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Top 12 Psychologists a Project Manager Should Know About

Top 12 Psychologists a Project Manager Should Know About

I’m a Project Manager! Why do I need to know about Psychologists?

Because Project Management is a people-profession. And psychologists study people.

So, you do need to know bout the key ideas by the psychologists who study relevant aspects of people and or behavior. Especially, things like:

  • motivation
  • performance
  • influence
  • reactions
  • learning
  • change

I’m No Psychologist

I’m just like you… a Project Manager. But I am interested in psychology. As a result, I have been learning about these ideas for well over 20 years.

This means that I’m not competent to judge these psychologists as psychologists* – nor their ideas on the basis of the science. But I am able to assess the usefulness of their discoveries, insights, and models to us, as Project Managers.

* Actually, many of these do appear in the article ‘An Incomplete List of Eminent Psychologists of the Modern Era’ by Ed Diener, Shigehiro Oishi, and JungYeun Park. This lists the top 200 psychologists of all time. It collates the views of professional psychologists. Others appear in the article: ‘The 50 Most Influential Living Psychologists in the World’. This is a researched blog.

I have given their ranks in each as ILEP and MILP numbers.

Ordering and Assessment

I have not placed them in an order of precedence or priority. Instead, I have grouped them thematically.

And neither have I given an authoritative assessment of their work. Instead, you’ll find a few simple notes based on my understanding of the parts of their work that are most relevant to us. Note:

  • My Understanding
    I am not a psychologist and I may have misinterpreted or over-simplified their ideas. The weaknesses in these analyses are mine
  • Parts of their Work
    In many cases, these eminent psychologists have contributed a massive amount. of knowledge. Lewin and Bandura, in particular merit whole articles on the breadth of their interests. So, I have been very selective. And what I have chosen may not be their most important psychological work. It’s just the work that I think is most useful to you.

Introducing our Cast of 12 Psychologists Your Should Know About

Top 12 Psychologists a Project Manager Should Know About

Daniel Kahneman: Behavioral Economics

ILEP #3 | MILP #26

Daniel Kahneman is a giant of 20th Century scholarship. He and long-time collaborator, Amos Tversky invented a new field of study by think about how we make choices.

Tversky died early and so was not eligible. So it was Kahneman who became the first, and so far only, psychologist to win a Nobel Prize. It was for economics. They had realised that all economics that went before was based on a single false assumption: that humans behave rationally.

Their work highlighted the many ways in which this is simply not true!

Primary Contribution to Psychology for Project Managers

Human decision-making is prey to many biases. These arise because our brain has two modes of operation, which Kahneman calls System 1 and System 2.

System 1 makes rapid decisions based on a learned set of rules (called heuristics). System 2 thinking takes its time. Because of the difference, we often default to low-effort system 1 thinking and risk using rules that are not apply well to the situation.

As a result, we make serious mistakes in our assessment of a situation and the choice we select. Kahnemann and Tversky identified a range of particular biases, which include:

  • Availability Bias
  • Representativeness Bias
  • Anchoring Bias
  • Framing Bias

Other Psychologists who made Contributions in this Area

Of course, we must name-check Kahneman’s long-term collaborator and friend, Amos Tversky. But the other big names to mention are:

  • Richard Thaler
    An economist who contributed much to this field
  • Gary Klein
    A consultant who studies what Kahneman would call System 1 decision-making and when heuristics do get things right

Learn More…

From OnlinePMCourses:


Dan Ariely: Irrational Decision-making

ILEP – | MILP #2

Dan Ariely is a US-based psychologist who is equally at home in academia and as popular author and speaker. He studies the irrational side of decision-making.

I selected him because his books will teach you a lot about why people make foolish choices within and around your projects.

Primary Contribution to Psychology for Project Managers

Ariely’s academic contributions are more incremental than revolutionary. I choose him for my list because his books are easy to read and will change your outlook.

Learn More…

Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence

ILEP – | MILP #22

Daniel Goleman is a journalist who trained as a psychologist (with some of the biggest names). Consequently, he is a populariser more than a researcher.

But he brought Emotional Intelligence to the eyes of the public and then to the business world. Now, it is on the PMI’s syllabus for its Project Management Professional (PMP) Exam (Domain I Task 14).

Primary Contribution to Psychology for Project Managers

In writing best-selling books about Emotional Intelligence, Goleman not only brought the ideas to the fore… He also crafted them into the format in which they are best-known and most widely used.

Other Contributions to Note

Linked to his work on Emotional Intelligence, Goleman has also written compellingly about leadership – bringing together the two fields to form valuable insights.

Other Psychologists who made Contributions in this Area

The founders of Emotional Intelligence are:

  • Peter Salovey
  • John Mayer
  • Reuben Bar-on

Learn More…

Daniel Goleman’s books are excellent and easy to read:

Eric Berne: Transactional Analysis


I am not on the inside. So, I do not know why Eric Berne’s ideas are not more widely-regarded by professional psychologists than they are. But, for Project managers, they are a rich source of tools for understanding behaviours.

