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:
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.
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:
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!
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:
Of course, we must name-check Kahneman’s long-term collaborator and friend, Amos Tversky. But the other big names to mention are:
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.
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.
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).
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.
Linked to his work on Emotional Intelligence, Goleman has also written compellingly about leadership – bringing together the two fields to form valuable insights.
The founders of Emotional Intelligence are:
Daniel Goleman’s books are excellent and easy to read:
ILEP – | MILP –
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.
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:
Within the body of TA knowledge, some of the key contributors include:
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:
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.
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>
Seligman started his career in the domain of abnormal psychology.
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:
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.
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;
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.
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:
Following on from – and therefore connected to – his work on flow, Csikszentmihalyi has also studied creativity.
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.
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:
And, he learned this through an impressive experiment. This is not a theory, it is an empirical finding.
Too many to mention and well-outside of our scope here.
ILEP – | MILP –
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.
What Herzberg reminds us of is that there are two factors to take into account when we think about motivation at work:
There are a host of researchers into motivation, whose work all Project Managers should understand. Principal among them are:
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.
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.
A fixed mindset asserts our important traits are set from earliest times and will hardly vary. This leads to two myths
On the other hand, a Growth mindset allows us to:
In a related area, Angela Lee Duckworth has found that:
Is an essential component of success. She calls this ‘Grit’.
ILEP #74 | MILP #18
Instead of asking:
‘how intelligent is this person?’
Howard Gardner would have us ask:
‘How is this person intelligent?’
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:
The last two of these are, of course, the core of Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence.
ILEP – | MILP –
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.
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’:
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’.
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:
Robert Cialdini’s books are somewhat technical – but very readable. But you may want to start with wide ranging book on influence… my own.
ILEP – | MILP –
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.
Lewin’s three phases of change are:
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.
Managing Organizational Change is an important part of Project Management. So, Project managers should know bout the work of:
Start with our article: Use Kurt Lewin’s Freeze Phases to Guide Change.
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:
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.
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 ProjectManager.com 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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