The art of humble confidence
Project management is an interesting discipline to work in. It’s natural for people, over time, to gravitate upwards and towards roles that involve management. Gaining a deep knowledge of a given domain, and the ability to perceive how it will be affected over the long-term is naturally an important trait to possess when managing people that work within that domain. However, this alone is not enough to be an effective manager (although, too often, it’s the only qualification that is considered).
Yin and Yang
A lot of the people I’ve talked to find the concepts of confidence and humility to be at odds with each other. Why would someone that is confident bother being humble?
Isn’t humility really just about being someone that admits defeat and accepts that they cannot accomplish a bunch of things?
Humility is an under-rated virtue, and part of the reason for that is this line of thinking above. Being humble means having the ability to accept that there are things that you are not the best at. Not only are there things that you’re not the best at, there are things that you plain aren’t good at, and there are things that you downright suck at. It’s easy to say that out loud without ever having it touch down beneath the surface. The humble man can reflect, turn his sights within, come to the conclusion that he’s not good at something, and be alright with that.
For those that watch The Office, David Brent and Michael Scott are perfect examples of characters completely lacking humility. They’ve both got every reason in the world to actually be humble, but neither of them can admit or accept that they are poor at doing a single thing.
True confidence comes from the ability to accept and understand the fact that you are good at some things, and poor at others. Being aware of what your strengths and weaknesses are will give you the ability to approach situations with full knowledge about how you can affect them positively, as well as how you may end up making mistakes if you tread in areas for which you are ill-suited to assist.
True confidence comes from having a solid dose of humility, which will allow you to look inwards with honesty, and determine the things that you can really do well. False confidence is that which is possessed by Michael Scott and David Brent. Some other warning signs of false confidence are an inability to admit when you are wrong, the inability to agree to disagree, loud opinions without substance to back them up (typically being loud is used to drown out anything that might lead to questioning the assumption that the speaker is correct), and never being able to accept blame.
The confidently humble project manager
Project management is a position in which you need to be okay with the fact that your claims and suggestions are going to be questioned frequently. Why is that where our budget is currently at? Why can’t this project be completed by that date? Are you sure that your recommendation will work? (No, you’re not, since it’s almost impossible to be sure about anything when we’re managing people and moving priorities and deadlines).
Effective project managers need to be able to handle having their advice, assumptions and recommendations questioned. In fact, they need to be able to do this themselves beforehand, because that way they can be confident in what they’re saying. Not only is it important to be able to handle questioning, it is important to be able to listen to those questions with humility.
Project managers that don’t possess adequate humility will dismiss legitimate questions to their proposals out of hand, missing the opportunity to refine their approach, attitudes and suggestions, and alienating their clients. Project managers without adequate confidence will find themselves getting caught on every question that a client has to ask, lending too much weight to the slightest uncertainty, succumbing to the trap of analysis paralysis and exposing their team to constantly changing priorities.
The man who knows nothing
Being able to accept the fact that you are not an expert on everything provides you with a valuable ability: to rely on the experts that compose your team. A project manager that believes themselves to be an expert on everything automatically raises a couple of questions:
- Why do we have a technical architect and a business analyst if the project manager is capable of all this?
- Why are these other people being pulled into meetings with the project manager if they are not needed?
- Is the fact that the project manager doesn’t let the rest of the members of his team volunteer information an indication that they are incompetent?
None of these implications are attractive or co-operative. One of the most important things I’ve learned over time managing projects is that it’s okay for me to tell a client that I don’t have the answer to their question. I can’t answer that question, but my Senior Developer can and I can check in with them and get that answer. Better yet, if they’re there with me, I can turn the question directly over to them.
There’s an important distinction here between a good and a bad project manager. A good project manager will rely on his team for their opinions and advice. A bad project manager will rely on his team for scapegoating and passing off blame for poor results. Don’t let yourself fall into the second category. Those in the know are aware that poor results from a team are generally the result of poor management by the project manager.
The project manager that understands the values of humility and confidence is able to accept that they are not the expert on everything, and listen to a question without taking it personally. Is this a valid question? Have I actually accounted for this? Listen, consider what is being asked, discuss with your team as appropriate and respond.
By allowing yourself the benefit of being an imperfect human being, you will find that you are much more open to opportunities to learn and to improve the project that you are working on.