Home Leadership Skills As Project Manager, are you a diplomat or a dictator?
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As Project Manager, are you a diplomat or a dictator? Print

 Are you a Kofi Annan or a Saddam Hussian? 

The dictator style of management is popular with engineers recently promoted to PM.
The diplomatic approach is popular with those same ex-engineers after they have tried to maintain their dictatorship for a few years.

Dictatorship is telling the workers what to do. A dictator is always sure he has the correct answer. He may be wrong, but he's sure.


Diplomacy is tell the workers about a business problem, and asking them what they should do.
A diplomat knows that no issue is every finally settled. He knows that a new and better solution may be proposed by the most humble member of the team. He knows that having the correct answer is only half of the solution, and the easy half at that.

Communication - the Heart of Diplomacy

Diplomacy is famously long-winded. There's lots of talk, much of it seemingly unimportant. What the diplomatic PM understands is that it's not just about what people have to say. It's also about getting them comfortable enough to talk about it.

That's why it's so important for a PM to be a good communicator. The most important aspect of being a good communicator is keeping your mouth shut most of the time.

Do you listen to your team? Do you know about their personal problems, their cars, their marriages, their kids? Do you know where they came from, and where they want to go?

If you don't know your team, chances are you are not much of a diplomat.

Pride Cometh Before the Fall

The solution to almost any problem faced by an engineering team can be discovered within the team. Yet how often does it happen that the PM blunders down the wrong path, ignoring his own team's opinions?

Bullheaded, he rushes headlong towards failure, fatally convinced that he has the answer. Like the protagonist in a ancient Greek tragedy, his pride blinds him.

The Ancient Greeks blamed pride, hubris, for most of the man-made tragedies of the world. Three thousand years later we are still acting out those old dramas.

If Euripides were alive today, he would think that a computer was a funny shaped rock, and wouldn't understand much of modern engineering conversation. But he would instantly recognize the reckless hubris of most Project Managers.

Motivation - the Reason for Diplomacy

Dictating a solution is so easy. Just fire up the email program and start a message: "I have decided we will do this..."

There are hidden costs of dictatorship. Personal responsibility is stifled. Mistakes are made again and again, and blamed on the dictator. No one feels the need to fix a problem unless told to do so. Those who disagree will secretly and passively sabotage the solution.

Consider the alternative of diplomacy. Even if you know the correct solution, don't dictate it. Call everyone together and explain how you see the problem. Ask them to explain how they see the problem.

With those explanations in hand, ask how the problem should be solved. Almost every time, one or more members of your team will come up with a solution that is as good or better than the one you were tempted to dictate to them.

Success - the Outcome of Diplomacy

Those PMs who use diplomacy miss out on the thrill of telling people what to do. They miss that special charge that comes from finding a solution and making it work. They also spend a lot of time hearing the same things over and over. They have to sit patiently in conference rooms and listen to proposals that they know are not going to work. They even have to let some of those proposals fail in the real world.

There's only one tiny consolation. They will succeed while the dictators will fail.

Diplomacy will succeed because instead of an inflexible solution that must be applied in every situation, you will find solutions that can be tailored for each need.

It will succeed because its hard to make people do something they don't want to do, but easy to let them do something they see as a good idea. It's hard to get them behind a process they don't like, but easy to get them to support a process that they came up with themselves.


Diplomacy takes more time up front. Instead of figuring out solutions to technical problems, the PM spends his time talking with the team about their ideas.

Jesus famously washed the feet of a beggar to emphasize his role as a servant as well as a leader. By doing so, he showed that what was important was his ideas and philosophy of human brotherhood, not his own need to feel important.

PMs need to adopt some of that attitude. Place the success of the team above your own needs. Let your team members have the glory of coming out the the best answer.

The only payoff will be a string of successes, and a lot of friends.

While you won't enjoy the pleasures of dictatorship, you also won't have to cope with the perennial fear of dictators: that one day, people will discover that they would be better off without you.

2003 © Ed Hartnett

About the Author:

Ed Hartnett has managed software projects in Europe and the USA. He welcomes comments at
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