Why project managers get no respect

There is not a child alive who dreams of being a project manager. Maybe a firefighter, a rock star or an astronaut, but not a PM. There is something inherently dull about the words “project” and “manager” – the flames of a bright imagination flicker and fade in the images those words generate. And it follows that in professional world saying you are a project manager won’t get you much respect either. To many being a PM means you fit this unfortunate stereotype: you were not good enough in your field to be an engineer or a programmer, and through politics and self-inflation, you find ways to take credit for the hard work done by others. It stings, but that’s the stereotype (ask at your next happy hour).

Many PMs unintentionally reinforce this view by trying to get everyone to pay attention to the work they do produce: the meta work of spreadsheets, specifications, presentations and status reports, failing to realize that to most in any organization, these are the least interesting and most bureaucratic things produced in the building. This mismatch of value sends the PM and his/her team into a downward spiral: the PM asking for more and more respect in ways guaranteed to push people further away.

The core problem is perspective. Our culture does not think of movie directors, executive chefs, astronauts, brain surgeons, or rock stars as project managers, despite the fact that much of what these cool, high profile occupations do is manage projects. Everything is a project. The difference is these individuals would never describe themselves primarily as project managers. They’d describe themselves as directors, architects or rock stars first, and as a projects manager or team leaders second. They are committed first to the output, not the process. And the perspective many PMs have is the opposite: they are committed first to the process, and their status in the process, not the output.

The result is that most of the world thinks of project management as BORING. Not sure how it happened, but instead of thinking of the great moments in PM history, say the NASA space race, The D-Day invasion of Normandy, The construction of the pyramids, the Empire State building, or any of a thousand great things made possible only by someone’s effective management of the project, people think of pocket protectors, overdesigned charts, epic status reports, and people who spend too much time in rooms filled exclusively with other project managers. If you are not going out of your way to separate yourself from the stereotype, odds are good that when you say “I’m a project manager” the person you are talking to puts you into a Dilbert cartoon in their mind, and you are the punchline.

People with job titles like “Program Manager”, “Product Manager”, “Information Architect” or “Quality Assurance manager” have similar problems. These titles all makes it hard to relate to what it really is that the person gets paid to make happen: a sure sign of title inflation, confusion via over-specialization, or abstraction from the real work. I suspect all of these folks have similar problems with getting respect from people when they introduce themselves with their literal job title (process), instead of what it is they help make (output).

The news isn’t all bad. This lack of respect creates a huge opportunity for people with open minds: their expectations of you are low. If you take the time to find out what it is that the people on the project need from you, or value from you, and make that as large a part of your job as possible, you’ll get more respect than you expect. And you may find that people start referring to you as a different kind of PM – one who has changed their opinion of what PMs can do for a team – and you’ll earn not only their respect, but their trust and best work too.

72 Responses to “Why project managers get no respect”

  1. SS

    As a former commercial developer that is now a PM, I can say that Project Management is very tricky.

    As a PM, I have to manage stakeholder expectations, manage my resources efficiently by delegating work to the right people as well as coaching/motivating my team. I also have to deliver projects on time and on budget, which means that I once I have organised my sprints, and the project has begun, I have to make sure that my team is on track through daily stand ups, retrospectives as well as writing well written user stories and user acceptance tests.
    Outside of this, I have to develop a good understanding of what technologies are involved when delivering the project. I am not hands on in my role, but whenever I embark on a new project I actively help the dev team with choosing the right technologies, as well as helping them devise a good software architecture.

    I think this article is very unfair in its assumption that PMs do not play an important role in delivering projects because they do not do the actual grunt work. The work we do is arguably harder for the reasons stated above.

    1. Junior Smith

      “harder” LOL. and I am sure your pick of what technology developers should use takes heavy weight in the final decision made by senior developers and architects. — Thanks for adding evidence to the above article.

      1. SS

        No, I generally let them decide, I just like to be involved in the process since it will help me understand what is technically involved.

  2. Bob Barnes

    Just to summarize, project managers are essential to any project and they play a critical role in delivering projects on time and on budget. The best type of power project managers can use according to PMI is the Expert power ! If you have knowledge in the field, you will get the most respect from your team.

    It’s funny sometimes to see job descriptions where employers search for candidates with degrees in journalism or communication !!. Even project managers spend 90% of their time on communication I believe that having a technical background would add extra respect and improve cooperation with your team which is a key to success.

  3. Jane

    A majority of the PMs i work with don’t understand anything about the projects they manage. They put in the minimal hours. They take vacations during critical deadlines and are hardly ever available to answer questions about their projects nor resolve problems with the their projects. At crunch times,with limited resources, they are unwilling to put in any time or effort to assist the team.

    That being said i also have worked with amazing PMs that have been there through the entire project. They knew every little detail about their project and were always available to answer questions or help resolve problems.

    I would say that a majority of the PMs i have encountered deserve little respect and are lazy and ignorant. The few PMs that have earned my respect have not received the recognition that they deserved.

    1. Lee

      Oh for fucks sake, does this topic really matter? None of us are experts, irrespective of what talents we think we have. We’ re all doing the best we can, but ultimately we all do better when working together. Job titles are so last century.

    2. S

      I was a developer, now I am a PM and I can tell you that PMs are extremely important when it comes to delivering a project on time in budget. I have worked with tech leads who are extremely technical but had no clue how to motivate the team to get work delivered. My ex line manager was like this.

      Sure – they are not expected to code, and often do not. But outside of that, they are the first point of call for clients; they also have to make sure the work is being delegated properly; constantly motivate the team; deal with any impediments. To top it off , PMs are often judged by how efficiently they are able to deliver the projects on time and within budget.

      It sounds like you have worked under bad PMs.


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