Change your language, improve your project
As a project manager, are you communicating the messages you want to communicate? As your skills as a project manager and leader improve, have you enhanced your language? Are you still using the language of a “doer?” Are you hung up on technical talk? Have your communications skills kept pace with your personal development? Can you use your language to effectively communicate with project sponsors and executives? Are you achieving the communications results you desire? Or, do you encounter a “failure to communicate” more often than you would like to admit?
As a project manager, your successes and results depend on the use of your words and your relationship with language. Words are powerful; they can be used as weapons but are better used as tools to build life-long relationships. Every conversation you have should enhance your relationships and provide you with leadership power. Making things happen through other people requires a diligent maintenance of your communications and language skills.
Pick up where A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) leaves off. Learn how to develop your words and your language for win-win solutions and to improve and sustain success. Included in this presentation are tips and techniques for focusing your message, asking the right questions, and building relationships by developing your language. Change your language, improve your project!
This paper will provide tools and techniques for enhancing word power, language, and conversational skills for project management professionals. The presentation is organized into five sections:
- Introduction to the power of words and language and the application to the project management process
- Using words and language as tools for relationship success
- Finding your “voice”
- Help your team members find their “voices”
- Develop ongoing habits for improving your language
Introduction and Application
Per the PMBOK® Guide, Fourth Edition, “Effective communication creates a bridge between diverse stakeholders involved in a project, connecting various cultural and organizational backgrounds, different levels of expertise, and various perspectives and interests in the project execution or outcome.” (p. 243). To be effective communicators, project managers must be able to master the use of words and language. The definition of “language” that best applies to the project manager is provided by Merriam-Webster: “a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings.” (Merriam-Webster, 2010)
Effective language is the key to maintaining stakeholder relationships and project team cohesiveness. A project manager possessing a strong command of words and language not only becomes indispensable to the delivery organization but also provides an edge to the project and the receiving organization. The project manager is the key in project communications, not only by ensuring that the information is clear, unambiguous, and complete but by employing language to provide value beyond expectations.
In order for the project manager to be effective, he or she must make the transition from “doer language” to “leader language.” Technical project managers tend to lean toward “doer language”; they are comfortable with details and tasks but are not comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. This type of language can lead to narrow objectives, which more often than not fail to meet the stakeholders' needs. “Doer language” may be effective for managing specific tasks but it is not effective for managing complexity, ambiguity, and large-scale projects requiring the management of multiple stakeholders and needs. “leader language,” on the other hand, provides the project manager with an advantage in handling complex projects, multi-layered interests, and conflicts, and leads to value-driven results.
The exhibit below highlights the differences between “doer language” and “leader language” in the application of the various soft skills required to be an effective project manager.
Exhibit 1 – “Doer Language” versus “Leader Language”
The words and language used by an effective project manager may vary from process group to process group, depending on the factors of the key messages, the audience, and the call to action. The key message for any communication must first be understood by the effective project manager. Knowing the audience and the audience needs and expectations are also vital. Of course, the project manager may know the message and the audience but if the call to action is not articulated, then results may be unpredictable. For each process group, as defined by the Project Management Institute, we will briefly review the words and language used in meeting the objectives for those process groups.
The initiation phase of a project is critical to the definition and survival of the project. The words and language of the effective project manager can help steer the project to success. The improper or inappropriate use of words and language during the initiating phase may not only harm the project but may cause harm to the reputation of the project manager and the project team. The following are some of the challenges in choosing the right words and language during initiating:
- The ability to translate stakeholders' expectations into an actionable vision and supporting objectives.
- The ability to project confidence that the project team will “do the right thing” for the client of the project.
- Stakeholders (“audiences”) are at different communications levels and may not be using a common language.
- Personality differences may cause key individuals to react differently to the same message (a practical individual versus a risk-taker).
- Setting positive realistic expectations in the face of significant project challenges.
- Controlling the “Pygmalian effect” (also known as the “self-fulfilling prophecy”). Robert Rosenthal is credited with defining this effect (Howard, 2006, p 672). Negative expectations expressed during the start-up of the project will lead to negative results. Consider the following two statements: “I don't think we can do this” (negative) versus “I know we can work with you to deliver results” (positive). Speaking from extensive project management office experience and observation, the first type of statement will almost certainly lead to negative results.
- Selling the project vision to varied stakeholders with differing perspectives may also provide challenges.
The call to action in initiating is usually the request for the approval of the project. Language and the selection of the appropriate words become critical in presenting the business case and the project proposal. The effective project manager should also thoroughly understand the needs of the project sponsors (more often than not, the “audience” of the initiating processes).
The planning processes provide opportunities to gain agreement and support for the work of the project and project processes. While the tendency for the technical-minded project manager is to use the “doer language,” an effective project manager should use the appropriate language to bridge the gaps between stakeholders with varying perspectives of detail. By supporting open and frequent communication during the planning processes, the effective project manager can lead the process of building one-to-one, many-to-one, and many-to-many relationships that will continue beyond the project life cycle.
