A bearded PM works alone.

Do Introverts Make the Best Project Managers?

Project managers are great ringleaders but they also can perform while working alone heads down into a technical problem.  Many project tasks don’t require an entire resource list to accomplish, and that’s when the solitary functions begin.  As a technology project manager, you might really enjoy developing an intricate Gantt chart or building a matrix that will ensure maximum risk avoidance.  Taking notes and building rapport with the project team as they build a consensus.  You might be an introverted project manager if solitary tasks are in your comfort zone and team-think or building relationships are not.  On the other hand, projects require group consensus and even extroverts enjoy the empowerment of solitary decisions.

Introverted project managers still manage projects well, and they can carefully craft a seasoned approach to understanding that as an introvert, they require enough alone management time to balance team building and communication.  This project manager may be in the organization long enough to have a solid and balanced plan, but some aren’t that lucky.  Project managers have a nomadic way of life and often change organizations mid-career, or for some, are smart enough to start early into investing research into personality type and career choices.  The best thing project managers can do today is to understand how their work personality aligns with the project management career.  Both personality types can excel in project management, but there are keys to focusing on specific areas.

There is increased research about how introverts navigate through the work environment.  Many corporate settings cater to the extroverted. Just look at how Facebook setup its physical co-located environment.  How many company environments do you find that cater to introverts?  Do virtual teams and home offices go a long way in supporting a happy introverted worker?  Time will tell! Although home offices do provide some sense of introversion-focused tasks; they are increasingly becoming isolated.  While some companies force webcam meeting tactics that attempt some type of connection; our cognitive overload seems to undercut the effort.

In the mid-nineties, I managed projects with teams that were co-located, and if an employee wanted to send an instant message (at work), we used the net send command (old school).  Later, tools like ICQ and Jabber came along even while there was some resistance to the idea of employees chatting away all day with a keyboard. Today, we rely on that same instant messaging to get work done. In Shawn Santos’ book, How Companies Succeed in Social Business, he describes the use of social business tools perfectly, “Social businesses do something that previous generations of business leaders could only dream of—they break down inefficiencies within organizations and create personal relationships…”  While Shawn was pushing brand loyalty by allowing social media conversations to occur at the customer level and be spontaneous, these same tools can be used for project communication.  Social business tools don’t just connect with the customer, but they link your project teams together as well.  Some team-based project sharing tools now have social constructs similar to Facebook and Twitter that will allow an open cross-collaboration within your project team.  Some tools I’ve seen are in the Atlassian Suite and CA’s PPM, among others we’ll discuss in later posts.

If you aren’t familiar with the  Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®), I hope you will (or have) take the test just for fun.  While I don’t believe you can put any Project Manager into any one box, you can certainly use this information to understand communication styles among the groups.  When I started in Project Management, my MBTI score was INFP.  Introverted, loyal, idealistic, you can read the different types to get an understanding, but there is one caveat – mine changed much later on after I had been in my career for some time to INFJ–now my long-range insightful nature came through.  Some websites will let you take a similar test for free, and some employers have the same testing available in their learning and development groups.  This understanding may be a natural one to you but if you are young in your career and just starting in project management, understanding your proclivity for introversion and extroversion will help you get a good idea of where you should focus your professional development.  In other words, being a project manager of a business development project for a non-profit organization and being an introvert just may inhibit your success in some facets.  Some technology programs may have a lot of hands-on work that a project manager may need to be involved with, but in many information technologies, infrastructure (IT), software development, and many other development projects, having a good grasp on systematic communication methods are tantamount to success.

But there is a catch.  There is always a catch.  You will not and cannot develop your project manager role unless you are willing to develop leadership skills and learn to push yourself out of the introversion.  That means your safety net.  Even agile projects need a great servant leader who is willing to get the team wrapped around the project vision.  This doesn’t mean change who you are!  This means stepping outside your comfort zone and pushing the envelope of introversion and engaging.  Engaging leaders are hard to find; and those who actually lead projects?  Success!  So remember to develop your soft skills as well as the technical ones!

I like to use a term that describes the introvert who wants a career in project management.  It’s called an ambivert.  Yep, am-buh-vert.  I like to think this is where most seasoned career professionals end up, I included.  This person could never really classify themselves as either the introvert or extrovert characteristics and seems to find strength (or weakness) with both individual and social situations.  There are many articles and blog posts written on the subject of ambiverts and even free tests you can find, but the most impactful results I found are in Adam Grant’s research.  Adam is a professor of psychology and management at Wharton  He has also spoken at a Ted Talk.  He’s written many research articles, but the one you should consider is the analysis he authored, Rethinking the Extraverted Sales Ideal: The Ambivert Advantage.  [Note: the DOI link is a permanent one and is a paid site, but on Adam’s professor page you can search through his documents and find the text in whole].

