Comm and engage!


Manon Deguire, MSc, PMP

Valense Ltd.


Since the earliest publications in project management, it has been accepted that project managers spend an inordinate amount of time communicating (with the project team, stakeholders, customer, and sponsor). Similarly, classic reads of the last decade, such as Kerzner (2001), reinforce this statement and propose proper communication as vital to project success. Then in 2002 Mulcahy went so far as to state that “90% of the project manager's time is spent communicating” (p. 211).

Sadly, in most instances, no reference is provided to back these well-known and sometimes “over-quoted” statements, nor is any evidence-based research provided to support them. The importance of the communication issue in project environments seems readily accepted as “common knowledge.” However, up until the fourth edition of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (Project Management Institute, 2008), the chapter addressing communication remained by far its shortest, even though research and interest in soft-skills was progressively increasing.

It would seem that it is precisely because “communication” is such a broad subject and involves a long-standing, substantial body of knowledge in other disciplines such as philosophy and psychology, that it was, and still remains, difficult to decide, among the abundance of information, what is pertinent (and of practical use) to project managers. The wealth of literature on the subject might account for the overwhelming feeling that project managers experience in the face of it, and might even be partly responsible for the gap in knowledge. This gap is neither due to “lack of theoretical frameworks nor the absence of evidence-based knowledge” that can be found in other domains of practice (Deguire, 2007).

More recently, as organizations evolve toward flatter structures, project managers are increasingly called upon to interact and communicate with different organizational levels, adding yet again an extra and demanding dimension to their more traditional communication roles. This paper describes the need to update our information and embrace a variety of reference models that can prove both inspirational and helpful to the development of communication skills that suit project managers’ present and future challenges.


“To motivate your team, you must communicate both up and down channels.”

(Howard, 2005, p. 8)

In PMI's 2005 publication on leadership, Adler states that project management (as with most professions) has “its own language”; therefore, “one must be conscious that most executives are not trained in PM lingo” (p. 14). Gina Westcott, former Director of Management Development programs at the Boston University Corporate Education Center, took this thought one step further, saying that project management language “can actually alienate clients and create distrust” (2005, p. 14). Gretchen McCoy, Senior Vice President in the Technology Management Group at Visa International's headquarters, emphasized “the importance of relationships with team members” and “the necessity of spending additional time with individuals thoroughly discussing the issues and providing guidance” (2005, p. 30). For the last 10 years, the overall message to project managers has been clear: “Communicate, communicate, communicate.” However, to this day, most training programs in project management still provide little knowledge on the subject of communication, leaving many project managers at a loss when it comes to creating and sustaining “meaningful communications.”

Also well documented is the fact that, for recruiters, communication skills are often cited as the single most important decisive factor in choosing managers. Several authors mention that communication skills, including written and oral presentations, as well as an ability to work with others, are the main factors contributing to job success. These are not recent pre-occupations, because, even 10 years ago AT&T, was spending over $10 million per year (for the United States only) in order to improve the communication skills of its employees (Loosemore & Lee, 2002).

In spite of the increasing importance placed on communication skills, many project and program managers continue to struggle, unable to communicate their thoughts and ideas effectively, whether in verbal or written form — not to mention the more difficult aspect of managing meaningful relationships with all levels of stakeholders. This inability makes it difficult for them to compete effectively in the workplace, stands in the way of career progression, and may be one of the primary factors preventing project and program success (Deguire, 2007).

Given that the history of communication dates back to the earliest signs of life, it is not within the scope of this paper to cover the extensive literature on communication. Rather, the goal of the present paper is to scan the abundant literature in order to start a very important discussion about basic knowledge that would seem useful for project managers in their different roles and tasks.

In order to do this, the paper will:

■ Briefly review the history of communication in the context of projects and programs.

■ Briefly present the context of communication and, more particularly, focus on those aspects and skills that could prove beneficial in the project environment.

