By Harold Kerzner, Ph.D.
July 19, 2023
Project Versus Functional Worker Engagement
Worker engagement is the way a company treats employees, or the way employees treat one another to create a high quality and highly productive project work environment. Much of the early literature on worker engagement focused on workers hiring into a full-time functional position and working on assignments that remain within that functional area. Worker engagement on projects is generally more complex because the project assignment might be short-term, and the worker might be assigned to multiple projects concurrently. Also, the employee may be interfacing with other employees, including other project managers, that they never worked with before and might never work with again.
In the past, engaging team members effectively in project assignments was not given the attention it is receiving today. In the early years of modern project management, most companies used a matrix management organizational structure for staffing projects. Project managers (PMs) often had no say in who would be assigned from the functional organizations. The PMs had limited authority over the assigned workers. The wage and salary activities for the assigned workers were the responsibility of their functional managers and project managers often had very little input if any in the performance review processes.
Projects were often short term and team members were seen as a project expense and to be removed as quickly as possible after the work was completed. The PMs were not sure if they would ever work with these people again. Interaction between the project manager and the team members was often at a minimum, just to try to accelerate the work being performed.
Team members relied upon their functional managers for encouragement, support, and performance reviews. If a worker was unhappy with an assignment or the leadership provided by the project manager, they knew that all projects eventually must come to an end, and they would move on to another assignment that could be more challenging and interesting.
Today, projects are lasting longer, team members are being assigned full-time rather than part-time on projects, and collaboration between team members and the project leader has become critical. Project leadership training now contains modules on engagement, which focuses on creating a positive state of mind for the team members in hopes of achieving positive project outcomes.
Categories of Worker Engagement
We would like to believe that workers join project teams with an open mind and view each new assignment as challenging opportunities. Unfortunately, many workers come with preconceived ideas and fears that may be detrimental to the team. One of the purposes of the engagement effort is to address any concerns that team members may have. Worker concerns, a few of which are identified in Exhibit 1, allow us to identify and execute a worker engagement approach that might be unique for a given worker. Not all concerns have remedies and not all workers have the same concerns.
Exhibit 1. Worker Engagement Concerns
Academia and researchers generally identify between three and ten engagement practices that can help identify the concerns of the workers and help reduce their fears. In a project environment, typical engagement practices include:
- Understanding team member’s expectations: What work must they perform? How much authority will the worker have? What decisions will he/she be allowed to make? Who will they interface with?
- Rewards and recognition: What rewards and recognition does the team member expect if he/she performs as expected?
- Professional growth: What career path opportunities can the team member expect resulting from a successful project?
- Effective social leadership: Will the project leadership focus mainly on the project’s deliverables or include team member collaboration that also considers the need for a social balance between work and home life?
There are several types of engagement applicable to both project and functional assignments, such as cognitive, emotional, collaborative, behavioral, and social engagement. The application of engagement practices can differ when applied to a full-time functional assignment which is permanent as opposed to a project assignment which must come to an end.
Some researchers classify workers based upon how they have responded to engagement practices. Herbison (2023) identifies three categories:
- Engaged employees, who show up, get their work done and do so with a good attitude.
- Disengaged employees, who show up most of the time, get some of their work done, and usually do so with an apathetic attitude.
- Actively disengaged employees, who show up at the minimum possible level, complete the minimum amount of work, and—more importantly—actively sabotage the productivity efforts of their co-workers and leadership.
Engagement activities do not end at the completion of the staffing process or shortly thereafter. Workers can change their attitudes about the project based upon the leadership provided during project execution. Some leaders maintain a close and trusting relationship with team members throughout the project whereas other leaders might opt for a more distant relationship especially with diverse team members that are geographically dispersed.
Effective engagement practices include continuous interaction with team members, good collaboration and communication practices, providing team member recognition when possible, and continuous feedback. Unfortunately, effective engagement is difficult to measure. Some companies periodically ask team members who would be working with the new employees how well they appear to be performing. The new workers might be more open about their feelings with their team members than with the team leaders.
Project managers often select a leadership style that they feel comfortable with rather than what might be in the best interest of the team members. Some projects may lack opportunities for team member recognition as well as having limited career growth potential.
