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The Power of Project Team Members

Marco Sampietro and Tiziano Villa

Coordinating a project, performing the necessary project management activities does not mean acting alone. A project, even of limited complexity, necessarily requires a shared managerial effort that goes well beyond the personal contribution provided by the project manager. Working on projects is by nature a transversal activity.

A project spans the performing organizations in order to build interfunctional teams based on a variety of professional expertise that differs in terms of specialization, organizational position and culture. This "horizontal cut" across the organization leads to the weakening, and sometimes even the undermining, of hierarchical relationships within the company: in fact it is said that working on projects leads to a flattening of the hierarchy (Gareis 1991).

Members of the project team also have a responsibility to play an integrating role. Nowadays, every team member should play a role that can be defined as project follower. This expression refers to the ability to follow the project actively and consciously by contributing to task completion and by achieving assigned objectives through cognitive, relational, and professional skills. Project followership does not mean challenging the project manager's authority, but neither does it mean unconditionally obeying the project manager's orders. Effective project followership is assertive but without diminishing the role of the project manager. Project followership therefore means "proactive participation in all aspects of project work, both technical and managerial, within an individual's visibility horizon".

Project Followership is based on several different fields of study: project management, followership, shared leadership, boundary spanning, proactive behaviors.

Global Vision is the ability to construct and maintain an overview of the project, broken down into existing situations and situations to work towards. Kelley (1988) maintains that an important quality of follower is to determine one's own goals within a large context and to decide what role to take at any given time. Global vision means being able to go hunting for the facts: if you do not know or understand something relating to your work in the project, or more generally to the rationale of the project itself, ask. If you are trying to understand a problem or a situation, try to reconstruct the overall picture and find the causes, do not stop at the first clues, data and information taken for granted. Global vision plays an important role in self-motivation. In fact a key to motivating followers is the concept of having them realize how important their function is in a broad sense.

Openness is the ability to encourage and sustain a dialectic discussion with other members of the project team and the project manager, paying genuine attention to the viewpoints of others, with a view to achieving a common goal. Openness derives from the fact that nobody has the knowledge to solve all the problems in a project and from the interdependencies that exist among project tasks. In interdependent systems, the behavior of an individual has an impact not only on the effectiveness of that individual, but also on the effectiveness of others, including groups, teams, and the organization as a whole. The potential for an individual to contribute to effectiveness at a team or an organizational level depends on the embeddedness of his or her work role in the social context (Murphy and Jackson 1999). When the activities of a work role are independent of others, then there is a simple link between an individual's behavior and effectiveness as an employee. When the activities of work role are interdependent with other roles, the link between behavior and effectiveness is more complex. For these reasons exchanging ideas and asking support is fundamental in a project environment. Chaleff (1995) also claims that effective followers are cooperative and collaborative, qualities that are essential to all human progress. Try to be curious, exchange views with others and, better still, learn from them and ensure that others can learn from you.

Professionalism is the ability to assume the role and act on the basis of professional, behavioral and ethical models considered to be of reference in an individual's field. Modeling means:

  • Having specialized knowledge on a particular subject matter. This is an essential requirement for a good follower and a typical success factor (Pinto and Slevin 1988): in order to interact "on a par" with the project manager and the other members of the project team it is essential to provide a solid and tangible contribution of professional expertise.
  • Having specialized knowledge on project management relevant for project team members. A good project follower should know what are the most important project management topics and how to apply them in order to be integrated with the other project participants.
  • Ethics. Kelley (1988) suggests that on top of the most important characteristics of an effective follower may be the willingness to tell the truth. As the quantity of available information has increased exponentially, it has become imperative that followers provide truthful information. In addition, ethics is an important component of project management professional development (See the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct).

Initiative is the ability to take action on key issues of the project even in the absence of instructions or a precise order. Initiative means being proactive: do not wait to be told what to do; if you notice project situations that need to be revised or fixed, inform others of them, propose and if possible implement solutions without hesitation. Caleff (1995) in its five unique behaviors of courageous followers mentions: "they generate new ideas and initiate actions to improve external and internal processes. Courageous followers seek solutions and encourage others to do the same."