The Projectized Context of Communication

The history of project management has been marked by authors suggesting that effective communication is one of the key factors in determining the success or failure of a project (Construction Industry Institute, 1997; Sanvido, Grobler, Parfitt, Guvenis, & Coyle, 1992; Thamhain, 1992).

With organizations becoming flatter and increasingly projectized, project managers’ roles have grown to accommodate the ever-changing complexity of the business environment. This has only added a number of dimensions to the already complex web of relationships brought about by the stakeholder focus. With such changes as the implementation of project management offices (PMOs), portfolio management, program management and project-based organizations, project managers are now called upon to interact with a very diverse pool of stakeholders, and the fifth Edition of the PMBOK® Guide has made stakeholder management a proper area of knowledge (Project Management Institute, 2012). Yet, because it involves people, communication is a complex and continually changing subject that is difficult to pin down or summarize. Although human communication has been studied widely in the fields of business, anthropology, sociology, and psychology, it has been a long-standing issue that very few tools have been developed to help managers communicate (Mead, 2001). Furthermore, in the past, most of our communication occurred at meetings, over the telephone, or through paper correspondence, but today, information technologies have changed and multiplied the way we communicate. Even simple communication is difficult to measure; in addition to the long list of variables already stated, one must also consider personalities, media, information flows, as well as barriers.

Other important factors that affect the context of communication have concurrently evolved. To name but a few, the progressive popularity of distance work, individuals and teams that are no longer co-located, the importance of relating to upper levels of management with the development of program management roles, and the shift from shareholder to stakeholder governance. It has simply become a gross understatement to say that “communication is important,” and businesses at large need to rethink the overall context of how they approach communications as a whole.

In most project management reference books and course descriptions, one finds the “sender-receiver” model and concepts of “encoding and decoding.” More often than not, no references are provided to document the source of these theories and no further readings are suggested. Although the advice offered sounds like “good common sense,” it is not supported by any research, nor does it offer guidance as to “how one should listen,” leaving many project managers at a loss when it comes to communication skills.

Given the years during which project management developed, it is not surprising to find a rather mechanistic approach to communication that permeates its literature. This history might account for the numerous observations outlining the fact that when set in traditional structures, project-based activities seem to display a great number of communication weaknesses like the difficulty of coordinating organizational learning and development (Hobday, 2000; Bresnen, Goussevskaia, & Swan, 2004) and the difficulty in grouping stakeholders from different “thought worlds” (Dougherty, 1992). Not to mention the even more important communication task of linking projects to organizational processes and strategy (Gann & Salter, 2000; Lindkvist, 2004).

Throughout its development, the project context seems to have neglected the importance of the qualitative aspect of communication that is now being recognized as essential for good business. In the new context of projects and programs, quantitative aspects of communication such as the number of meetings or the length of these meetings are quite secondary issues to more qualitative issues like the meaningfulness of a meeting. These issues have been raised and well-documented in the business environment since Weick's numerous publications on sense-making in the early 1990's (Weick, 1995).

It is all very well to tell project managers to listen to employees and stakeholders, but how does one demonstrate that they have been listening, and how does one go from counting “the number of meetings” to instigating “a meaningful set of productive meetings”? Answers to these questions are readily found and relatively well-documented in the fields of psychology and related social sciences that provide valuable guidance in terms of “how one develops meaningful relationships at different levels and in different contexts.”

The last part of this paper will focus on a few examples of such knowledge and skills and the pertinence of importing them to the project management environment.


As life experience teaches most of us, meaningful relationships usually take time to develop and are the product of a number of communications, many of which have simply drifted from light superficial to more meaningful content. In business, the preoccupation with efficiency, together with time constraints, have made us consider this kind of unplanned chatter wasteful.