Impact of Diversity
Many of the new types of projects have put significant pressure upon companies to find new ways to meet the needs of employers, clients, and government agencies. Companies are resolving some of the issues by shifting demographics to more cost-effective locations worldwide, thus incurring the need for culturally appropriate actions.
More and more teams are now culturally diverse, and this requires an investment in diversity education. According to a report by McKinsey (2017), US companies have spent $8 billion a year on diversity education. Diversity education is critical for project teams because time is a constraint rather than a luxury. Diversity educational strategies address perceptual filters, including prejudice, stereotyping, bias in hiring practices, employee well-being, and team member satisfaction (Henao et al., 2021). Some of the topics included in project team diversity training include ways to promote positive team interactions, reducing prejudice and discrimination practices, and enhancing the skills, knowledge, and motivation of people to interact with diverse others. (Pendry et al., 2007).
Educating workers in diversity practices is only part of the engagement solution. The organization must know whether the team members are using the knowledge provided and whether favorable results are evident in engagement project management practices. Asking for periodic feedback is certainly beneficial, especially if the questions are behavioral oriented. Some of the critical questions that can be asked, especially to diverse groups, include:
- Does the organization value team members with diverse backgrounds?
- Does the organization appear to be committed to diversification?
- Is the project team committed to diversification?
- Does the person I report to appear committed to diversification?
- Does the project and organization welcome your ideas?
- Do you participate in decisions affecting your work?
- Do you feel that you are a member of this organization?
Impact of Personality
How well a person responds to the above questions as well as other inquiries and readily accepts the organization’s engagement practices is often based upon the individual’s personality. Schaufeli et al. (2002) define work engagement as a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption. Liao et al. (2012) state that work engagement is the extent to which employees’ psychological engagement is expressed in performing specific work tasks and roles.
Personality and work engagement are linked together. The emotions identified by a person’s personality often identify their feelings toward the assignment and engagement efforts. If the engagement identifies opportunities that the worker considers critical for career advancement, the personality might focus upon self-motivation, job involvement, and eventually a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
Some employees are moody especially if thrown into a new environment with people they have never worked with previously and expected to learn and use new project management practices. An employee’s personality can change quickly based upon how the worker is treated during project team engagement. Employees can have multiple personalities. By asking the right questions and effectively using emotional intelligence practices when communicating, PMs can identify possible personality trends.
Goldberg (1992) identified Big-Five personality markers that project managers can use during engagement practices. Articles have been written that have identified between 40 and 100 “Mini-Markers” or subcategories of the Big-Five stating how well or how poorly their personalities appear in each of the five main categories; Saucier (1994) and Dwight et al., (1998). The Big-Five include:
- Extraversion (i.e., talkative, energetic, and active)
- Emotional stability (i.e., relaxed, unemotional, and unenvious)
- Conscientiousness (i.e., organized, thorough, and efficient)
- Intellectual (i.e., creative, innovative, and imaginative)
- Agreeableness (i.e., cooperative, considerate, and kind)
Project managers generally assume that the organizations providing the resources for the projects are providing technically qualified staff. We tend to staff projects based upon the knowledge people possess rather than how they might work as a team with others. During the engagement process, PMs today are becoming more concerned with the identification of roadblocks and teamwork challenges that could impede performance.
Impact of Methodologies
For several decades, the primary methodology that project managers used was the waterfall approach where all work was conducted sequentially. Projects had well-structured life-cycle phases accompanied by gate reviews for decision-making. The focus was on traditional projects that began with well-defined requirements.
As project management applications began producing favorable results, organizations recognized the benefits achievable by applying project management to other types of projects such as those requiring the execution of a business strategy, innovation, creativity, and R&D. Many of these projects began with just an idea rather than well-defined requirements accompanied by a business case. The new types of projects required the use of more flexible methodologies, such as Agile and Scrum, or hybrid approaches that combine the best features of several approaches.
During worker engagement activities, employees must be educated on the methodologies and other tools they will be expected to use on the projects. For many employees, these new practices will remove the workers from their comfort zones and may induce fear of having to work differently. Engagement efforts must allay the fears that workers have with some new assignments that require the use of new techniques including new forms, guidelines, templates, and checklists.
