Tag Archives: selligman

Control Issues in Projects

Propulsion Control Levers

In agile there is no leadership role. The scrum master is explicitly not in control of the group. This is the Scrum view of agile but even in DSDM there is more of an emphasis on motivation and coaching in the project manager role . And yet, in my experience, these groups do not lack direction and motivation levels are higher than in standard hierarchical structures.  So, why is this?

Way back in 1939, Lippitt and White ran some experiments that might shed some light on this. They ran boys clubs, training the adult leaders in three leadership styles, authoritarian, laissez faire (i.e. indifferent) and democratic. This study is often cited in business leadership articles and in teaching contexts. The findings were not so surprising today but I can imagine they flew in the face of common beliefs of the time (I imagine there was an emphasis on strong leadership/authoritarian style). Team members under authoritarian leadership were unmotivated and quick to blame each other. Laissez faire leaders produced even more of a blame culture. Democratic groups were most motivated, friendly, open and co-operative.

A later study might also be relevant to control in project teams. In 1976 Langer and Rodin found that giving rest home residents control over a few choices (such as what night to watch a film and how to care for a plant) lead to increased longevity. Although there were problems with the study, such as a lack of randonimity between members of the control group and members of the responsibility assigned group, the study was repeated by Langer’s student with the same results. Langer and Rodin referenced the dynamic of learned helplessness explored by Selligman in 1975. They posited that people who had more agency were more motivated, happier and healthier. I have talked about Selligman elsewhere and am struck by how relevant it is to project teams.

The importance of control being shared among the group is reflected in my experience of the workplace. I remember a large bank where staff were regularly told to stop talking to each other and only one staff member was allowed to open or close the window. That group had low agency and seemed unmotivated. My impression was that productivity suffered as a result. Conversely, in agile groups with a high degree of input into the team’s direction, motivation and productivity were high.

Sharing control of course does not mean leaving a group to it; that would be the laissez faire approach. Decisions need to be clarified and decision making facilitated.  A list of ill-defined issues and decisions can be oppressive to a group. The remedy is not to supply the group with decisions, rather it is to make explicit what the issues and decisions are and agree a path to decision making (sometimes that can be a matter of referring to someone outside the group).

This post was inspired by some particular material I am enjoying at the moment. The Psychoanalysis of Organizations: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Behaviour in Groups and Organizations by Robert De Board was published in 1978 but seems full of relevant lessons for today’s working environment. The other material I am enjoying at the moment is the radio series Mind Changers by Claudia Hammond. A great series that, like the De Board book, makes the psychological discoveries of the past interesting and accessible. Finally, I have to mention this great prezi presentation that I came across on Langer and Rodin. A fun way to review the material in the Claudia Hammond episode on the Arden House study.

So, is it a stretch to relate a rest home study to project work? What are your experiences of control in the workplace? Is democracy practical in all cases? Is it true that there is no leadership role in agile? What about the matter of responsibility? Thoughts and feedback welcome, as ever.

Image is Propulsion Control Levers by Dawn Endico licensed under CC by 2.0

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