In accordance with the more mechanistic approach to communication (sender-receiver and encoding-decoding), Blair (1995) suggested that, to ensure efficient and effective communication, one must start with three basic considerations:

  • Making your message understood
  • Receiving/understanding the intended message
  • Exerting some control over the flow of the communication

In this framework, it is felt that communication is best achieved through simple planning and control. However, the past two decades have witnessed a great deal of scholarly attention to transformational leadership behavior, and it is currently the most widely accepted leadership paradigm (Tejeda, 2001). According to Rubin, Munz, and Bommer (2005), transformational leadership behavior represents the most active/effective form of leadership. Here, contrary to the mechanistic approach, managers are closely engaged with followers, motivating them to perform beyond their transactional agreements, and Ashkanasy and Tse (2000) describe transformational leadership behavior as the “management of leader and follower emotion.” For these authors, emotional abilities are critical in accomplishing this task: “Transformational leaders are sensitive to followers’ needs …[T]hey show empathy to followers, making them understand how others feel” (p. 232).

Bass (1990) went so far as to argue that transformational leaders “meet the emotional needs of each employee” (p. 21), and a number of authors have since added that creation of follower excitement and enthusiasm stems from appraisal of followers’ authentic feelings (George, 2000). In this new context, the simple skills of planning and control provided by the mechanistic approach are no longer sufficient to help or guide project managers in their roles and responsibilities as good communicators and leaders. As a prerequisite for meeting followers’ emotional needs, one needs to make an accurate assessment of how followers feel, a competency often seen (in the frameworks of the past) as reserved for psychologists, close friends, or therapists. Many managers may feel uncomfortable and incompetent about taking on such roles both in their private and professional lives, even more so in today's politically correct environment.

According to the literature on emotional intelligence, authentic feelings are primarily communicated through facial expressions and nonverbal behavior (Ekman & Friesen, 1974; Mayer, Salovey, Caruso, & Sitarenios, 2001). For Rubin et al. (2005), a leader's ability to accurately recognize emotions in followers involves the ability to accurately decode others’ expressions of emotions through their nonverbal communications (i.e., the face, body, and voice).

Research findings have demonstrated that emotion recognition is the most reliably validated component of emotional intelligence, and that it is linked to a variety of positive organizational outcomes (Elfenbein & Ambady, 2002). Research has shown that managerial derailment is heavily influenced by a manager's inability to understand others’ perspectives, a limitation that makes them insensitive to others (Lombardo, Ruderman, & McCauley, 1987). Mayer and Gavin (2005) take this concept even further when investigating trust relationships in the workplace and provide evidence of how trust also affects performance. These authors point to the fact that managers who have developed these abilities engage their people more, which results in a higher capability to focus attention and better business results.

With the growing popularity of more transactional leadership styles, if nothing else, managers are at least reminded that they “must learn to listen,” if not for the relational aspect, then merely because of the underlying threat that they may not hear the suggestion/information from subordinates that can eventually launch the idea for a project's or even the whole organization's success (Blair, 1995).

The past shows us that “Project teams are frequently headed by people who are chosen for their technical expertise rather than for their leadership abilities” (Pinto, Thomas, Trailer, Palmer, & Govekar, 1998, p. 55). And the recent trend is that: “Future project leaders will require greater knowledge and skills in managing human factors” (Wong, 2007, p. 323). These findings point to practitioners needing to be well balanced in the technical skills and human skills in order to successfully manage projects (Burgan & Burgan, 2012).

