Soft Power for Success

Soft power is the ability to get people to work with you by attracting them to be part of what you stand for; rather than to coerce, force or pay them. This can work for project managers too.


Soft power is a political concept developed by Joseph Nye of Harvard University. For Nye, power is the ability to influence the behaviour of others to get the outcomes you want. This can be done using hard power – threats and payments – or you can attract and co-opt them to want what you want. In international politics, hard power is a factor of metrics such as population size, military assets and gross domestic product. However, these don’t always produce the desired result; the Vietnam War is a case in point.


It must be clear that in a project it is much better to get the whole project team to believe in your goals so that they work with you instead of just going with the flow. If you use threats or purely financial incentives people will be inclined to work with you, but only to the extent that they still benefit. There is a very real risk that people will do just enough to avoid the threat or get the payment, but will not go the extra mile for the common good. How much more inclined would they be to give their best, their all if they believed in you as their project manager?


A successful project manager would need to have the currencies of soft project power. Nye describes a country’s soft power as being based on three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when others see them as legitimate and having moral authority). A project manager’s soft power is based on personality (the human touch which makes him or her attractive to others to work with), ethics and values (so team members will feel that they’ll get fair and honest treatment), and proven ability to deliver projects successfully (a legitimate claim to the title of project manager). Hard power for a project manager would mainly be the official title of project manager, possibly combined with his/her hierarchical position in the organisation and the project budget.


Have you as a project manager ever tried to tell a team member to do something “because I’m the project manager?” I’m sure you know that you’ll be more successful if you have a reputation as someone who has earned the title by delivering projects successfully, looking after team members and sharing the rewards of successful completion. These rewards are often less financial and more “soft”, like an email of thanks copying their superior, positive reviews of their contributions and recommendations for promotion.


Different cultures can affect hard and soft power in projects. In cultures with a less hierarchical work culture, like the Netherlands, using your title to get people to do something will likely only result in people arguing about whether what you are telling them to do is the best way. Your reputation and logical arguments to explain why it is the best route will often be more successful. Also for seemingly administrative procedures like project change requests, I have had more success explaining why a change request is required. “We need to understand what the change is, and especially the effect on all the teams, and then document the decision,” than telling someone they must submit the change request because that’s the procedure.


The other way culture can affect soft power is that different cultures see hierarchical power and personality traits differently and have different values and ethics. In this multi-cultural project environment, the project manager will need to use his or her soft powers flexibly, focussing on different aspects of each cultural group. This makes it difficult when addressing a whole group, but is no different from the other aspects of working with different cultures in a project.


Now I’m the last to believe that all project managers till now have used only hard power and that I’ve found the silver bullet of soft power. If I look at successful project managers around me, they all use soft power. So this message is more for new project managers to understand the difference between hard and soft power, to understand which power is more successful in certain scenarios and apply it accordingly. Remember that a reputation as a solid and fair project manager will get much more done than your title.


If you get all of your team to believe in your goals, which by definition align with the successful completion of the project, then they will go that extra mile to get you there! Earn the title of project manager instead of resting on it.


Soft power rules!