Ways of Managing & Leading a Project Team

by Catherine Hodgetts, Design Enterprise Studio Member, March 2021

During my time with the RAFAC (Royal Air Force Air Cadets) I have attended many training courses in leadership and team management. Being a military organisation the styles taught were always authoritative. Researching into management styles for digital media teams more recently has been a great opportunity to reflect on the styles I have been used to and how they compare with other options. So in this post I will share what I think are important aspects of managing a project team effectively!

One key aspect to managing a team which can often cause confusion right from the start is that many people equate management with leadership. While these often go hand in hand, they are different skills and should be approached in very different ways.

A leader is a visionary, the one who creates an idea and sets out the parameters of what they want done to make it a reality. They are also often responsible for providing the rules and policies (including handling discipline). Managers on the other hand are responsible for the day to day running of a project and setting achievable shorter term goals. Leaders and managers can be the same individuals but since the skills needed for each role are not the same, a great leader-manager makes sure they balance the development of both skillsets equally.

3 Key elements to managing a team effectively

There are 3 key elements to managing a team effectively: communication, environment and efficiency. A project can often be thought of as an ecosystem, it needs all three of these elements to flourish and produce the best possible results, but like an ecosystem the balance between them is delicate and favouring one over the others can cause quality to slip, members to become unhappy and mistakes to be made.


Communication breakdown is one of the leading causes of a project failing. If people aren’t sure exactly what is expected of them or don’t feel comfortable speaking up within a team then they are likely to either make their own mistakes or not point out a mistake they noticed that could have saved the project time and money. 

For a manger, encouraging open communication is extremely important, this not only includes communication between your team and you, or between team members, but also to your stakeholders. Having effective communication in all areas will make the project run smoother and often produce a better quality result that both the team and the stakeholders are happy with.

Some tips for effective communication in a project:

●  Start the project with meetings, setting out what is expected from each person and how they are expected to achieve this.

●  Have regular check-ins – these will be a good opportunity for issues to be raised and problems to be caught early.

●  Praise in public, reprimand in private – if the responsibility to administer reprimand your team falls with you, ensure you do this in a private setting. This will improve morale as public praise will encourage the maintenance of standards, but no-one likes to be told off in front of everyone and doing so can severely hurt the team dynamics.

● Have a communication channel open at all times – This could be as simple as giving them your work email, but having that channel where issues can be raised in private will make you employees feel comfortable coming to you (more about this in the next section).


The right working environment can make all the difference in an employee’s productivity. A good social environment is just as important as the physical environment, on occasion even more so!

If you’re office-based, making sure the space is comfortable and has plenty of natural light etc. This will make your team look forward to being there, rather than dreading their drab grey offices. Of course you could have the most accommodating office in the world but if everyone hates each other this will impact productivity (see my point about communication earlier!).

Some tips for achieving a good environment:

●  Keep open communication and encourage constructive criticism

●  Ask your team! – the people that know best what will improve the environment for a team are your team. Ask them what they would want/need to work better.

●  Give and take – as with most things in life you can’t make everyone happy. Part of being a good manager is evaluating what will and won’t work.

●  Avoid unnecessary conflict – this is where communication comes in again, if something isn’t possible explaining why in a clear way will often reduce animosity around decisions.


Giving your team the tools to be efficient seems an obvious way to increase productivity, however it can often go beyond your immediate team. Think about the way a process currently works, is this really the best way of doing things?

As a manager you are often the link between the team and the more senior areas of the company. Making the team feel like you are prepared to be their voice to suggest improvements can be a large boost.

Tips for improving efficiency:

●  Be open to suggestions – giving your team the opportunity to suggest ways to improve systems can improve how the overall team works.

●  Be flexible – just because you have always done it in a particular way doesn’t mean it will always be the best way – take feedback on board.

●  You can say no – taking the above points into account, if you need to you can say no, explain why (if it’s appropriate) and move on. Don’t dwell on things that can’t/won’t be changed, and encourage your team to do the same.

Communication, environment and efficiency are key to managing a team effectively, but there also are many leadership styles to consider. It is possible to combine styles or start in one style and transition into another style later on in the project/ when necessary. It is vital to gauge which methods will work best for each project, each team, and the organisation as a whole. 