In this new framework, managers need to be taught at least a minimum number of additional basic skills from which further emotional growth and maturity as a leader may be expected to blossom. These skills have often been seen as confined to disciplines in social science; however, many can be readily imported to suit the project managers’ situational needs. It is no longer a choice, but an “expected obligation,” since research has demonstrated that ineffective project communication and leadership skills lead to gross misunderstanding of project objectives, lack of acceptance from project team members, and poor decision-making (Wong, 2007). One aspect of human skills is Emotional Intelligence (EI) as suggested by Mayer, Salovey, Caruso, & Sitarenios (2001). In this context, project managers must be aware of their own EI abilities in order to further develop and then improve their skills. There is a growing body of research in this area suggesting that EI does play an important role in better communication and general work-related processes (Cherniss, 2010). The results of a recent study published in 2012 by Burgan and Burgan showed that project management practitioners are very close to the general population averages in their level of EI, and slightly better than average on understanding emotions. However, it is possible that such results are not sufficient to effectively communicate, lead, and manage within the increasingly complex project environments. At the moment, EI seems to be a popular and promising area of research; however, because of its nature (emotion and insight-based knowledge), it might not be equally appealing to all types of personalities, namely, those project managers who tend to come from a more deterministic background. If anything, in some cases, the name alone can create a negative bias toward the overall approach. It is therefore important to develop other avenues of exploration to help different types of project managers increase their communication and leadership skills.

Ambiguity Reduction

One of the communication techniques rarely mentioned in the project management domain, but frequently used in social science and psychology, is “ambiguity reduction.” The principles of ambiguity reduction have come to us from Berger and Calabrese's (1975) post-positivist communication theory, which explains how communication is used to reduce uncertainty among people in their initial interactions. According to this theory, because people find uncertainty unpleasant, they are motivated to reduce it through interpersonal communication. The theory also proposes that the nature of communications evolve over time as intimacy develops. Since its early development, it has been further researched and used to study intercultural interaction and organizational socialization (Gudykunst, 1985). This approach might prove more attractive for understanding and developing communication skills for some project managers because it uses scientific methodology and deductive reasoning to reach conclusions that take the form of seven primary axioms and 21 theorems.

In this framework, activities involve looking out for possible misunderstanding and clarification. When it comes to basic communication skills, the greatest source of ambiguity often stems from words that may have different meanings, depending on the individual's past experiences, the context at stake, and/or the culture. For example, a dry country may mean that it has no water for some or no alcohol for others, and a funny meeting can be either a humorous one or simply a disconcerting one, depending on the context. In a transactional framework, it would be of great importance for managers’ to first recognize that there is a potential for misunderstanding, and it becomes an essential responsibility to ask for the valid interpretation.

Another common source of ambiguity comes from simple mistakes. More usual, however, is that in reflecting over several alternatives people may suffer momentary confusion and say one word when they mean another. It is not the object of this paper to document the good scientific reasons for why this happens; however, a good manager should be aware of the potential problem and counter it. Finally, people might simply mishear and, depending on the situation, the omission of a simple word could be devastating. The following steps are generally useful for reducing the ambiguity of communications:

Playback or Reformulation: During which one simply briefly rephrases or paraphrases what the other speaker said and asks for confirmation.

Write Back or Document: Here, it is best to write a brief summary and send it to everyone involved, asking for feedback. This has several advantages:

  • Further clarification
  • Consistency check
  • Setting a formal stage—a statement of the accepted position as a springboard from which to proceed
  • Evidence when documenting lessons learned

Give Background Information: Which can often counter possible understanding problems by providing a broader context in which the communication can be understood. This reduces the scope for alternative interpretations, since only the pertinent ones will be consistent with this background. When others are speaking, one should deliberately ask questions to establish the context in which they are thinking.

A recent study using the “ambiguity reduction” model was conducted on over 700 members of a social networking group to look at what strategies they used to get to know people they had recently met in person. The most common and beneficial strategy was the interactive mode, which reduced the most uncertainty by showing a perceived similarity and increasing social attraction (Antheunis, Valkenburg, & Peter, 2010).

