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Why Project Leaders with High Status Fail More Often

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An unwillingness of teams to articulate criticism of high-ranking project managers means these leaders fail more often than middle-ranking managers, according to a study from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM).

The study examined the video games industry—known for its demanding projects, requiring adroit management— to find out how the status of a project leader influences the success of the project. The study confirmed researcher and PhD graduate Balazs Szatmari’s hypothesis: that mid-ranking managers were most likely to lead projects to success.

In contrast, high-ranking managers found mix results. They have the social capital to sell the idea behind the project to senior management and to motivate skilled colleagues to enthusiastically join their project. However, this status means team members are less likely to see or point out their weaknesses or failures. 

Szatmari examined 349 projects from an online database documenting the development of video games since 1972 and for which a single project leader—or producer, in video game parlance—could be identified. He then assessed the quality and success of these video game projects by taking into account critics’ reviews, customers’ ratings, the size of the project’s budget, whether it surpassed expectations for that budget and how innovative it was.

He found that mid-ranking leaders delivered the projects with the highest-quality, while projects led by managers with very high organisational status were typically the same quality as those run by low-status products.

Szatmari said his research demonstrates that firms need to be aware of the organisational stature of project managers when appointing them.

“This is something organisations should be aware of when they assign the managers of projects or even when they evaluate projects in the past,” he said.

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