Project Management Institute


the gateway to top performance

Concerns of Project Managers

PM Tutorial

Editor's Note: This is the final installment of a four-part series on How to Inspire People and Performance, which began in the February PMNETwork.



Jaclyn Kostner, Bridge the Distance, Denver, Colorado Christy Strbiak, Telesis, Denver, Colorado

Were you among the millions who laughed during a popular 1993 TV commercial for the Mercury Villager minivan? The commercial went something like this.

The camera peeks into an executive meeting room in a minivan company A stern-looking CEO tells the executives seated around the table that he wants them to produce a minivan like the Villager their competitor's product.

The CEO turns toward a picture of a Villager projected onto the wall behind him. With his back toward the executives, the CEO then begins to point out all of the many features customers value that are standard on the Villager.

About that time, one of the executives sitting at the table whispers to the person next to him, “Well, why doesn't he just buy a Villager?”

Hearing the comment, the CEO suddenly snaps around and thrusts a piercing glare at the executive.

The next scene shows the executive working in an entry-level job in the mail room, probably wishing he hadn't opened his mouth!

The commercial is funny because most of us can relate to the situation. We have worked for someone who approached communication just like the CEO in the commercial. We have toiled with leaders who feel they alone have the right answer. We have been in groups where people only say what the leader wants to hear, because of fear of retaliation from the leader.

In less complex times, when functional areas operated independently in business, a leader may have known the right answer. The leader may have been the most knowledgeable technically and may have had the most experience. Even though communication was closed, a leader operating in a functional silo may have even produced results and profits.

Today's projects, however, are too complex for only one point of view. Can one person alone create a drug that will cure cancer? Can one person know everything there is to move aerospace technology the next leap forward? Can one person alone know everything needed to know about every customer you serve worldwide? The answer to all these questions is an obvious no.

In today's complex world, people need to pool knowledge and resources to produce a top result. Your success as project leader will be directly related to the level of openness you create on your project team. Only openness will ensure the right questions are asked, the right solutions are generated, and the right decisions are made.

To survive in an environment where communication is closed, people learn to play the “game of communication.” They learn what to say and what not to say. They become very skilled at saying the words the leader wants to hear in the way the leader wants to hear it. They hold their opinions to themselves, not expressing ideas or views that could benefit the group or the project.

Some people who play communication games may appear quiet and compliant. Behind the leader's back, though, they can be busy venting their anger and frustration in unproductive ways. They will press for their own hidden agendas. They will sabotage the team, the leader, or the project. Or they will just drop out, and not contribute at all to the team. As you can see, communication games waste energy and resources that most projects cannot spare.

The alternative to ineffective communication games is to create genuine openness in your team. An environment of openness encourages every team member to say whatever needs to be said, in a way that people want to hear it. Openness involves communication about the task. It also includes communication that binds the people together and builds project results at the same time.

As a project leader, you have the awesome responsibility to set the standard for openness. Then you have the challenging task to create an environment where openness flourishes in your project team.


What is communication to you? Is it the ability to speak clearly? Is it listening effectively? Is it being understood?

Each of these skills is certainly an element of communication, but they are not enough to create genuine openness. Leadership ranks are filled with men and women who have learned to listen actively, but don't really get the message. Business is full of people who say they understand, but the test of time shows they do not. The world is full of people who think they communicate clearly, but continue to be surprised when people come back with the wrong work.

In this article on communication, we look beyond the skills of speaking, listening, or writing. We are going to examine the factors that allow communication to be truly open in your project team and in any interaction you have with anyone else. We will look at the behaviors that send a silent message that screams louder than even the loudest words. The silent messages are the ones that make a difference between closed and open communication.


You just walked into your boss's office. You are very upset about some resources that were committed to your project that have now been given to a different project team. With the resources, you will meet your first critical deadline. Without them, you will miss it.

Your boss, sitting in an oversize leather chair behind an imposing desk, is on the phone. You are waved in, and you take a seat in a small chair on the opposite side of the desk. You wait until the phone conversation ends. You talk for about three minutes, while your boss taps a pen on the desk. Just as you begin to talk about the part that disturbs you most, the phone rings.

Even though your boss has voice mail, your conversation is now interrupted. The boss answers the telephone call, talks for a while, laughs at a joke the caller makes, and then sets a lunch meeting for tomorrow. You sit back and wait for the conversation to end. As soon as the phone is hung up, you finish your description to your boss. Flipping through the pages of a calendar your boss finally says, “Nothing can be that bad. Besides that, I know you can handle it. I have great faith you'll find a solution. ” The boss then terminates the conversation and leaves for a meeting.

Let's look at the communication in the case, and then examine what can be done to improve it.

Task Openness

In the case, two people talked about the task; but there was very little communication. Two individuals sat in the same room and exchanged some words. However, there was no openness, no partnering, and no sharing of knowledge to find a result.

Let's look first at some behaviors that close communication about the task.

Task communication can be closed in two ways. First is by words that are said. Words that cut off further communication on the topic stop openness. In the case, the boss cuts off task communication by saying, “Nothing can be that bad.” That single statement discounts and disregards a problem that is very important to the project leader. Other examples of words that instantly close communication include a blatant “No” or “That idea will never fly.”

The second way task communication is closed is by words that are not said. These more subtle messages that sever task openness include …

  • Not confirming the problem with the resources.
  • Not offering an explanation of the change in resources.
  • Not extracting or reflecting back key points.
  • Not asking your opinion of how to solve the problem.
  • Not helping brainstorm ideas with you to solve it.
  • Not offering to give assistance higher in the organization.