These basic communication principles are similar to those expressed by Cialdini (2008) in his book, Influence: Science and Practice. His overall research covers developments in the social influence literature published between 1997 and 2002. This author's conclusions are based on numerous interesting quantitative research results directly and indirectly related to the art of persuasion, and they indicate that people have six available, powerful shortcuts that prove helpful for communicating a message and influencing others. This is another approach that might be more palatable to project managers who want to test out new ways to interact in small probes, rather than embracing a larger theoretical model of leadership. Here are some other approaches:

  1. Reciprocity: Concerns the “obligation to give back” that most people experience when they have received something. Cialdini documents the implications of reciprocity by providing examples of quantitative studies demonstrating the powerful effect of simple gestures such as mints or chocolates being offered at the end of a restaurant meal. When given one mint, tips consequently increased by 3%, two mints bring a 14% increase, and when they are given in a personal or privileged context the tips go up by 23%. Cialdini suggests that wise leaders be the first to give, unexpectedly and in a personalized manner.
  2. Scarcity: People seem to want more of something that is scarce. Again here, concrete examples illustrate the case being made for leaders who have the ability to outline the uniqueness of a situation, its benefits, and what people stand to lose if they do not embrace the opportunity at hand. This enables them to engage their followers and extended groups of stakeholders.
  3. Authority: Demonstrates that people have a natural tendency to follow the lead of credible, knowledgeable experts. In this area, the author suggests a number of small, ethical, and costless changes that can be easily implemented when communicating a message that positively influences its impact. Even being introduced by a colleague who has something to gain from enhancing your CV can be quite effective.
  4. Consistency: Has to do with looking for and asking for small commitments that can easily be made at first. Research results show that people will then be more willing to carry out larger commitments they would otherwise have refused to implement in order to maintain inner consistency. In implementing change initiatives or innovative ideas, Cialdini suggests that leaders first look for small, voluntary, active public commitments. He gives the example of health centers having reduced missed appointments by 18% simply by having patients fill in the appointment detail cards rather than an attendant doing this for them.
  5. Liking: People prefer to say yes to those they like. Research results show that we like people who are similar to us, people who pay us compliments, and people who cooperate with us. When experimental study groups were first asked to exchange personal information about themselves and find similarities before entering a negotiation task, this led to 90% coming to an acceptable agreement. This shows a considerable difference from the 55% agreement from the group that had been told: “Time is money, get straight to the point.”
  6. Consensus: This principle shows that, especially when uncertain, people will look to others to determine their own course of action. In this instance, science tells us that, as a leader, rather than relying on our own ability to convince people to do something, it can be more effective to simply point out what other people or groups of people are already doing.

Just as the theory of ambiguity reduction can seem more attractive than EI for some project managers when it comes to communication skills, similarly, Cialdini's structured approach to the art and science of influencing may be seen as good news when it comes to leading. Cialdini's theory is based upon well-grounded research and compiles the findings in a relatively simple, organized framework that is within easy reach for most project managers. This approach certainly offers numerous examples and opportunities for project managers who want to test and practice new skills to increase their leadership abilities.


For projects and programs to be successful, project managers need to communicate to coordinate their own work and that of others. Without explicit effort, most communications will lack meaningfulness, and work will collapse though misunderstanding and error.

As outlined by mechanistic frameworks of the past, it is important to treat a conversation as any other managed activity: by establishing an aim, planning what to do, and checking afterward that you have achieved that aim.

However, in the ever-changing environment of the complex organization, managers must also develop meaningful relationships with a greater number of different stakeholders. The newer transactional models of management draw upon research findings that clearly show the importance of the quality of such relationships to ensure project and organizational success. It has become crucial for project managers to develop the knowledge and skills to be good listeners, understand stakeholders’ needs, and demonstrate this understanding in all levels of interactions. Some people are naturally emotionally intelligent and proficient at “thinking on their feet,” but this is generally because they already have clear understanding of the context and their own goals.

As much as it is a good place to start with a plan, most project managers may want to enhance their initial competencies in this domain and embrace well-known practices from other social sciences. This paper suggests applying the techniques that come from the theory of ambiguity reduction as one of the communication techniques rarely mentioned in the project management domain, but frequently used in social science and psychology. Similarly, the paper briefly presents Cialdini's six principles as inspiration to project managers wanting to enhance their leadership abilities.

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© Manon Deguire, 2013



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