The “audience” and, therefore, the language will vary widely during the planning processes. While the specific messages will vary, the call to action will generally be to engage the project team in the planning of the project and to prepare the stakeholders for execution.
Executing and Controlling
The executing and controlling of processes provide many opportunities and challenges for the employment of “leader language.” Some of the specific opportunities for the application of effective language in the executing and controlling process groups include the following:
- Stakeholder management: The language challenge is to ensure that stakeholders' needs are managed effectively. “Leader language” should focus on the relationships. Every stakeholder interaction is an opportunity to build a long-term relationship.
- Conflict management: Conflict is inevitable on a project. The language challenge for the effective project manager is to resolve conflict while protecting and developing stakeholder relationships. The project manager should use language that will appeal to multiple perspectives.
- Decision making: The effective project manager will use decisive language while also balancing stakeholders' needs and long-term impacts.
- Leadership: The language of a leader motivates individuals to perform as a team. Great project managers not only employ their voices during these processes, they also help their team members find their voices. Open and frequent communication among team members ensures the highest results for the stakeholders of the project. Stephen Covey in his book, “The 8th Habit,” states that “…effective leadership consists of clearing the path of barriers and aligning goals and systems so that others can achieve their goals.” (Covey, 2004, p 288)
- Negotiation: The effective project manager should strive to use the proper language to not only solve problems with “win-win-plus” solutions but look for ways to enhance long-term relationships in the process.
- Coaching: Vince Lombardi has been quoted as saying: “They call it coaching but it is teaching. You do not just tell them…you show them the reasons.” (VinceLombardi.com, 2010). Language selected by the effective leader for coaching should indicate “show” not “tell.”
Closing processes afford the opportunity to continue leadership and relationships beyond the project life cycle. Language selected during these processes should support relationship building as well as recognition of success. The effective project manager should also consider that team members may be making difficult transitions as they end their commitments to the project.
Using Words and Language for Relationship Success
“When we understand what makes people receptive to influence, we are in a position to be a motivating force in their lives.” (Jeary, 2005, p 42)
Words are powerful. Words and language can build or damage relationships. To become a more effective communicator, you must first understand your audience. Take the time to understand your audience's motivations and expectations. In preparing for a conversation, go beyond what you are expected to know. Know or take the time to know what's on the “tops of their minds.” The success of your conversation is determined by your audience, not you.
Why should project managers invest more of time understanding their audiences (stakeholders) prior to a conversation? Rob Sherman, in the introduction to his book, “Sherman's 21 Laws of Speaking,” reports that “one executive observed, ‘just five minutes in front of the right audience can be worth more than a whole year behind your desk.’” (Sherman, 2001, p 8)
Knowing your audience is critical to an effective conversation.. Brian Tracy, in his book, Speak to Win: How to Present with Power in any Situation, states that “the starting point of preparation is your audience. Remember, it is not about you; it is about them.” (Tracy, 2008, p. 19) Ask yourself “why does my audience need this presentation?” Ask yourself “why am I the one making this presentation?” Ask yourself “why is it important for my message to be heard?” As a starting point for assessing your audience, you can use Abraham Maslow's “Hierarchy of Needs” to determine the state of mind and situational status of your stakeholders. Of course, stakeholders may be at different stages concurrently throughout the project life cycle. Exhibit 2 below identifies the five stages from a project audience perspective:
Exhibit 2 – Project Audience Hierarchy of Needs
An analysis of your stakeholder and your stakeholder's needs may also determine if you should conduct multiple conversations and presentations to address diverse stakeholders. As Brian Tracy says, “Fully 90 percent of your success as a speaker will be determined by how well you plan your speech.” (Tracy, 2008, p 18)
Once you have assessed your stakeholder and stakeholders needs, determine the appropriate words and language for your stakeholder. Be sensitive to words that may “trigger” a negative response in your stakeholder. Certain words, such as the following, may trigger emotional responses:
- Change – the word “change” may trigger different responses depending on many factors, such as personal, emotional, and organizational. “Change” may represent a threat or could represent an opportunity. Know your stakeholder to employ this word properly.
- Stress – the word “stress” can also be used in a negative or positive way. The use of the word “stress” may indicate weakness or could be used in a positive way to acknowledge the stakeholder's challenge.
- Concern – is a “concern” really a concern? Care should be taken when using this word that it is not perceived as a criticism of the stakeholder. “I am concerned about your performance” (negative) will be perceived differently than “I am concerned that we are not leveraging your strengths” (positive).
- Challenge – the very business of project management is taking on a myriad of challenges. Using the word “challenge” can be perceived differently depending upon the stakeholder's emotional state and acceptance of the speaker's leadership. Regardless of whether a particular challenge is perceived as a threat or an opportunity, the project manager should strive to create a common bond with the stakeholder.
- Issue – similar to the word “concern,” the word “issue” may trigger a negative response. I recommend avoiding this word unless avoiding it causes a perception of weakness. In most cases, the effective communicator can find another word to address the situation.
