Improve project leadership

Leading diversity in project teams

In order to lead people in the same direction, you have to lead them in different manners

Do you know what it is like having made a special effort to prepare yourself for a meeting in order to motivate and involve your project participants and then still being met by comments like “when is the next break?”, “what is the actual purpose of the meeting?” and “can’t we just start working?!”?

Leading diversity in project teams

Maybe you encounter these challenges because you manage your meetings and lead your project participants based on your own preferred way of doing things rather than that of your project participants?


This article has been written with a special view to project managers working with leadership of project teams. In this situation, the project manager is both to create ownership with the individual project participant of the sub-assignments in the project and navigate steadily through the participants’ differences, so that motivation, synergy and effective cooperation relations are created.

The influence of the project culture

In addition to meeting demands for production of the stipulated deliverables of the exact quality and on time, project managers and projects are also to create real change and significant impact. When implementing change, focus on interpersonal processes and the ability to communicate and motivate towards the final goal are essential. Despite this fact, the leadership dimension of project management is in practice having a hard time in many organisations. When looking at many project managers’ plans and estimates, it is revealed that it can be difficult to really have time for practising leadership in one’s project. The project culture and the incentive structure that exist for the project manager only to some extent support the leadership effort that is necessary in order to coordinate and motivate.

Instead, focus on deliverables and employment of classic management tools such as resource and budget follow-up, risk management, quality management and activity and
milestone planning are rewarded. These tools are highly important for creating results, but are not sufficient on their own if you want to create real effect of and in the projects. The leadership part is, together with the management part, a precondition for a successful project, but for many project managers, the leadership toolbox is diffuse and not particularly well-equipped. We, therefore, want to introduce a simple and effective tool for working with communication and motivation in the daily project work.

Diversity – strength or weakness?

One of the characteristics of projects is that they contain complex and new issues which cannot be solved immediately in the ordinary operations or by individuals. For that reason, diversity – both in terms of specialist competences and in terms of preferences – is often said to be a positive aspect and a strength in relation to solving the project assignments. In theory and with a view to the quality of the project results, this is definitely a meaningful perspective. However, many of the project managers with whom we speak state that in practice, when you are actually confronted with the diversity in the daily work, it often brings about leadership challenges.

The diversity may create conflicts in the project team or between stakeholders. Focus is removed from the project goals, and instead the human resources are used on difficulties in cooperation and conflict management for which no resources have been allocated in the project plan.

On the following pages, we will, on the basis of Whole Brain thinking, provide inspiration for developing your own awareness of how to undertake your leadership role and how to design your leadership, communication and cooperation more optimally.

Whole Brain thinking

There is a large amount of theories, models and test tools addressing individuals’ differences in relation to cooperation. One of the approaches that we find most useful in this context is Ned Hermann’s Whole Brain Model© (Hermann International©). Whole Brain thinking has been further developed by Dr. Kobus Neethling, and this is the version we use in the present article to analyse individual preferences that are linked with different Whole Brain thinking styles and behaviour.

The strength of Whole Brain thinking is mainly to be found in its simple structure. The approach functions very well as an intuitive method in the project manager’s complex and hectic working day and provides a frame of understanding and a language that can be used by everyone in the project team without a large amount of training.

What is a preference?

Whole Brain thinking styles are structured on the basis of the idea that we, as individuals, use certain preferences which influence the way we act. Let us illustrate a preference with a practical example:

Cross your arms without thinking about it. Now notice whether your left or right arm is on top. Do it again, but with the opposite arm on top now.

The first time, you probably had no trouble crossing your arms in a way that you would characterise as comfortable, easy and natural. The second time, however, you presumably had to concentrate and focus a bit more, and maybe you even experienced it as uncomfortable and difficult.

Similarly, most people also have a preferred hand for writing. If we are forced to write with the other hand, we often experience it to be difficult to do what we normally do with our “natural” hand. In other words, you have a natural way of crossing your arms and a particular hand that it feels natural to write with. It, however, does not mean that you are not able to cross your arms in both ways or learn to write with the other hand. The point is that you, when you do not think about it, have a certain way of doing certain things, i.e. you have a certain preference.

Whole Brain thinking styles

Whole Brain

Whole Brain thinking is an approach rooted in brain research. It is based on the fact that we, on the basis of our genes, environment, relations and life experience, develop certain thinking styles which we prefer over other thinking styles. These thinking styles are linked with certain functions in the brain, such as the ability to think in a structured, logical, detailed and linear manner or in a more holistic, unstructured, emotional and circular manner.