Primary Contribution to Psychology for Project Managers

The field of Transactional Analysis (TA) is a big one and our article on 9 tools from TA covers only the best. The ideas cover:

  • how we communicate
  • the way our insecurities affect our behavior
  • understanding the dynamics of dysfunctional relationships
  • why we do what we do

Other Psychologists who made Contributions in this Area

Within the body of TA knowledge, some of the key contributors include:

  • Taibi Kahler
  • Franklin Ernst
  • Claude Steiner
  • Stephen Karpman

Learn More…

Transactional Analysis is a technical field. So, start with our article, 9 Transactional Analysis Tools that All Project Managers Must Know. If you want more, then:

  • TA Today is not an easy read – more a sourcebook if you’ve had the training (I have). But it does cover a lot of ground.

Martin Seligman: Positive Psychology

ILEP #5 | MILP #42

Martin Seligman’s key insight was that to many psychologists focus on people when they are not functioning properly. By contrast, too few look to understand what makes us work well – and flourish. As Chair of the American Psychological Association, he led the way to forming the new sub-discipline of Positive Psychology.

Primary Contribution to Psychology for Project Managers

Seligman wrote about Learned Optimism and how we can transform our outlook to one of positivity. In so-doing, he kicked off a revolution in thinking. Part of the outcome is the plethora of popular psychology books with titles like happy, happier, and happiness.

Whilst his main contribution was sparking this revolution, I think of his two biggest psychology contributions in this areas as>

  1. The PERMA model:
    1. P – Positive Emotion
    2. E – Engagement
    3. R – Relationships
    4. M – Meaning
    5. A – Accomplishments
  2. Signature Strengths
    We are out our best when we understand our true strengths and apply them.

Other Contributions to Note

Seligman started his career in the domain of abnormal psychology.

Other Psychologists who made Contributions in this Area

There are very many psychologists whose work can best be thought of as within the realm of positive psychology. Some, we list below, notably Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Carol Dweck.

Other big names that Project managers should know include:

  • Barbara Fredrickson
  • Tal Ben Shahar
  • Angela Duckworth (Grit)

An offshoot field of note is Positive Organizational Scholarship – the application of positive psychology at organizational level. The best-known contributor to this is Kim Cameron.

Learn More…

For a review of an excellent introduction to these ideas for Project Managers, read our: Positive Psychology in Business: A Review.

The best books to pursue are;

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow

ILEP #134 | MILP #12

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is very much within the Positive Psychology circle. His best known contribution by far is that of flow. This is the term he coined for the state in which we get loads done, with little or no regard for anything else.

Primary Contribution to Psychology for Project Managers

Csikszentmihalyi studies flow states. These occur when a task so consumes our attention that we are barely aware of anything else. He describes flow as the optimal state for a human being and noted that this tends to happen when:

  1. The task stretches us to the edge of our capabilities
    Less challenging and we have time to get bored.
    Too much more challenging and out focus shifts to fears of failure and errors.
  2. We have a very idea of what the goal is
    And, I always think, this is amplified when we also feel that the goal is worthwhile.
  3. The task gives us plenty of feedback on how we are progressing
    That way, we can monitor our performance, and adjust it accordingly.

Other Contributions to Note

Following on from – and therefore connected to – his work on flow, Csikszentmihalyi has also studied creativity.

Learn More…

The key work is Flow: The Psychology of Happiness. If you like it, also check out Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery.

Albert Bandura: Performance Improvement

Albert Bandura’s many research interests include how we make our choices and the way we learn. He is one of the most-cited academic psychologists. Yet he is almost unknown to the wider public.

Primary Contribution to Psychology for Project Managers

I am not qualified to assess the contributions of this towering presence among professional psychologists. How publications are both wide and deep. But one single piece his research had a deep impact on my thinking as a Project Leader.

Working with colleague, Daniel Cervone, Bandura discovered that, for maximum performance improvement, we need two things:

  1. A clearly stated goal
  2. Regular performance feedback

And, he learned this through an impressive experiment. This is not a theory, it is an empirical finding.

Other Contributions to Note

Too many to mention and well-outside of our scope here.

Frederick Herzberg: Two-factor Theory of Motivation


There are so many psychologists who contributed to our understanding of human motivation in the workplace. I’ll name some below. But I have selected Frederick Herzberg to focus on, because his insight was fundamental.

Primary Contribution to Psychology for Project Managers

What Herzberg reminds us of is that there are two factors to take into account when we think about motivation at work:

  1. The things that annoy and demotivate us, if our employer gets them wrong: Hygiene Factors. Interestingly, when our employer gets them right, we don’t feel motivated. But we are no longer demotivated.
  2. The things that motivate us and make us feel good about our work – which Herzberg calls Motivators.

Other Psychologists who made Contributions in this Area

There are a host of researchers into motivation, whose work all Project Managers should understand. Principal among them are:

Learn More…

We have a second YouTube Channel (aside from OnlinePMCourses), called Management Courses.

There we do whole training courses for managers – as playlists. And, one of those playlist courses is Motivation. Check it out. It is currently the most popular of all.

Carol Dweck: Growth Mindset

ILEP #139 | MILP –

Carol Dweck’s contribution to us is her insight that we can either assume we are as we are, and so stay as we are, or we can assume we will become what we prepare to become, and therefore grow.