While we’re talking project management, you can rest assured that if you haven’t had to sell an idea to a project team, a director, a client, or a customer on how you propose to extract requirements, build a plan, implement the end product, use a budget, or execute the vision, then you may just be starting out. In fact, I would wager to say that many highly technical project resources have had to be convinced that your plan was achievable or that they should stop tweaking code and move on to the next requirement.  Adam’s article brings a whole new approach to the personality type culture.

“…extraverted salespeople may focus more heavily on their own perspectives than on customers’ perspectives.”

In his research, Adam points out that to sell something an extrovert’s perspective is a little self-centered, while the introvert’s usually aligned with the customer.  As a project manager, your customer can often be a peer, resource, leadership, and other team members.  You are leading a temporary vision to a deliverable that your team defined, and often, you may have to change the course to avert risk or underspend.  Salesmanship aside, think of how many times you have to find the middle ground in a project.  Finding the middle ground and convincing your customer and project team members to see the same vision is quite a juggle!

“Once customers recognize persuasive intent on the part of a salesperson, they are likely to strive to maintain control and protect themselves by scrutinizing the message more carefully, marshaling counterarguments, and resisting or rejecting the salesperson’s influence.”

Think of a seriously extroverted project manager attempting to convince the director of a technology organization that her idea of implementing several projects that impact thousands of users at the same time isn’t exactly the wisest approach.  As an introvert, your ability to read the clues, understand the director’s position, and not posture, just might be the winner.  Your listening skills are just as important as understanding the hierarchical structure in your organization.  Extroversion lends itself to being the center of attention or is too “assertive and enthusiastic” (Grant) without understanding the context of the situation.  The better you are at reading people, the apter you are to sell your idea.  I believe introverts can achieve this faster while extroverts should use this information to align professional development needs.

From a hands-on systematic approach, I would argue it is the introverted project manager that rapidly assimilates these tools and builds them into the fabric of the project teams.  In some cases, even languages can be easily translated so that global counterparts can now be a part of the project.  Extroverts draw energy from social interactions, and although I’ve seen many extroverts as project managers, I have also found that introverts bring a skill set that can also lend itself to efficient handling of technology projects.  Technology projects have side benefits for both personality types.  For the solitary who needs quiet time and intense focus, distributed and non-co-located teams mean that he or she can utilize the tools for communication and allow for more creativity and learning in project management skills like leadership.  Extroverts can find social interaction by planning face-to-face events, draw on external project members for insight, and use the downtime to develop system communication skills.

It indeed is not black and white when it comes to personality types and being a project manager, but knowing how your personality fits into a specific category of projects may help you define your career path.  Even finding that you are somewhere in the middle and are an ambivert, helps you narrow in on traits you want to develop.  I would suggest that introverted types try global teams, hands-on systems, practice in a scrum master role, and develop leadership skills.   An introvert could also progress to product management or driving improvement for Project Management Offices by being the Business Process Lead.  From a portfolio perspective, introverts could do very well at aiding a technology organization by managing it (portfolio manager).  Extroverts in a technology field sometimes have to learn how to deal with many introverted team members so using those extroverted skills to get to know the team and help them out of their comfort zone could be a significant challenge to tackle.  They can excel at progressing to the program level or becoming a project leadership team member.  They would also be able to drive transformation within the organization.

Many corporate learning environments provide project managers professional development opportunities, and sometimes it can be a challenge to use those resources.  While being in a room with a couple of strangers building teams is not something an introvert may want to do; it’s probably the one thing they should do.  Extroverts could use listening skill development and situational leadership. No one personality trait makes a good project manager because no project or team are alike and each project takes an unknown path using the skills and tools on hand to execute the vision.  The one thing you can do to influence excellence is to find the project niche that fits you and use developmental resources to improve your playbook.  Making it a habit of using project downtime as an opportunity for professional development is a good one!

Ultimately it’s up to you to decide whether or not your personality fits the project management career.  You should understand how the job skills, team, and support level drive your results.  You should read a prior article about project excellence to think about measuring your performance.  If you are happy in what you do and thrive on impact, then you will deliver excellence no matter your personality.

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