No style is better than other styles

There are no thinking styles that are better or more correct than others, but they contribute to determining the way we act – e.g. the way we gather and process information, communicate, solve problems, make decisions, react to changes, learn, are creative and structure assignments. Thus, Whole Brain thinking styles provide an indication and visualisation of human beings’ valuable differences, but not necessarily what we are competent at. You may e.g. prefer to gather and process information through written communication, but that does not necessarily mean that you are a fast reader or a skilled writer, i.e. that you are especially competent at reading or writing. Conversely, you may e.g. have developed a special ability to work with written communication without experiencing writing and reading as the most motivating way of communicating.

Preference and competence

If you find yourself outside your main preference during a long period of time, it will often result in low energy, low motivation and engagement in your job and, at worst, stress. This is an important piece of information in relation to the project manager’s way of organising and delegating the work in the project. Even though preference cannot be equated with competence, there will, however, often be a connection between preferences, personal and professional strengths – what we prefer doing, we often tend to be good at.


Our valuable differences

Whole Brain thinking is globally divided into four different thinking styles: rational, practical, relational and experimental, identified by the colours blue, green, red and yellow. Before reading the definitions of the thinking styles, try to reflect on the four statements below and choose what you prefer in the situation in question.

When I start on a new project, I prefer to…
1. Consult informed sources first
2. Attach importance to delivering high quality on time
3. Do it together with other people
4. Search for new possibilities

What colour are you?

Read through the four thinking styles in the model below and see if you recognise yourself in the preference which you chose through your statement. The four statements above correspond to: 1. rational, 2. practical, 3. relational and 4. experimental. You will usually be able to recognise yourself in more than one of the four quadrants. This is due to the fact that we, in our lives, have gained experience with elements from all of the four preferences. However, we usually have one or two main preferences which constitute our dominant thinking style with corresponding reaction patterns.

Whole brain

Whole Brain in project management

The project manager can design the culture

As a project manager, it is an important task for you to create direction and a framework for the project and team culture that develops through the work. The formation of a team culture may happen in a more or less controlled and more or less conscious manner, but no matter what you do as the manager of a project, you will, by virtue of your preference, contribute to defining a certain framework and conditions under which the project team is to work.

As an example, certain social conventions will emerge in the project, establishing certain ways of sharing knowledge, communicating, influencing solutions, meeting expectations or showing appreciation. Whole Brain is a simple tool with which you can
stage your own role as a manager more optimally through the understanding of your own and others’ preferences. In this manner, you are, to a larger extent, able to design the culture that you desire for the project team in order to ensure efficient communication and cooperation between the project participants.

Every project manager has his “leadership hobbyhorse(s)”, i.e. he/she attaches specific importance to certain leadership activities. In a Whole Brain perspective, you could say that the individual project manager takes up a certain position from which he sees his project and surroundings. This does not mean that you only use one focus or always find yourself in one and the same preference. Rather, the idea is that you can only use one thinking style at a time, i.e. you will see something and overlook something else until you change your perspective.There will also be some thinking styles which you prefer over other thinking styles in certain contexts.

In relation to each preference, there will also be an assessment of what is considered to be value-creating and what is considered to be a waste of time and resources. An indication thereof is typically heard in expressions such as “there is too much talking here”, “we are wasting time”, “please get to the point!”, “there is too much theory and too little focus on action”, “don’t bore me with details” and “keep to the schedule”. In other words, the four thinking styles contribute to influencing how you, in your project management, show appreciation and allocate time and space for something rather than something else.

Below, we will first take a look at the personal leadership focus in relation to own thinking styles and the influence and framework you establish for the team, and subsequently look at efficient cooperation and communication in the project team.

Leadership focus and own thinking style

The rational preference

The rational preference will take an objective view. When making decisions, people with this preference will take up a critical position and attempt to find specific causes and work out universal solutions. Communication in relation to others will be recognised as value-free, neutral and precise, and the focal point will be data, analytical conclusions and quantitative results. The rational preference will also process information in a logical and examining manner. The leadership style in this thinking style is characterised by being authoritative, formal and oriented towards product and performance.

Appreciation is achieved through high performance and clear results in which feelings are not taken into consideration. In addition, the rational preference will typically prefer a team structure built on the basis of a formal hierarchy, in which quality, authority to make decisions and responsibilities can be placed and measured. There is no room for spontaneous or subjective decisions – universal and correct solutions are rewarded.

The practical preference

When you put on the green spectacles of the practical preference, leadership focus is given a more pragmatic character. In your decision-making, you are occupied with the reliability of methods in relation to achieving specific goals in practice rather than analytical results. The communication that is typically used is characterised by a strong focus on detailed planning, follow-up on progression and whether the individual’s function fulfils the stipulated goals on time. What is characteristic of the leadership style is setting high standards for quality assurance in the solution of assignments.

Focus is on methods and on making decisions that are followed through. Appreciation is achieved through the ability to follow an agreed plan and respect and observe deadlines and through being loyal to the chosen methods. In addition, the team structure of a practical preference will be based on the individual’s function in relation to the assignment. There will be a strong focus on the individual’s role, responsibility and competence in relation to the parts of the project that the project participant is to solve. There is no room for too much theoretical, personal talking or for “the new good idea” – implementation and effect are essential.