Impact of New Metrics
Traditional project management practices have focused on primarily three metrics: time, cost, and scope. Some of the newer methodologies may have as many as 20-30 metrics and categorized as seen in Exhibit 2. Some companies have metric libraries that include 50 or more metrics.
Exhibit 2. Metric Growth Categories
Many employees are afraid of using new metrics for fear that the metrics could be used against them during employee performance reviews especially if the project is not performing as expected. There is a fear that many of the new metrics might be used by senior management to look over the shoulders of the workers to see if they are performing as expected. This could seriously impact the employee’s personality and remove them from their comfort zone.
During engagement activities, leaders must explain the relationship, if any, between performance on the project and the employee’s performance review process. Who will conduct the performance review? Will the project manager be allowed to provide any input? Will the input be based upon the metrics related to the employee’s performance on this project?
Impact of Culture
Not all companies maintain just one corporate culture that permeates all projects and all functional organizations. In the past, each project team was allowed to develop their own culture, usually based upon the leadership factors that were important to the PM. Multiple cultures could exist simultaneously across a company, and unfortunately many of the activities in the cultures conflicted with other cultures.
As stated previously, workers have expectations when assigned to a new project. Usually, culture supports ways for meeting many of the expectations. One of the biggest challenges is with diverse team members from geographically dispersed locations that have been working in a culture completely different than what will be expected in their new assignment. Cultural differences can and will impact the personalities of the workers.
Companies today are trying to resolve the issue by having just one corporate culture. This would ease the worker engagement effort. At the minimum, the engagement leader should address the following issues:
- Does senior management believe that “information is power” or are they willing to share strategic information with team members?
- Are workers allowed to state their opinion without fear of reprimand or punishment?
- Is criticism provided by senior management designed to be constructive or personal criticism?
- Does the culture understand that some projects will fail because of the risks incurred and that workers should not be blamed for the failure?
The leadership style that leaders adopt during engagement is critical in gaining team member support for building a positive thinking team. The challenge is in deciding whether to adopt an engagement-focused leadership style that emphasizes human behavior characteristics such as personalities, or a task-oriented leadership style that focuses on the work needed to be performed and the tools to be used. The challenge is finding a compromise between the two leadership styles.
Project engagement practices must be addressed toward individuals as well as project teams and focus on identifying meeting expectations if possible. Workers must be encouraged to perform in an ethical manner.
We would all like to think that effective engagement leadership practices can overcome all the barriers that workers might face when undertaking a new project assignment. This goal may be achievable, but not without significant training in how to effectively engage workers.
Dwight, Stephen A.; Cummings, Kimberly M.; Glenar, Jennifer L. (1998) Comparison of Criterion-Related Validity Coefficients for the Mini-Markers and Goldberg’s Markers of the Big Five Personality Factors. Journal of Personality Assessment. Jun 1998, Vol. 70 Issue 3, p541. 10p. DOI: 10.1207/s15327752jpa7003_11.
Goldberg, L., R. (1992). The development of markers of the Big-Five factor structure. Psychological Assessment, 4, 26-42.
Henao, David; Gregory, Chere; Dixon, Yvonne. (2021) Impact of Diversity and Inclusion on Team Member Engagement. Journal of Best Practices in Health Professions Diversity: Education, Research & Policy. Spring 2021, Vol. 14 Issue 1, p14-24. 11p.
Herbison, Gerry. (2023) Developing Leadership Capabilities to Drive Engagement: The most effective leaders focus on getting results and inspiring team members. Journal of Financial Planning. Jan2023, Vol. 36 Issue 1, p46-48. 3p.
Liao, Fang-Yi; Yang, Liu-Qin; Wang, Mo; Drown, Damon; Shi, Junqi. (2013) Team-Member Exchange and Work Engagement: Does Personality Make a Difference? Journal of Business & Psychology. Mar 2013, Vol. 28 Issue 1, p63-77. 15p. 3 Charts, 3 Graphs. DOI: 10.1007/s10869-012-9266-5.
