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Soft Power for Project Success

The seasoned project manager will interpret this article as a truism, yet the topic of soft vs. hard power still bears significant weight in today’s project environment, especially for the newly initiated. Mike Griffith for Project Smart brings the famous political philosophy of Joseph Nye to explain why ‘soft beats hard’ in managing the people side of projects.

Sticks and Stones

Soft power is about giving people a reason to do what you want instead of wanting them to accept your reasoning. By contrast, hard power in a project management context isn’t like the political threat of military invasion (Vietnam War-style). It more closely resembles the old “Do it because I said so and I’m in charge.” When team members feel threatened, compliance comes at the price of low commitment to the project. In other words, if pay and not getting yelled at are your only incentives, expect all efforts to function within those parameters:

Have you as a project manager ever tried to tell a team member to do something “because I’m the project manager?” I’m sure you know that you’ll be more successful if you have a reputation as someone who has earned the title by delivering projects successfully, looking after team members and sharing the rewards of successful completion. These rewards are often less financial and more “soft”, like an email of thanks copying their superior, positive reviews of their contributions and recommendations for promotion.

Carrot Cake

According to Griffith (via Nye), soft power consists of the appealing aspects of one’s culture, one’s values, and one’s policies. Are you familiar with the analogy of the “carrot and the stick?” The lesson here – carrots work better than sticks. Your reputation will precede you, and your logos (your ability to argue logically) will propel your cause further than currency or an iron fist. When dealing with an increasingly diverse work culture, the soft approach will need to be customized across and within teams, as there are a variety of different views regarding power and hierarchy (or the lack thereof).

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About Eric Anderson

Eric Anderson is a staff writer for CAI’s Accelerating IT Success. He is an intern at Computer Aid Inc., pursuing his master’s degree in communications at Penn State University.

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