The relational preference

The relational preference calls for a thinking style which is expressed through a subjective view. Considerations about the individual’s personal values and beliefs and consequences for the human relations form the basis of the preference’s decision-making. The relational thinking style attaches importance to interpersonal communication and involvement to create a common understanding of assignments.

The leadership style focuses on motivating, inspiring, giving emotional support and feedback on the way to the goals that are to be reached. The relational leadership style will, thus, also focus on involving stakeholders and ensuring support to the project from internal and external stakeholders. It will be sensitive to and react to changes in atmosphere and working environment that may be an obstacle to efficient cooperation. Appreciation is achieved by contributing to and taking responsibility for the joint social process towards the goal and for showing loyalty and supporting the people involved in the project.

It will prefer a flat, informal and collegial team structure in which cooperation, involvement and motivation of the individual are considered to be central to the project team’s productivity and contributions. Without good relations, the project team cannot produce efficiently – it is the interpersonal dynamic that is essential.

The experimental preference

Finally, the experimental preference will relate to the surroundings through a perspective in which the “multiverse” is ruling. The decision-making process is characterised by identifying multiple alternatives, and the thinking style will remain flexible in relation to changing decisions as the project and the surroundings change.

The experimental preference is occupied with the big picture, visions and the overall strategy. It will support new ideas, encourage and inspire to do things differently or organise in an alternative manner. The experimental leadership style can be characterised as willing to take risks, willing to change and futureoriented, and focus will be on the big picture in the project. Appreciation is achieved through the ability to inspire, challenge and innovate. The team structure will not be much in focus for the experimental preference. The preference will prefer an autonomous form in which flexibility and dynamic create the synergy and progress that are sought after at a given time in the process. It is the unique solution that is rewarded.

Each of the four thinking styles above provides a number of positive and necessary contributions to succeeding with complex project assignments. Try to reflect on the following questions:

Reflection questions regarding your own leadership focus and thinking style:

  • Which thinking style do you find most dominant in your leadership, and how is it specifically expressed in speech and action?
  • In your opinion, which strengths does your primary thinking style provide you with regarding your leadership?
  • Which thinking style do you focus on the least, and which challenges may this give rise to?

The article continues below

Your leadership in the eyes of others

As a project manager, you are responsible for a temporary organisation with people who have different backgrounds, educations, expectations etc. Thus, the probability that some of your project participants and cooperators do not share your preferences is large. Having achieved an insight into your own thinking style and preferred manner of approaching project work, it is, thus, also interesting for you to understand how your preferred thinking style may be perceived by others who do not necessarily have the same thinking style. A general picture of how the four different leadership styles can be perceived is illustrated by the below figure:

Leading diversity Your leadership in the eyes of others

Diversity in the project team

In addition to the challenges related to the preference you practise in your leadership, you are, as a project manager, confronted with the project participants’ different preferences and the effect that they have on the work process. In many cases, project managers experience that they are torn between the project participants’ different and often conflicting needs, e.g. the wish to receive detailed documentation in advance versus the wish to formulate solutions verbally based on input in the here-and-now situation.

Another classic example is a meeting situation where the rational preference is keen on quickly getting purpose and data presented, while the relational preference prefers to spend time on establishing personal knowledge about the other participants.

The potential of conflict

The practical preference quickly gets impatient if the agenda is not followed and discussions do not result in a specific action plan while the experimental preference often does not follow the agenda but instead goes off at a tangent if an idea or a subject is on his mind. Thesec onflicting needs can quickly become conflict-ridden and inefficient to the process if the project manager is not capable of handling the diversity in a proactive and constructive manner. Based on Whole Brain’s four thinking styles, it is possible, in this connection, to identify some potential and typical patterns of conflict to pay attention to as the manager:

Leading diveristy The potential of conflict

See the world with the eyes of others

The fact that these patterns of conflict arise can be seen in the light that when we use a particular thinking style, we have specific expectations and presumptions, i.e. a kind of preference logic. Unless other people draw our attention to the fact that we see the world in this particular manner – that there are other ways, expectations and presumptions present besides our own ones – we will, in many cases, take our own basic mental picture for granted. An important leadership task for the project manager is, therefore, not merely to draw attention to the specific assignment to be executed, but also to be able to relate to and articulate the particular manner in which we do it.

For instance, in a stakeholder analysis, it is not sufficient to have a dominant rational thinking style as a working frame as the stakeholder analysis in its essence is about empathising with other people’s perspectives, their subjective needs, interests etc. In this case, the relational thinking style would be more favourable. If the assignment is to break down milestones into a plan of action and estimates, a practical thinking style is most likely to be more productive than an experimental thinking style with an unstructured and risk-willing approach.