It’s the growth mindset that unlocks our potential.

Primary Contribution to Psychology for Project Managers

A fixed mindset asserts our important traits are set from earliest times and will hardly vary. This leads to two myths

  1. The Talent Myth: ‘Some are born great’ 
  2. Hopelessness: ‘I’ll never be able to do that’

On the other hand, a Growth mindset allows us to:

  1. Recognise our developmental needs: ‘I don’t yet have all the skills I need’
  2. Suit-up to address them: ‘If I work hard, I can develop new skills’

Other Psychologists who made Contributions in this Area

In a related area, Angela Lee Duckworth has found that:

  • a passion to achieve something and
  • the perseverance to keep working at it in the face of setbacks

Is an essential component of success. She calls this ‘Grit’.

Learn More…

Martin Gardner: Multiple Intelligences

ILEP #74 | MILP #18

Instead of asking:

‘how intelligent is this person?’

Howard Gardner would have us ask:

‘How is this person intelligent?’

Primary Contribution to Psychology for Project Managers

Gardener’s primary contribution is the idea of Multiple Intelligences. A great team is made of people with complementary knowledge, skills, and intelligences. Multiple Intelligences include:

  • Logical-Mathematical
  • Verbal-Linguistic
  • Visual-Spatial
  • Kinaesthetic (body)
  • Musical-Rhythmical
  • Naturalist
  • Inter-personal
  • Intra-personal (self knowledge)

The last two of these are, of course, the core of Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence.

Learn More…

Gardner’s book Frames of Mind, is an excellent introduction and detailed dive into this subject. But for a short introduction, I wrote an article on Multiple Intelligences for Management Pocketbooks.

Robert Cialdini: Weapons of Influence


Project managers can often only get things done through influence and persuasion. We rarely have the authority to compel assistance or contributions from our team or stakeholders.

And the psychologist who has done more than any other to researching document the ways we can influence one another is Robert Cialdini.

Primary Contribution to Psychology for Project Managers

Cialdini’s research starts with self-interest. He points out that, if you can appeal to that, you don’t need any other methods of influence.

But, if you cannot appeal to self interest, he uncovers six ‘weapons of influence’:

  1. Scarcity
    We want what we cannot have or what is hard to get
  2. Authority
    We are influenced when we believe the influencer has authority – positional or intellectual
  3. Social Proof
    We want to do what we think other people like us are doing, or would do
  4. Commitment and Consistency
    We want to act in a way that is consistent with any public commitments we have made
  5. Liking
    We want to do things for the people we like, and to have the things that appeal to us
  6. Reciprocation
    We feel obliged to return favors

Other Contributions to Note

In further research, Cialdini also discovered that we can set up conditions to pre-influence people to make a decision, in a process he calls ‘pre-suasion’.

Other Psychologists who made Contributions in this Area

As well as Thaler’s work on Behavioral Economics and ‘Nudge’ theory, which we mentioned above, it is well to know of the work of three researchers who studied compliance:

  • Philip Zimbardo (the Stanford prison experiments)
  • Solomon Asch (conformity experiments)
  • Stanley Milgram (compliance experiments)

Learn More…

Robert Cialdini’s books are somewhat technical – but very readable. But you may want to start with wide ranging book on influence… my own.

Kurt Lewin: Theory of Change


Kurt Lewin is one of the greats. He had multiple impacts on psychology. But for us, it is his Freeze Phases model of change that is most compelling.

Primary Contribution to Psychology for Project Managers

Lewin’s three phases of change are:

  1. Unfreezing
  2. Changing
  3. Refreezing

Other Contributions to Note

For us, the other big one is that Lewin’s Field Theory is the origin of the Pro and Con, For and Against, Strength and Weakness approach to decision making and evaluating a course of action.

Other Psychologists who made Contributions in this Area

Managing Organizational Change is an important part of Project Management. So, Project managers should know bout the work of:

  • Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (DABDA Grief Cycle)
  • Cynthia Scott and Dennis Jaffe (Change Cycle)
  • William Bridges (Transitions – based closely on Lewin’s Freeze Phases)

Learn More…

If you are specifically interested in Lewin’s ideas…

Start with our article: Use Kurt Lewin’s Freeze Phases to Guide Change.

And you may enjoy the video on our sister YouTube channel (Management Courses):
‘Kurt Lewin’s Freeze Phases for Team Development’.

For wider Change Management information…

…and we have a full training course:

Managing and Leading Change

Managing and Leading Change

Other Important Psychologists who nearly made this List

There are plenty of other psychologists whose work is immensely valuable to us, as Project Managers. As a result, it was hard to select my top 12. However, two in particular very nearly claimed a place on my list:

  • Bruce Tuckman
    His model for group development is, by far, the most useful way to start your understanding of how project teams evolve from a random group to a high-performing team.
  • Irving Janis (ILEP #56)
    Janis studied decision-making and first coined the term ‘Group Think’.

Who Would You put on this List?

So, how did we do? Did I miss any of your favourite psychologists with something helpful to tell us as Project managers? If so, please share in the comments below. And I will respond to every contribution.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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