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Authenticity in project management leadership: a lesson from coaching

Authenticity is the buzz management term of the decade, but what does it mean and how is it related to project management? Kevin Ruck and Ann Pilkington explore the way that leaders are expected to be more authentic today and what the benefits are, focusing on one core element of authentic leadership: relational orientation.

 

Authenticity is defined in a number of ways and can be traced back to a sense of being true to oneself and not following the crowd. A scholarly definition was provided by Kernis (2003), who describes it as:

‘The unobstructed operation of one’s true or core self.’

A four component model was then developed by Kernis and Goldman (2006):

  • Awareness – knowledge of one’s cognitions, emotions and beliefs
  • Unbiased processing – objectivity about positive and negative information
  • Behaviour – acting in a congruent way that is related to awareness and unbiased processing
  • Relational behaviour – openness and honesty

So what does this mean for leadership? According to Walumbwa et al. (2008), leadership based on this model can be thought of as ‘greater self-awareness, an internalised moral perspective, balanced processing of information and relational transparency’. Research suggests that authentic leadership is associated with a number of business outcomes, including commitment, knowledge sharing, engagement, performance and productivity. Given this broad range of benefits it can be safely assumed that there are also potential associations for the successful outcomes of project deliverables.

According to the Project Management Institute (PMI) inadequate/poor communication is one of the top five primary causes of project failure. This can be associated with the fourth component in the above model, relational behaviour. Perhaps a lack of openness and honesty is contributing to project failure? Although there is often a natural inclination to try to manage and control communication it may actually undermine stakeholder engagement. An unwillingness to communicate about projects is also potentially symptomatic of a broader management perception of communication as ‘dead time’.

Authentic project management leadership embeds communication within all levels of the project plan, from the off. Communication is not an afterthought. However, it goes beyond this and is a core responsibility of the project leader.

What does this mean in practice? Communicative project leadership starts with listening with an open mind, heart and will. There are clear associations here with coaching principles where people meet, relate with each other and connect. It’s a dialogical process where there is a willingness to listen, understand, be open to new ideas and to take responsibility for outcomes.

Listening objectively is therefore reflective of a relational orientation whereby leaders are willing to take the time to talk to all stakeholders and share appropriate information in a truthful and adequate manner. Visibility and accessibility are critical factors that are associated with project engagement.

Project leaders should therefore find the time to talk to project members and stakeholders on a regular basis. This does not necessarily have to be formal, organised, presentations. Indeed, many people distrust jargonistic language that can creep into project communication. Instead, project team members and stakeholders often prefer informal communication – think of it as regular chats rather than as a set of PowerPoint slides. Of course, listening has to be genuine: it’s not an ‘exercise’. Project members and stakeholders will soon spot inauthenticity – as one employee said to me recently, a senior manager who visited their office was noted as ‘smiling, but not with his eyes’.

References

Kernis MH (2003). Towards a conceptualisation of optimal self-esteem. Psychological Inquiry, 14, 1–26.

Kernis MH and Goldman BM (2006). A multi-component conceptualisation of authenticity: Theory and research. In MP Zanna (Ed), Advances in Experimental Psychology, 38, 283–357. San Diego: Academic Press.

Walumbwa FO, Avolio BJ, Gardener WL, Wernsing TS and Peterson SJ (2008). Authentic leadership: Development and validation of a theory based measure? Journal of Management, 34–89.

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