Sharon De Mascia on Project Psychology

Ostensibly, Project Psychology is all about applying psychological understanding and techniques in the course of project management and change management. Just don’t expect to learn very much about how exactly to do that.

Rating: 1.5

Project Psychology: Using Psychological Models and Techniques to Create a Successful Project

By , 2012. ISBN 9780566089428. Gower. 208 pages.

At first blush, it seems like this book could be a great resource for counsellors and psychotherapists working in organisations — who are not infrequently called on for consultation on change management — as well as for those in private practice who also provide consulting for businesses or other organisations. I really wanted to like it. Glancing at the list of chapters, everything seems to start off well, and it’s clear this book is supposed to be about working with people out there in the social world and not just with some codified playbook of processes and techniques divorced from human reality:

  1. The Project Team: Skills and Attitudes
  2. What Sort of Leader Should a Project Manager Be?
  3. Building the Project Team and its Culture
  4. Coaching the Project Team
  5. Engaging Stakeholders
  6. The People Side of Communication
  7. Managing Risk in Projects
  8. Managing Conflict in Projects
  9. Project Management and Change Management
  10. Using Your Project Board
  11. Do Organisations Learn From Failed Projects?
  12. Project Wind-Down

Unfortunately, I think the book is well described as an extended literature review, and a very undetailed one at that. The author extensively paraphrases or even adopts whole sentences from other sources, often secondary sources which are themselves commenting on another author’s original research. Sometimes De Mascia winds up reproducing what appear to be errors present in the secondary sources — such as in her discussion (p. 103) of Jose and Crumly’s 1993 research, reported in a 2000 article by Weigel. The stylistic differences as the author shifts from using her own words to using someone else’s are sometimes jarring, with other authors’ more academic styles appearing in close proximity to her own relentlessly colloquial and at times not particularly fluid language: “At the risk of sounding philosophical and ‘airy fairy’, I would just like to make the point that there is no such thing as objective ‘reality'” (p. 90). The text’s liberal editing errors don’t help (e.g., “I do not intend to say to [sic] too much about this topic”, p. 108 or “one party in the negotiation process sets a standard and everyone assumes that this is what that [sic] they have to negotiate around”, p. 83). Sometimes the author refers repeatedly to sources which do not actually appear in the book’s bibliography, such as the mentions in Chapter 8 of “Bradford University (2000)”. Others are brought in for little apparent reason, such as Lewicki and colleagues’ taxonomy for four different types of conflict (pp. 114-115), a taxonomy which the author dutifully copies out but then does not elaborate on further or, as far as I can tell, make any use of at all.

The sense of reading a literature review — or perhaps a literature skim — is reinforced by De Mascia’s frequent use of catch-phrases like “building shared ownership” or “creating a positive mood for negotiation” without saying much of anything about specific, concrete, actionable ways of actually doing what the catch-phrases describe. Sometimes the book’s boldface headings make this lack of information glaring, such as the section headed “How to Protect Yourself as a Project Manager When Others Fail to Cooperate” (p. 152), which offers little other than the following: use your project board as a resource. This underwhelming nature is demonstrated nicely in the final summary chapter’s brief section on emotional intelligence (p. 178), which is only slightly lower on detail than the book’s main discussion of the topic:

‘Emotional intelligence’ is about recognising emotions and knowing when and how to express emotion and being able to manage it. This is a really useful skill to have when interacting with people because if you are aware that you are experiencing anger or frustration, you can start to examine why you feel that way instead of letting your emotions run away with you.

But even these platitudes are not quite so puzzling as De Mascia’s having gone to the effort of offering a bulleted list, which takes up over half a page, of 11 different ways of communicating with stakeholders: “email, intranets, internet…telephone, Skype, conventional mail, internal mail” (pp. 88-89). We’re given detail where we don’t need it but starved of substance where things could have been really interesting.

In my view, this book could have been made vastly more useful to project managers in the real-world if it had dispensed with the long but undetailed second-hand and third-hand literature paraphrasing and focused instead on a smaller number of specific, actionable steps, skills or concepts and explored them in some depth — such as Fisher’s and Ury’s principled negotiation (which features in Chapters 5 and 8) or the cognitive distortions described by Lewicki, Barry and Saunders (Chapter 5). Rather than telling managers what someone in a sometimes decades-ago research project suggested could be useful traits, why not offer some specific and concrete steps to help them actually cultivate those traits? As it is, in my view De Mascia is doing little more than disempowering her readers — highlighting for them many things that can go wrong, many skills they ought to have, without actually helping them move forward to be better at what they do or even offering enough detail for them to understand the extent of what it is they do not know. The author is offering the experience of reading a lot about psychology without actually learning very much about psychology.

As I said at the outset, I really wanted to like this book. I expected to like this book! But from a counselling and psychotherapy perspective, I just can’t find much to recommend it. Nor can I find much to recommend it from my perspective as someone who used to work in large organisations, or from my perspective as someone who used to provide consulting for large organisations.

I will say, however, that if it was De Mascia’s aim just to provide a bit of a taster, to get psychology more on the radar of project managers and drum up some interest, perhaps convincing them it would be worth their while to learn more, then it probably succeeds nicely in that respect. Maybe De Mascia is saving the “learn more” part for a second volume.

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