Generally speaking, leadership styles can be split into three categories: autocratic, democratic and hands-off (also called laissez-faire):

Autocratic leadership styles

Autocratic leadership styles are top-down. They promote one-way communication between the team and the boss, and are the most controlling. With these styles, team members are managed much more closely than in other styles. This can be effective if you have a very large team with assistant managers etc or if you have very strict parameters that must be adhered to. Types of autocratic management styles are:

●  Authoritative: With this style team members are expected to follow orders, with managers dictating requirements and punishing disobedience. This allows for fast decision making, and for team members to know exactly what is expected of them at all times. However, this method does reduce communication and may lead to a poor working environment. This could lead to high employee turnover, so should only be used when appropriate.

●  Paternalistic: This method is often described as a workplace feeling like a ‘family’. Managers still make the decisions but they are often explained to the team, and increased communication is much more common. Loyalty and trust are big elements of this leadership style, with a focus on the welfare of the team members, and remind members to up-skill and take part in training. However, creativity may be lost and team members may rely too much on management, and the organisation may be missing out on opportunities for innovation.

●  Persuasive: This style focuses on convincing team members that the best course of action is to have one manager making all the decisions. Some questions and input is encouraged from the team but the final decision still lies with the manager. Utilising this method will reduce the potential for resentment, however team members will still suffer from frustration at lack of opportunity for feedback or improvement.

Democratic leadership styles

These give power to the team members, but also hold them responsible for the consequences of the decisions made. As opposed to other styles, democratic management does not have one person that bears the brunt of all the consequences. Instead, blame and praise are shared equally between the team. They allow for open two-way communication and promote innovation, discussion and often benefit from a more cohesive team. Types of democratic management styles are:

Consultative: This is a common style for teams made up of multiple specialists where opinions from each member are taken to arrive at the most informed decision. The decision is made by a manager but will only be made with the input from the rest of the team. This can lead to increased trust and communication between the team and management. However it can also be extremely time consuming and labour intensive, and the reliance on the team can cause members to question why they have a manager at all if they are having to delay their work to help make decisions. It is also key to be aware of favouritism when using this style as it can be easy to be swayed by the opinions of some team members over others.

●  Collaborative: This style employs majority rule to make decisions, and uses an open discussion of ideas to decide all aspects of the project. This style will increase trust, creativity and engagement, and can often lead to less conflict as ideas are discussed openly. However this is also very time consuming and if decisions made by team members is not in the businesses interest, it may be overruled at a later date, resulting in mistrust.

●  Participatory: In this method both management and team members are involved in the decision making process. Greater transparency with goals and information about the overall company means that the team members feel a better connection with the organisation and make decisions as one. Participatory style will result in team members feeling valued and give them a greater understanding of who they work for and why decisions are made. However it must be monitored as more assertive team members may take the lead and less assertive members can be forgotten or ignored. As with all the democratic styles this is extremely time consuming.

Hands-off (​Laissez-faire)

Hands-off leadership styles let team members get on with their work with minimal supervision. It is common with this style for a manager to only be present at the beginning of a project for delegation of duties and then again at the end for the delivery of the final product. All aspects of workflow and decision-making are left to the team, with no input from a manager unless direct assistance is requested.

●  Delegative: with this style the manager delegates roles and only steps in at the end to review work and provide feedback on how future work could be improved. While managers are ultimately responsible for the tasks being completed successfully, team members are given freedom to work as they see fit. This level of autonomy promotes a high level of innovation and creativity and may increase job satisfaction among people who crave more autonomy. However productivity may suffer due to less experienced team members struggling on their own. It may also result in poorly handled conflict, breeding resentment between team members and also towards management.

●  Visionary: The visionary style focuses on inspiring team members to work towards the manager’s vision for a project. It gives team members freedom to work, with managers checking in every now and then to keep themselves updated with progress. It is very common in this style to provide extensive feedback during and after the project, and praise to be given at every opportunity. While this method promotes high engagement and can be very rewarding it relies on the manager actually being inspiring (not everyone can be, and that’s okay!), if team members aren’t inspired it can be extremely detrimental to the project. This style can be difficult but is definitely high risk, high reward.

In summary...

Assessing which method to use and when will result in an effectively managed project, higher team member satisfaction and an overall more successful team. Feel free to combine them in a way you think will benefit your project and team the most. 

Managing a project team can often be a nuanced and challenging task, but with the right attitude and effective use of management style I believe you can create a productive and efficient workplace.

Writing this post has been a really interesting way for me to reflect on different management styles. When leading teams in the future I hope to adapt my style to incorporate more collaborative methods, as well as a visionary approach to boost enthusiasm for a project.

Please comment below if you have any examples of how you have employed these techniques for a great outcome!

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