Proactive behaviors normally produce positive results (Frese and Fay 2001) however other authors (Belschak, Den Hartog, and Fay 2010) acknowledge that personal initiative (as one type of proactivity at work) does not always have positive consequences; in combination with low skills, personal initiative may often lead to negative consequences. A type of initiative is to proactively establish relationships with stakeholders external to the project team (the so called boundary spanning behavior, see Marrone, Tesluk, and Carson 2007) in order to gain useful information, to influence the stakeholders decisions and to control the stakeholders satisfaction. Adaptability is the ability to be flexible in project contexts that are constantly changing. Workers need to be increasingly adaptable, versatile, and tolerant of uncertainty to operate effectively in these changing and varied environments (Pulakos, Donovan, and Plamondon 2000) . Adaptability means knowing how to change perspective: projects are inherently uncertain and become clear along the way. So you must bear in mind that a good dose of creativity, lateral thinking and breaking patterns will be required.

Influence is the ability to get other people involved in solutions to be adopted or actions to be taken in the overall organization of the project. Influence means being assertive: while it does not mean that you have formal or hierarchical authority in the project group, sometimes results are obtained simply by influencing, collaborating and supporting one's point of view with solid arguments. Influence is an exercise of shared leadership, in fact "shared leadership occurs when all members of a team are fully engaged in the leadership of the team and are not hesitant to influence and guide their fellow team members in an effort to maximize the potential of the team as a whole. Simply put, shared leadership entails a simultaneous, ongoing, mutual influence process within a team that is characterized by "serial emergence" of official as well as unofficial leaders. In this sense, shared leadership can be considered a manifestation of fully developed empowerment in teams" (Pearce 2004). Finally Kelley (1992) defines exemplary followers as "…..willing to question leadership. This type of follower is critical to organizational success. Exemplary followers know how to work well with other cohorts and present themselves consistently to all who come into contact with them".

Each member of the project team will be required to apply this model of followership systematically on the different occasions the project presents.


To summarize, if you find yourself participating in a project as a project team member, remember that you are required to provide a twofold contribution to the "common cause".

First, it is obviously a "specialized" contribution as an expert in a particular subject addressed by the project (e.g., applicative, technological, organizational, legal, business). This first type of contribution aims to ensure that planned project activities are carried out on an informed basis, with skill and strict content so as to produce the expected output quality.

Second is another type of more "managerial" contribution. This second type of contribution aims to ensure the project is planned in detail, executed in line with the plans, that its inevitable development is monitored with respect to the original plans and, finally, that it is closed in a manner beneficial to the organization and at the most appropriate time. You will therefore be required to provide, in some key stages of the project, assessments, estimates, data and information essential for good project management. For instance, think of the key contribution that experts can and must provide in defining the activities to be performed, estimating the timing and costs of activities, identifying the project risks, analyzing deviations from the initial plans, evaluating change requests, and producing the lessons learned from the project.

References and Recommended Reading

Blanchard, K and S. Bowles. 1997. Gung Ho! Turn on the People in any Organization. Sydney: HarperCollins

Chaleff, I. 1995. The Courageous Follower: Standing up to and for Our Leaders. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Conger, J. A. and R.N. Kanungo. 1988. "The Empowerment Process: Integrating Theory and Practice. " Academy of Management Review 13,3: 471-483.

Crawford, L. 2000. "Profiling the Competent Project Manager". Proceedings of PMI Research Conference: Project Management Research at the Turn of the Millenium.

Ford, R.C., and M.D. Fottler. 1995. "Empowerment: A Matter of Degree. " The Academy of Management Executive 9,3: 21-32.

Frank D. Belschak, F.D, Den Hartog, D.N, Fay, D. 2010. "Exploring Positive, Negative and Context-Dependent Aspects of Proactive Behaviours at Work". Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 83, 2: 267–273

Frese, M. and D. Fay. 2001. "Personal Initiative: An Active Performance Concept for Work in The 21st Century. " Research in Organizational Behavior. Eds. B.M. Staw and R.L. Sutton 23: 133–187. Stamford: JAI Press

Gareis, R. 1991. "Management By Projects: The Management Strategy of the 'New'Project-Oriented Company". International Journal of Project Management 9, 2: 71-76

Kelley, R. E. 1988. "In Praise of Followers. " Harvard Business Review 66, 6: 142-148

Kelley, R. E. 1992. The Power of Followership. New York: Doubleday.

