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Sham project compliance behaviour: Necessarily masking the reality of project work from senior management

Eric John Darling (University of Southern Queensland, Springfield, Australia)
Stephen Jonathan Whitty (University of Southern Queensland, Springfield, Australia)

International Journal of Managing Projects in Business

ISSN: 1753-8378

Article publication date: 1 November 2019

Issue publication date: 15 February 2021




The purpose of this paper is to examine a case of sham compliance performance reporting through the lens of Goffman’s dramaturgy to reveal its dramaturgical structure. It makes a methodological contribution to comprehending “lived experience” accounts of project work, and adds knowledge concerning the behind-the-scenes motivators to sham behaviour in project work.


Using an ethnographic lived experience account, an aspect of project work is reconceptualised as a collection of dramaturgical scenes. These scenes disclose issues beyond the bounds of the traditional project management discourse, and increase knowledge and appreciation of sham and performative behaviour in project work.


Sham progress reporting can emerge in an environment where senior management’s ignorance of project work creates unworkable binds for project staff. Moreover, the sham behaviour succeeds at its objective because senior management are vulnerable to false impressions. This situation raises ethical issues for those involved, and creates an overhead in dealing with the reality of project work.

Research limitations/implications

Limitations to this study are due to the inherent nature of the ethnographic method, where it is difficult to recruit willing participants, particularly in terms of sham behaviour cases. This study has implications for research on sham and performativity behaviour in project work, as studies can benefit from the dramaturgical analysis and Goffmanesque scene illustration techniques that help give focus to particular aspects of social performance, and remove complexity from the narrative.

Practical implications

The research provides practitioners with a way of discussing superfluous compliance process using additional lived experience vocabulary. This could reduce the undue pressure to behave unethically, and reduce the burden to create the extra impression management work.


This study brings a voice to sham behaviour in project work. Continued ignorance of sham behaviour results in unnecessary work and unprofitable projects. Individuals could pay a price in terms of stress and well-being, not discussed.



The authors would like to thank the Editor, Professor Nathalie Drouin and anonymous reviewers for their insights and encouragement. Special thanks to Dr Bronte van der Hoorn for her time and advice during the drafting process.


Darling, E.J. and Whitty, S.J. (2021), "Sham project compliance behaviour: Necessarily masking the reality of project work from senior management", International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, Vol. 14 No. 2, pp. 497-519.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited

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