- Other trigger words – the effective project manager should seek to understand the stakeholder well enough to know which trigger words may cause negative emotional responses. The language selected for the conversation should be “edited” to ensure a productive conversation.
The effective communicator should also consider the use of “I,” “you,” and “we” (or “us”). Overuse of the word “I” by the speaker may indicate that the speaker is not interested in the audience or stakeholder. Similarly, the use of “you” can be used in a positive way if it indicates a genuine interest but an improper use of “you” may be interpreted as manipulation. “We” or “us” generally indicates a common bond, but this common bond must be earned; if not earned, it can also be perceived as manipulation.
Finding Your Voice
“Deep within each of us there is an inner longing to live a life of greatness and contribution – to really matter, to really make a difference.” (Covey, 2004, p 28)
Finding your own voice allows you to make a difference. Stephen Covey describes voice as “unique personal significance—significance that is revealed as we face our greatest challenges and which makes us equal to them.” (Covey, 2004, p 5) According to Covey, “voice lies at the nexus of talent (your natural gifts and strengths), passion (those things that naturally energize, excite, motivate and inspire you), need (including what the world needs enough to pay you for), and conscience (that still, small voice within that assures you of what is right and that prompts you to actually do it).” (Covey, 2004, p 5)
The effective project manager is uniquely positioned to develop voice through the talents that are developed through the application of project management practices, both hard skills as well as soft (interpersonal) skills. Great project managers often also find themselves at the helm of challenging projects that invoke their passion. Great and significant projects need great project managers, individuals who have found their voices or who are on the journey to finding their voices. These same individuals are driven by an internal conscience, which gives them an edge over the mediocre project manager.
When you have developed your voice, you will make a difference. Your voice and your language can be used to uniquely lead your project and to create a community among your stakeholders. Your language can be used to incite creativity in yourself and in your team. Your voice can be used to manage great complexity. Your voice can be used to create a “magic” that cannot be re-created upon command; the unique magic you create connects what you do with who you are.
Helping Your Team Members Find Their Voices
“The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world's problem.” – Gandhi (Brainyquote.com, 2010).
“Leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves.” – Stephen Covey (Covey, 2004, p 98)
Your role as an effective project manager goes beyond delivering expected project results. Your role is to develop your team members to help them find their voices. This is an ongoing process of continuous improvement, which you, as a leader, can help facilitate. The following are actions you can take as a leader to help your team members find their voices:
- Become the model for your team by finding your own voice.
- Provide or build an environment that encourages open communications and individual growth.
- Encourage individual personal development and growth.
- Recognize individual strengths and talents
- Leave room for acceptable failure.
- Encourage experimentation.
- Provide constant and relevant feedback.
- Focus on strengths as a means to minimizing weaknesses.
- Proactively provide opportunities for growth and development.
Habits for Improving Your Language
“Talk to people in their own language. If you do it well, they'll say, ‘God, he said exactly what I was thinking.’ And when they begin to respect you, they'll follow you to the death.” – Lee Iacocca (thinkexist.com, 1999-2010)
The following are seven habits for improving your language, developing your voice, and inspiring others to find their voices:
- Ask questions. Develop a healthy curiosity about everything and everyone within your circle of influence. Ask questions to learn how to better connect with others, to learn their language.
- Relate unrelated things. By relating the unrelated, you can expand your ability to create and innovate; doing so will expand your language. You will learn to better express ideas and thoughts and to connect with other people in unexpected ways.
- Fail your way to improved language. Learn to fail your way to success through the power of experimenting. Use experimentation to discover what works. Fail in small steps to achieve the big successes. Experiment to improve your ability to adjust and adapt.
- Communicate your thoughts and ideas. Growth and improved language will follow.
- Deliver value frequently. Become indispensible by delivering tangible value frequently. Harness your leadership power to deliver more than asked and sooner than expected.
- Change incrementally. Make small incremental changes consistently over time to achieve quantum leaps in communications, productivity, and agility.
- Connect with your purpose. Connect with your purpose to find and develop your unique voice. Connect with your purpose to release those hidden reserves of personal power within you and to create those magical moments of life that only your uniqueness can create.
As a project manager, you can make the move from “doer language” to “leader language” by improving your use of words and language. Take advantage of the techniques introduced in this paper and improve your relationships. Strive to find and develop your voice and to lead your team members in finding their own voices. Develop your language to create win-win-plus solutions, to develop long profitable relationships, and to improve and sustain your personal, business, and project successes.
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Project Management Institute (PMI) (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge: (PMBOK® Guide)—Fourth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.
Sherman, R. (2001). Sherman's 21 laws of speaking. Blacklick, Ohio: Cedar Creek Press.
Tracy, B. (2008). Speak to win: How to present with power in any situation. New York, NY: AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.
Valentine, C. (2005). The nuts and bolts of public speaking. Kearney, NE: Morris Publishing.
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© 2010, Eddie Merla, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2010 North American Global Congress Proceedings – Washington, DC