Project Management

Talent + X = Success; Solve For X

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In last week’s blog I pointed out some elements that might put a downer on the PM who is successfully attracting talent to her Project Team, along the lines of the high-aptitude additions detracting from team cohesion, unless they also just happened to be humble. Such team members have the unfortunate habit of hijacking some of the functions of the PM, such as setting the technical agenda, or trying to decide the optimal way of responding to unexpected events or circumstances. In pathologically extreme cases, should the gifted addition also happen to be a narcissist, they will invariably pressure the PM to establish some sort of hierarchy of the value added by each member of the Project Team, and steer rewards accordingly. The “value added” parameter, of course, is always highly influenced (if not out-and-out determined) by the narcissist (GTIM Nation is aware of my fondness for quoting Michael Maccoby. Maccoby actually wrote two books on the topic of narcissist in managerial leadership positions[i].).  And, like the Jungle Fighter archetype, the highly-talented narcissist will never self-identify, or provide some other easily-observable characteristic that would give the PM a clue about their intentions or deviant tactics. But there is a way of handling this type, and the GTIM Nation member will want to know it for all those times when they find themselves the head of a high-performance team. It’ rarely easy – even in those teams blessedly bereft of narcissist, some organizational behavior and performance pathologies can be expected to creep in, and the PM would be well-served to know how to identify them.

But first, the narcissist. They will present as the most coveted of Maccoby archetypes, The Gamesman – experts in the field, willing to take risks, true leader material. However, what’s really going on is, like I mentioned earlier, an attempt to create and enforce a kind of pecking order, or hierarchy, upon which whatever benefits are available to the PM to dole out are predicated. Close or pure meritocracies simply will not do. And – wouldn’t you just know it? – the most “deserving” are always (in this order) (1) the narcissist, (2) those whose contributions are so obvious that they can’t be overcome through calumny, who happen to be on the narcissist’s good side, (3) those whose contributions are so obvious that they can’t be overcome through calumny, who aren’t on the narcissist’s good side, (4) so-so contributors, (5) detractors, and (6) the narcissist’s enemies, regardless of their contribution.

To establish this hierarchy the narcissist(s) will engage in extensive ex parte conversations with the PM. In legal environs, these types of discussions are strictly verboten, as they represent a grotesquely unfair tactic where only one side of an argument or position is presented, meaning that the decision-maker(s) is likely to be influenced towards a bad call. The ex parte conversation, however, is the narcissist’s bread-and-butter, their go-to strategy. To block this tactic, the PM must never allow any ex parte conversations in their presence. If any employee – regardless of perceived Maccoby archetype – attempts to have a private discussion about any aspect of the Project Team that involves other members, stop the conversation immediately, and invite the referred-to parties to join in. Soon the narcissists will get the message, and they will be deprived of their favorite tactic.

Meanwhile, Back To The Answer To The Equation In The Title World…

The answer to the equation in the title is, of course, axiomatic. Talent plus hard work leads to success, almost automatically. The problem here deals with how easy the truly talented make what they do appear, even in the absence of a narcissist attempting to spin the actual events unfolding within the project. To deal with extremes in the interest of illustration, a highly-talented Project Team member will accomplish the same amount of scope that an averagely-abled team member could do, but in much less time. If the highly talented team member goes on to chase down and perform more work, it will tend to provide an example to the other team members, and they can be expected to mirror this behavior. If, however, the highly talented team member does not make an overt show of taking on more responsibility, then the message that sends is one of small effort becoming equated with impressive results, which is organizational poison. This is particularly true if the Project Team member in question joins the team after it has already experienced considerable success. Surrounded by achievements on every side, why should they have to put maximum effort into something that’s already destined to accomplish its goals? Essentially, high-performing project teams are vulnerable to a very specific organizational behavior and performance pathology, one that will invariably remove them from the “high performing” bracket should it permeate the Team even moderately, and that is the belief that hard work isn’t as essential to success as talent.

So, sure, PMs should work hard (get it?) to attract talent, and be glad when they are successful at doing so. Just remember – there’s still another parameter in the equation.


[i] Maccoby, Michael. Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007.

Maccoby, Michael. The Productive Narcissist, the Promise and Peril of Visionary Leadership. New York: Broadway Books, 2003.

Wikipedia contributors. (2020, April 17). Michael Maccoby. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 01:18, June 28, 2020, from

Posted on: June 29, 2020 09:49 PM | Permalink

Comments (7)

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Very interesting., thanks for sharing

Great post Michael. It is interesting that a smart person who coasts (does only as much as required) doesn't do much for overall team culture and therefore overall team performance. Is it also a case of "much is expected of those to whom much is given"?

nice info

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