Kirkman, B.L. and B. Rosen. 1999. "Beyond Self-Management: Antecedents and Consequences of Team Empowerment". Academy of Management Journal 42, 1: 58-75.

Manz, C.C. and C.P. Neck. 2004. Mastering Self-Leadership: Empowering Yourself for Personal Excellence. Third Edition. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Marrone, J.A., Tesluk, P.E., and J.B. Carson. 2007. "A Multilevel Investigation of Antecedents and Consequences of Team Member Boundary-Spanning Behavior". Academy of Management Journal 50, 6:1423-1439

May, D.R. and B.L. Flannery. 1999. "Cutting Waste with Employee Involvement Teams". Business Horizons, 38: 28–39

Murphy, P. R. and S.E. Jackson. 1999. "Managing Work-Role Performance: Challenges for 21st Century Organizations and Employees". The Changing Nature of Work Performance. Eds. D.R. Ilgen and E.D. Pulakos, 325–365. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pearce, C.L. 2004. "The Future of Leadership: Combining Vertical and Shared Leadership to Transform Knowledge Work". Academy of Management Executive 18, 1: 47–57

Pearce, C.L. and J.A. Conger (Eds.) 2003. Shared Leadership: Reframing the Hows and Whys of Leadership. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Pearce, C.P and H.P. Sims Jr. 2002. "Vertical Versus Shared Leadership as Predictors of the Effectiveness of Change Management Teams: An Examination of Aversive, Directive, Transactional, Transformational, and Empowering Leader Behaviors. " Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice 6,2: 172–197.

Pinto, J. K. and D.P. Slevin. 1988. "Project Success: Definitions and Measurement Techniques". Project Management Journal, 19-1: 67–72.

Project Management Institute. 2008. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Fourth Edition. Newtown Square: Project Management Institute, Inc.

Project Management Institute. 2006. PMI's Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. Newtown Square: Project Management Institute, Inc.

Pulakos, E.D.; Arad, S., Donovan, M.A., and K.E. Plamondon. 2000. "Adaptability in the Workplace: Development of a Taxonomy of Adaptive Performance". Journal of Applied Psychology 85, 4: 612-624.

Read more IT Performance Improvement

This article is an excerpt from:

Project team members play an important role in every project but often do not have the necessary understanding of project management methodologies. Thus, the dialog between the project manager and team members is often not as easy as it should be and becomes a source of stress and tensions. This book tries to improve on this situation by presenting the project environment from the perspective of project team members. Project management methodologies and behaviors are re-interpreted with a bottom-up approach throughout the text.

About the Authors

Marco Sampietro received a MSC in Economics at the Insubria University in Italy and a PhD at the University of Bremen, Germany. Since 2000 he is Professor at SDA Bocconi School of Management, the Business School of Bocconi University, Milan, Italy. SDA Bocconi School of Management is ranked among the top 100 Business Schools in the world (Financial Times Rankings). He is Core Faculty Member at SDA Bocconi School of Management and he teaches Project Management in the following programs: Master of Business Administration and Executive Master of Business Administration, and Global Executive Master of Business Administration. He is also responsible of the executive education course: IT Project Management.

Tiziano Villa, PMP, CMC has a degree in electronic engineering and started his career in IBM as organizational analyst in the manufacturing plant of Vimercate, Italy. Subsequently he worked in the IT Area of insurance companies, firstly as a Project Manager and afterwards as PMO Coordinator. Since 1989 Tiziano Villa has been working in the management consultancy field, mainly on project management-related topics as trainer and consultant. In 2002 he founded "The Project Management LAB®", an Italian consulting and training company which is also a PMI® REP. From 2003 to 2007 he has been a member of the Board of Directors of the PMI®–NIC Northern Italy Chapter.