gy industry. If you have any creative career questions you’d like answered, you can ask Rachel here.

Illustration by Tom Redfern