David Armsworth-Maw is an experienced project and program manager who, in this article, offers strategies to reduce entrapment from personal and social norms, based on research he has undertaken as part of a masters in coaching psychology.

In the rapidly changing hypercompetitive, uncertain, and globally connected world we’re living in right now, project and portfolio leaders (PPLs) are facing intense demands on their personal adaptation capabilities to operate across multiple projects, cultures, organisational units, countries, professional disciplines, project teams, languages, technical vocabularies, and project phases.

Within this environment, PPLs need to be adaptive and innovative in their thinking to rapidly absorb and integrate new information, and successfully implement new and innovative solutions within their projects and portfolios.

However, it’s easy for project managers to become entrapped in rigid ways of thinking which can constrain this adaptation and innovation, leading to dogmatism, a fixed mindset, resistance to change, and psychological inflexibility. Such entrapment can arise from personal and cultural social characteristics interacting to limit your ability to think and behave in a manner supportive of adaptation and innovation.

Personal entrapment

You may become entrapped by your management methodologies and how you see yourself. For example, you may believe that you’re always/never correct; only your way to lead a project works; or your structure and sequence of work streams must be deployed in every situation.

You can become entrapped in how you describe themselves as well, which could be by over-stating of traits and skills such as ‘I am a brilliant PPL’, ‘I am a project management guru’, ‘I am the project leader’; or under-stating of traits and skills, such as ‘I am a poor PPL’, ‘I can’t do technology’, or ‘I am not an influencer’.

Social entrapment

Cultural social norms are explicit and implicit social group rules on having acceptable behaviours, expectations, and values. They might be enforced by the application of social sanctions such as public rebukes, low performance ratings, or exclusion from the social network, such as not being invited to social events.

As Daan van Knippenberg comments in his book, Making Sense of Who We Are: leadership and organizational identity, social norms can trap how your role as a leader is perceived and can be fulfilled. Such norms may imply that you’re not a decision-maker, you don’t hold power in the organisation, and are seen as ‘the person who ticks boxes’. Others may see the PPL as hugely beneficial and give them a strategic decision-making position.

Differing social norms, sometimes phrased in ‘right or wrong’ language, can create boundaries for how the PPL thinks and behaves, preventing them from thinking ‘outside of the box’ or implementing change.


Entrapment reduction strategies

Personal and social entrapment can prevent you, as a leader, and organisations from identifying and leveraging diverse thinking, approaches, and perspectives in periods when high-tempo adaptation and innovation are key to organisational survival and success. Here are three strategies which can help reduce entrapment.

1. Enhance self-management

Effective self-management will enhance your understanding of how you think, your assumptions and biases, and how your political, social and cultural awareness may be vulnerable to outdated and rigid thinking. In the 2020 Annual Review of Sociology, the Social Networks and Cognition paper recommends you seek out honest input and feedback on your behaviour and thinking approaches, testing the accuracy of your assumptions, biases, and perceptions of yourself and your social networks.

2. Embrace an open mindset and seek out diverse relationships

An open mindset doesn’t hold onto preconceptions as the ‘truth’ of a situation and understands there are many alternative viewpoints on any situation.

Challenge yourself to explore whether you are:

  • excluding non-confirmatory information because ‘it doesn’t fit’
  • viewing the situation from only one (your) perspective
  • limiting the potential and contribution of yourself and others because of social labels and norms
  • dismissing ideas and input from different professional or social connections.

You should be reviewing your network and identifying which professional and social connections will enable you, according to the paper, Network brokerage and the perception of leadership.

3. Prepare to change

Continuously developing and growing involves reviewing thinking, behaviours, skills and knowledge to ensure that they remain flexible and adaptive. You can prepare yourself for future change by enhancing your current situational awareness and anticipating change by asking yourself ‘Which parts of my thinking are becoming outmoded or rigid?’ and ‘What changes am I seeing occurring that indicate I may benefit from making personal or professional changes?’.

Moving forward

By being open to embracing new ideas, perspectives, and approaches, you can reduce your entrapment, enabling you to respond in an adaptive and innovative manner to the current challenges currently facing individuals, organisations, and society.

David Armsworth-Maw has been a project and program manager for 20 years across a variety of sectors including real estate, consultancy, broadcasting, financial services, and law. David’s most recent project management roles have focused on leading revenue-generating teams of legal project managers across the globe, within top tier law firms Allen & Overy and Ashurst. David is also an executive coach and is undertaking a MSc in Coaching Psychology at the University of Sydney.

This article appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of  Paradigm Shift magazine. Find out more about the AIPM digital magazine and take a look at the full edition.