Create a common language

By deliberately using and visualising the value generated by the diversity in the project work in your leadership, you may, hopefully, be able to increase the tolerance for the participants’ differences rather than the annoyance that one’s own expectations are not always met. In continuation of this, having a common and simple language in relation to our differences is a prerequisite for us to be able to, on an ongoing basis, articulate both what the other person specifically does that annoys us, but also what it is that we specifically want more or less of.

As a project manager, the challenge is to be able to ignore your own preference and design the most efficient work processes in relation to each assignment and the preference profiles present in your project team. It is not an easy task. It can be experienced as unaccustomed and risky to lead outside your own preference, but as we are speaking of dominant thinking styles, willingness to develop competence outside your own preference is necessary in order to be able to lead people’s differences.

This is also important as project teams are rarely formed with the purpose of covering all four thinking styles. As a project manager, you are responsible for the project and its success, and in order to ensure this, you must step in from time to time and compensate if there is e.g. not enough practical preference in the project. Below is a list of inspiration to develop experience and competences within the four thinking styles:

Leading diversity

The use of Whole Brain during the project

Whole Brain is a dialogue tool which can be used throughout the project. It can e.g. be used in the project’s start-up phase, for a status evaluation of the cooperation in the team during the project and for the final evaluation of the work and what we have learned about ourselves, each other and what we will do differently the next time.

Start-up phase

In relation to the start-up phase, Whole Brain can be used for making some fundamental rules and talking about values and norms for how we want to work, communicate and make decisions together. In the project start-up phase, it is an advantage for the project manager to design and facilitate a dialogue process with the purpose of each project participant gaining more understanding of his own and the other project participants’ ways of thinking and acting.

In this manner, you can relatively early form a picture of each participant’s expectations to the work form and establish a common picture of the project team’s strengths and weaknesses in relation to the combination of preferences that is present in the project. Examples of dialogue questions for the project team in the project’s start-up phase may include the following:

Which elements in cooperation are the most important to you in the following situations:

  • When we hold meetings?
  • When we solve problems?
  • When we make decisions?
  • When we communicate with each other?

Even without the project participants’ knowledge of the four thinking styles, you will, based on the dialogue questions, be able to get an indication of and a good dialogue concerning which leadership style each project participant prefers the project manager to have. In relation to large projects where cooperation takes place over a long period of time, it will be of great value that each project participant gets the opportunity to make his own NBI thinking style profile (Neethling Brain Instruments (NBI)®, an electronic self-assessment tool that generates a personal thinking style profile.).

Based on this, you will get a more nuanced picture of each project participant’s thinking style and already in the start-up phase, you will be able to work more actively and explicitly with the overall picture of the composi-tion of preferences in the project team. If you are familiar with the profiles of the project team, examples of dialogue questions in a start-up phase could be the following:

  • Which strengths does each thinking style contribute with in the project?
  • When do the other members of the team think that your preference is too much?
  • What are our strengths based on the composition of preferences in relation to the project?
  • How do we help each other in the best way possible in situations under pressure?
  • Which challenge(s) may arise in relation to our composition of a Whole Brain team?

Rules of cooperation

Designing a number of rules and articulating the different expectations to work forms and cooperation provide the project manager with a qualified and unique possibility of focusing his leadership style in relation to the rules. In line with the example concerning the meeting situation where different preferences are often present, you will, with an insight into other people’s preferences, be able to understand and meet different manners of communication which do not necessarily feel natural to you.

As an example, the rational thinking style would prefer to get a clear and precise purpose pinpointed, the practical preference would prefer to have a correct and systematic schedule communicated, the experimental thinking style would want to know why, and the emotional thinking style would want to know who would be affected and in which manner. Based on your current knowledge about the four thinking styles and their application, consider the following questions:

Reflection questions for the Whole Brain manager:

  • Which new insights about yourself and the four thinking styles can you use to strengthen your own role as a manager?
  • In which manner will these insights affect your approach to your project team and your leadership style?

Summing up

An excellent Whole Brain project manager understands the team’s different thinking preferences and leads his team members in an inspiring and motivating manner. The starting point for this challenging but exciting journey is to understand and be conscious about your own leadership style and how it affects the people you lead.

Since it is very likely that the members of your project teams will not always have the same preference as you, the need for a suitable method for handling a diverse composition of preferences is central. Take the project participants as your starting point.

Instead of getting irritated or influencing the project participants to work outside their dominant preference, the successful project manager will lead others in accordance with their specific preferences. Having the insight and ability to speak the same language as the one who is listening is the ideal Whole Brain approach for all project managers. The advantage is that you establish a common language in the project team with the result that conflicts are reduced and the project manager and the project participants’ tolerance is increased in a natural manner as we learn to appreciate the other project participants’ preferences and contribution to the project.