Communication – the lifeblood of a project

In Communication

By Maura Fay Learning

Communication is the lifeblood of any project: this knowledge area underpins competency in all others. Effective communication is more than just a matrix of schedules and mediums, and this article considers the micro-level of project communication – the conversation. There are additional influences that a project manager can take into account to ‘flex’ their communication style to various stakeholders. These include personality types, subject matter and personal perspectives.

In the fast-paced and high-pressure environment that accompanies most workplace projects, effective communication techniques can encourage high performance, on-board key stakeholders, motivate team members and prevent or resolve conflict. To paraphrase Susan Scott’s famous quote ‘The conversation is the relationship’ – in a Project Management Office (PMO) environment, the conversation is the project. We manage a project to meet its objectives one conversation at a time.

Of course all of PMBOK’s knowledge areas are important, but I’m going to suggest that Communication management is key to dealing with not only external stakeholders but also with your project team.

If we take as a starting point, a wider definition of Communication management, (that it is more than a Project Manager communicating to the wider business and to external stakeholders); the communication inside the team is equally important.

The difference is that it is likely to be less planned and formalised, more frequent, ad hoc and unprepared. But those communication interactions with project team members will have a key influence on how successful a project is in meeting its objectives. This is stepping out of the macro level – team meetings, status updates, and town hall meetings. This is about the quality of the communication you have one on one, day to day.

Just as a project is made up of a sequence of tasks, relationships with project team members are made up of a series of conversations. And just as we complete a project by completing individual tasks, we build communication with each conversation we have.

Like tasks, they are discrete units yet interconnected. Depending on the project, you may have hundreds of conversations on any given day with the project team. How many are face to face or voice to voice? I’ll revise Susan Scott’s mantra ‘The conversation is the relationship’ to an even bigger, ‘The conversation is the project’.

And just as stakeholder analysis identifies the key influences on effective communication with stakeholders, there are key influences on effective communication with project team members to set up those intra-project conversations for success.

The communication style of the other party

Flexing your communication style to mirror or match the other person can build rapport, which will enhance the sense of ease or comfort around the conversation. This is not mimicking, just loosening our own default behaviours. Just as we speak differently to a friend, a partner, a child or a judge, so we can communicate differently to smooth the communication.

You may have heard of the Channels of Communication referred to as the three Vs: Verbal, Vocal and Visual (Mehrabian 1971). Under each of those channels there are a few traits you can observe and flex towards the other person’s natural style.

For the verbal component of communication, consider: do they speak in longer or shorter sentences, do they focus more on task over relationship? For the vocal channel: how is their volume (loud or quiet), their speaking pace (faster or slower), vocal tone (varied or monotone)? And the visual channel – their body language: are they high energy or low, is their body language more open or more closed, do they use a lot of eye contact or seldom, how big is their sense of personal space i.e. do they stand closer to people or further away?

Our conscious brain doesn’t always notice these aspects of another person’s style; but subconsciously we do. The more similarities between ourselves and another person the more comfortable we feel, and the more we find them likeable. We like those that we are like. We are influenced by those we are like.

How does this affect your conversations with your project team members? Whether you are delegating, giving feedback, following up, coaching, brainstorming, analysing, or any of the myriad of conversation types, rapport will be the grease that makes the communication wheel turn more easily. Consider the situation of the other party, especially if they are likely to be nervous or feeling some stress about the conversation, and build rapport by flexing the way you communicate with them.

The subject matter of the communication

Is it controversial, corrective, conflict, exploratory, confirming, or collaborative? How do you approach those more difficult conversations? Performance management communication, and specifically the giving of feedback to a team member, is a good example. In a high-paced PMO, feedback conversations often take a back seat, and that means they not be such a common experience for the manager or the team member.

Sometimes inconsistencies between business reporting lines and project reporting lines can make a manager even less confident to engage in giving feedback.

If one of your team is underperforming in some way and they would benefit from receiving corrective feedback, then investing some time earlier rather than later to give that feedback effectively will save you time.

If you’re avoiding those conversations, it may be that you don’t see them as a priority over other tasks. Let’s stop to consider the consequences of continued avoidance. If you delay having the tough conversations the team member gets the implied message that their performance is adequate. Then the behaviour becomes embedded over time, and is much harder to change. And the conversation is much more difficult to have. Early investment of time and energy in this conversation will give you a better return.

The other most common reason why project managers avoid feedback conversations is lack of confidence; nervousness about how effective the conversation will be. Structure the conversation clearly so that the recipient will find it more digestible and more actionable. Effective feedback conversations are structured around specific examples and follow a sequence of five steps:

  1. Permission: Start by getting their agreement to have the conversation about their actions/behaviour.
  2. Context: Start with the big picture – in what situation did you observe the behaviour that is the subject of the feedback?
  3. Actions: Then dive into the detail – what was the specific behaviour?
  4. Result: What were the consequences or results of the actions? They may not be aware of this.
  5. Alternative actions: How would an alternative, acceptable action/behaviour look? How is it different from the current performance? And what would be the results of the different behaviour?

Personal perspectives

Each of us views the world with ourselves at the centre. Or as Anais Nin put it:

“We see the world not as it is but as we are”.

Any stakeholder in any situation has a different perspective on that situation. Consider again the example of giving feedback to a project team member: your perspective on that conversation as the project manager will be quite different to the perspective of the team member. Just as you can build rapport through flexing your style, you can build understanding by trying to view the situation from their perspective. This is empathy. Not just emotional empathy but cognitive empathy.

How does it look different? How could this be interpreted differently? Asking questions, checking assumptions, active listening – these communication behaviours will enable you to turn a difficult conversation into a collaborative approach to performance improvement.

The time you invest in developing your team members will pay off as you encourage them to be engaged, high performing, motivated and autonomous. That will in turn free you up from needing to focus on close supervision.
Don’t delay these conversations, they’re critical to your project success.

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