5 Habits of Highly Effective Project Managers


5 Habits of Highly Effective Project Managers

June 20, 2016
Photo of project managers discussing at a table.

Project managers need to develop strong habits to be highly effective. Based on Stephen Covey’s landmark book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, we recommend five habits for project managers to develop in order to become, and remain, highly effective.

1. Be proactive.

Project managers need to be proactive in order to exert control on situations before they become problems, especially on complex projects. Being proactive means utilizing communications and risk management skills and using lagging and leading metrics to consistently monitor project status. Being proactive also means identifying risks and monitoring active risks, especially since risks can occur at any point and cause devastating results. Being proactive usually gives project managers more options to resolve a problem, whereas being reactive often restricts them to fewer and less effective options. Being a successful risk manager certainly requires being proactive and watching for possible risks to occur so project team members are not blindsided.

2. Be collaborative.

Three of Covey’s habits, “Think Win-Win,” “Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood,” and “Synergize,” all have one thing in common. They all have to do with creating a collaborative environment for yourself and others (Covey, 2013, 25th anniversary version). By cultivating this collaborative environment, project managers can add value to their team by increasing the team’s ability to succeed.

“Thinking win-win” means developing what Covey called the abundance mentality, which is that there are enough resources for everyone to collaborate without fear of running out. In other words, project managers should seek mutually-beneficial solutions and encourage cooperation, rather than settling for zero-sum solutions (where one side’s win is another’s loss) and competition. “Seeking first to understand, then be understood” means that project managers should listen to stakeholders and subject matter experts to fully grasp the nature of the project before getting involved in management decisions. Finally, “synergizing” means cultivating an environment of positive teamwork and figuring out ways to get the project team to perform their best. Cultivating all of these habits of interdependence will help project managers develop a team orientation over an individual orientation.

3. Be aware of leadership style and be able to adjust based on the situation.

What is the difference between an affiliative and a pacesetting leader? What about a coercive and an authoritative leader? Based on what situation project managers find themselves in, which is the best style to deal with problems that may arise? Project managers need to recognize these different styles, understand which style suits them, and assess whether the style works for them and their project teams.

Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard developed the situational theory of leadership in their book with Dewey Johnson, Management of Organizational Leadership (Hersey, Blanchard and Johnson, 2012). The situational leadership theory prescribes different leadership styles for team members depending on their competence to perform a task and their development level. If team members need motivation, the affiliative or coaching leadership style might be best. If results are needed quickly, on the other hand, coercive or pacesetting might work best. Situational leadership is all about reading the current environment and leading in a way that works with it rather than against it.

Even if project managers don’t always have time to assess their styles fully, being aware of their own style will go a long way. Formal feedback, 360-degree feedback, or even just conversation are all powerful ways for project managers to determine what kind of leader they are and start improving.

4. Be open to continuous learning.

Even though some project management processes haven’t changed much, project management itself is a dynamic field that presents opportunities to constantly learn and improve. Project managers are constantly exposed to new challenges based on technology and changing times. For example, there would not have been many software-as-a-service (SaaS) or cloud projects 25 to 30 years ago. Many times, a project manager may move between industries and even countries, encountering diverse cultures and ways of doing things. Encountering these new cultures means mastering new requirements for doing business based on the norms of the culture.

For project managers, taking advantage of professional development and reading up on trends are two powerful ways to embrace continuous learning. Reading should not include just project management or agile trends, but also trends in business, technology, and specific fields.

5. Be open to continuous change.

The world is changing, and companies and people must change to weather constant economic and societal shifts. Project managers are no different. The world is changing faster than before, and project managers need to be aware of the speed of change so they can help their teams adjust. Any agile team in particular should be prepared to incorporate change into the project, even late in a release, since this is an expectation of agile. Even outside of agile, cultivating this mindset is a safeguard against rash decisions when projects fall into crisis. Cultivating this mindset allows project managers to better accept when things have gone bad, calmly assess the situation, and figure out how to turn things around.

For beginning project managers, the five habits described here are a good starting point for building a strong foundation. Even more experienced project managers can benefit from studying these habits again and finding ways to cultivate them. By following these habits, project managers will be more flexible to respond to change and better positioned to lead and empower their teams.

Covey’s Seven Habits have been embraced by people all over the world in many different professions. Of the seven habits he suggested, we recommend project managers embrace as many as possible. At a minimum, they should try to cultivate the habit of being proactive, and try to cultivate habits that build interdependence within the company and with project teams. Finally, they should look at the remaining habits in two ways: be aware of how they operate currently, and be open to new possibilities. Cultivating these habits is likely to make project managers highly effective.

Cultivate these habits and develop your leadership skills through RefineM’s leadership courses, which are available as public courses throughout the year and can also be delivered as customized training courses.


  1. Covey, Stephen (2013). The seven habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. 25th anniversary edition. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  2. Hersey, Paul, Blanchard, Kenneth, and Johnson, Dewey (2012). Management of organizational change. Tenth Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
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