McKinsey & Company (2017, April 7). Focusing on what works for workplace diversity. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/gender-equality/focusing-on-what-works-for-workplace-diversity#
Pendry, L. F., Driscoll, D. M., & Field, C. T. (2007). Diversity training: Putting theory into practice. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 80(1), 27 – 50. https://doi.org /10.1348/096317906X118397
Saucier, G. (1994). Mini-Markers: A brief version of Goldberg’s unipolar Big-Five markers. Journal of Personality Assessment, 63, 506–516.
Schaufeli, W. B., Salanova, M., Gonzalez-Roma, V., & Bakker, A. B. (2002). The measurement of engagement and burnout: A confirmative analytic approach. Journal of Happiness Studies, 3, 71–92.
Harold Kerzner, Ph.D.
Dr. Harold D. Kerzner, Ph.D., is Senior Executive Director at the International Institute for Learning, Inc., a global learning solutions company that conducts training for leading corporations throughout the world.
He is a globally recognized expert on project, program, and portfolio management, total quality management, and strategic planning. Dr. Kerzner is the author of bestselling books and texts, including the acclaimed Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling, Thirteenth Edition. His latest book, Project Management Next Generation: The Pillars for Organizational Excellence, co-authored with Dr. Al Zeitoun and Dr. Ricardo Viana Vargas, delivers an expert discussion on project management implementation of all kinds.
Dr. Harold Kerzner is a globally recognized expert in project, program, and portfolio management, innovation, and strategic planning, and Senior Executive Director at International Institute for Learning (IIL). For 50 years, Dr. Kerzner has shared vital guidance for making project management a strategic tool for competitive advantage and helping companies around the world build a powerful foundation for company improvement and excellence.
Dr. Kerzner has published or presented engineering and business papers and has published more than 60 college textbooks/workbooks on project management, including later editions. His books include Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling and Controlling; Project Management Metrics, KPIs and Dashboards; Project Management Case Studies; Project Management Best Practices: Achieving Global Excellence; PM 2.0: The Future of Project Management; Using the Project Management Maturity Model; and Innovation Project Management.
He is a charter member of the Northeast Ohio PMI Chapter.
He traveled around the world conducting project management lectures for PMI Chapters and companies in Japan, China, Russia, Brazil, Singapore, India, Korea, South Africa, Canada, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Poland, Croatia, Mexico, Trinidad, Barbados, The Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Venezuela, Columbia, United Arab Emirates, France, Italy, England, and Switzerland. He delivered a keynote speech at a PMI Global Congress on the future of project management.
Dr. Kerzner’s recognitions include the following:
- As a Mission Partner of the Project Management Institute Educational Foundation (PMIEF), IIL is proud to create endowed scholarships in the name of Dr. Harold Kerzner to support project management education and excellence, in partnership with Project Management Institute Educational Foundation (PMIEF). The Dr. Harold Kerzner Scholarships are four academic scholarships awarded to undergraduates and graduates for studies in project management.
- The prestigious Kerzner International Project Manager of the Year Award, presented to one project manager yearly anywhere in the world who has demonstrated excellence in project management, by Project Management Institute (National Organization) in partnership with IIL.
- Distinguished Recent Alumni Award in 1981 for his contributions to the field of project management, granted by The University of Illinois.
- 1998 Distinguished Service Award for his contributions to the field of project management, presented by Utah State University
- The Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Project Management Institute gives out the Kerzner Award once a year to one project manager in Northeast Ohio that has demonstrated excellence in project management. They also give out a second Kerzner Award for Project of the Year in Northeast Ohio.
- Baldwin-Wallace University has instituted the Kerzner Distinguished Lecturer Series in project management.
- The Italian Institute of Project Management presented Dr. Kerzner with the 2019 International ISIPM Award for his contributions to the field of project management.
Dr. Kerzner has an MS and Ph.D. in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from the University of Illinois and an MBA from Utah State University. He taught engineering at the University of Illinois and business administration at Utah State University, and for 38 years taught project management at Baldwin-Wallace University.
Dr. Kerzner is a Keynote in this year’s International Project Manager Day 2023 – check it out and register today!
Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.