Increasing Project Team Performance Through Situational Leadership

Business woman addressing meeting

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”–Gandalf

We’ve all been there. The constant demands. The never-ending challenges. Despite the constraint of time, we were making sure the project was progressing, that we hit our scope, cost, schedule, and quality objectives. There were the constant change requests but our team was adapting in real-time. It was all coming together and we were receiving positive feedback from the stakeholders. It looked like it would be another successful project. 

Except I failed. 

Although my team and I may have succeeded in producing deliverables that exceeded stakeholder expectations, the problem was I had failed my team. I had a member on my team who was struggling to meet performance expectations, but I  didn’t take the time to work with them and discover the cause of the poor performance. As a project manager, I had limited time and I was being pulled in so many different directions. So instead I simply reassigned their duties to other team members. Yet, somehow I found time to complain to my management about the team member. That certainly wasn’t fair to the team member, my manager, my organization, and the stakeholders. 

Consider this: a 2010 survey by Gallup showed that employee disengagement can cost over $300 billion in productivity. How much did my failure to work with my team member cost the project and the stakeholders? How much did it affect future projects this team member would be assigned to? Most importantly, how much did it affect this team member’s career, growth as an individual, and possibly their self-worth?

We manage projects but we lead a team. As a leader, it is our responsibility to ensure all team members are actively engaged in achieving project objectives and that team members are developing their skills and growing as individuals. Situational leadership offers a framework that can help project leaders do exactly that. 

The Situational Leadership Framework

Originally developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, situational leadership evaluates employee performance by their motivation and ability. This is visualized through the use of a quadrant. Ability progresses along the X-axis from low to high and motivation progresses along the Y-axis from low to high. This evaluation guides the leader’s approach in addressing the performance with the employee.

Situational Leadership Model
Situational Leadership Model.

The first quadrant (S1) is a team member that is highly capable of the task but suffers from low motivation. In this situation, the leader needs to discover the cause for the low motivation. Perhaps this team member has been subjected to the “command and control” leadership style in the past and is now merely waiting to be told what to do. Maybe the team member doesn’t see how their values align with the project’s or the organization’s. Finally, rarely does anyone work on just one project. Is it possible the team member is feeling overwhelmed? Discovering and addressing the root cause for the lack of motivation will be key for the leader to help this team member maximize their performance and reach their potential. 

The second quadrant (S2) is the “sweet spot.” Here you have a team member who is both highly motivated and highly skilled. This individual requires very little in terms of supervision. In this situation, the role of the project leader is simply to provide the intent, provide any necessary resources, remove any obstacles, and most of all, stay out of the team member’s way. 

The third quadrant (S3) is a team member who is highly motivated but fairly unskilled for this particular task. This could be the result of the individual being new to the organization—or even an organizational veteran—but placed in a new technical capacity for which they don’t have much experience. This will require the project leader to play the role of coach and take a much more hands-on approach. The project leader may need to break tasks down step by step, pair the individual with a more seasoned team member, and possibly secure training. Regardless, the project leader’s approach in this situation is to ensure they create an environment for learning and eventually shift them to S2.

In the fourth quadrant (S4), we find a team member who has both low skill and low motivation. This will also require a more hands-on approach by the project leader. Although reassigning or letting the individual go may be required, there are a few things the leader can try. First, does the employee have the proper tools and resources to do the task at hand?  This could be a cause for poor motivation. Second, the leader needs to examine what issues training could address. If the team member has the proper tools and resources but doesn’t know how to use them properly, this would contribute to both low motivation and low skill.  Finally, are there tasks within the project for which the team members are better suited? Is it possible to place the team member on those tasks fairly and equitably, without causing hardship on other team members? Nonetheless, it may be necessary for the project leader to place the individual on a performance improvement plan. If an individual with low motivation and low ability is not responding to various approaches, they are likely to bring down the motivation and performance of the team. That’s not fair to the team, the organization, the stakeholders, or even the individual in question. It’s most likely time to let the individual go. 

Perhaps one of the most critical and frustrating resources we have as project managers is time. As a project manager, we are pulled in a variety of different directions, called to put out various fires, whether it’s managing stakeholders, responding to a failed test, or mitigating a risk that has been realized, etc. Unfortunately, time cannot be saved, stored, deposited, nor renewed. We all have been granted a specified amount of time and with each tick of the clock’s second hand that amount decreases. 

Yet, with all a project manager must address, they must also address and fine-tune team performance. Thankfully, employing the situational leadership model can assist the project manager to maximize their team’s performance and make the most efficient use of time when it comes to team members. 

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