In the case, the boss was not the only person whose communication was flawed. Since communication is a two-way process, let's also look at how the project leader may have closed task communication. Although these behaviors are not presented directly in the case, they happen frequently in real life. Bosses are disturbed by project managers who are…

  • Not clear.
  • Not succinct.
  • Not logical.
  • Not fact-based.
  • Not attentive to the boss's communication preferences.

Task openness, then, is both directly and indirectly impacted by the way the boss and the project leader talk with one another. To create openness, both communicators need to create a partnership where each tries to understand the other. Each has the responsibility to reach a shared meeting of the mind and complete resolution of key issues both bring to the table.

Relationship Openness

Every time you communicate as project leader, your message has a task and a relationship component. Since we have already looked at the task component, let's turn our attention to the relationship dimension of communication.

In the case, the two people never talk about their relationship. However, if you look at the behaviors displayed by the leader, the message about the relationship was very clear. The project leader and the boss in the case did not have a partnership. Their relationship was too distant and ineffective for high-performance teamwork.

In the case, the boss sent many spoken and unspoken messages confirming the unimportance of the relationship. Those message include …

  • Withdrawing resources promised earlier, without explanation.
  • Answering the telephone, interrupting a conversation that was important to the project leader.
  • Tapping the pen on the desk, showing impatience.
  • Carrying on a lengthy conversation with someone else during this meeting time with the project leader.
  • Flipping through the pages of the calendar, showing a lack of attention to the project manager and the problem at hand.
  • Disconfirming words—“Nothing can be that bad”—when to the project leader it is.
  • Disconfirming support—“You can handle it”—saying indirectly, “You are on your own.”
  • Leaving for a meeting before the present conversation reaches a mutual conelusion.

Even the setup of the furniture confirms a distant relationship.

  • The large executive chair contrasted with the small chair on the opposite side of the desk underscores the inequality of power.
  • The desk separates the boss and the project leader from each other, acting as a barrier to communication.

As you can see, the relationship part of communication is present in every conversation you have. The relationship dimension of communication is subtle, yet its impact on creating openness in your project team is critical.

Many project leaders are uncomfortable with the idea of building relationships at work. To some, the soft side of communication is unprofessional and inappropriate in the business environment.

If you want to create high performance teamwork, however, communication must go beyond task. Highly successful teams attend to developing effective working relationships with one another. They develop a level of rapport that encourages them to listen to one another, share ideas, and rely on each other.

In short, people on highly effective teams create a partnership with one another. Openness creates the partnership, and the partnership creates even more openness. At the same time, the team produces better results.


Every time a person communicates, a task and a relationship message is conveyed. If task and relationship communication are effective, your project team will flourish. If they are ineffective, however, your team will encounter many interpersonal and task problems.

As the project leader, you are the person who sets the tone for open or closed communication within your team. You will not get openness by sending everyone on your team a memo about it, nor will you get results by only talking about it.

The key way to create openness is through modeling it with your every word and action. Equally as important, you must encourage the behaviors that support open communication and discourage those behaviors that close it in the team.

Tailored Project Management Training and Consulting

Whether targeted toward successfully accomplishing specific projects or improving overall effectiveness in using projects to produce results, it is critical to have an efficient project management process and an easily understandable approach to employing it that fit the way work really gets done. For over40 years, we have worked in partnership with clients to incorporate the elements of project success into their operations:

• Project Management Discipline-Principles andtechniques that address specific operational challenges (complex technical systems, new product development, self-directed work teams) and reinforce quality initiatives.

• Collaborative Work Environment — Approaches to project management that encourage innovation and cooperation within teams and across organizations.

• Adequate Project Information — Information systems designed to support the development of sound project plans andtheprovision of timely, accurate feedback on project status.

The success of our approach is measured by the impact on your business.



A Practice of the Human Resource Advisory Group of Coopers & Lybrand

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To Enhance Task And Relationship Openness Make Clear Agreements

The Agreement. Clearly enumerate exactly what both parties have agreed to do.

Roles. Negotiate or set crystal-clear role expectations in both directions, including how each will follow up on parts of the agreement.

Accountability. Define precisely who needs to do what, by when.

To create openness, practice some of these suggestions:

Encourage task openness by saying …

  • Let me see if I understand what you are saying …
  • So the problem seems to be …
  • If I understand you correctly, you want … Is that right?
  • Help me understand why … is important.
  • The three key issues I heard you say are …
  • If I heard you correctly, the key part of our agreement is …

Never close communication by saying …

  • It is not my problem.
  • Your idea just won't work.
  • We have already tried that and it doesn't work.
  • Excuse me while I answer this call.
  • I don't like it. Do it again and see if you can get it right the next time.

Create openness in the partnership by saying …

  • What you want to do is …
  • What you need from me is …
  • How can I help you?
  • How can we solve the problem together?
  • How can we create a better solution by partnering on this?

Create an environment that inspires openness …

  • Sit next to the person you are communicating with, not across the table or desk.
  • Take turns speaking.
  • Ask meaningful questions that explore the other's ideas, issues, etc.
  • Do not interrupt one another.
  • Listen genuinely and attentively.
  • Talk interests, not positions.
  • Make decisions by the decision tool. (See Direction article in the February 1993 PMNETwork.)
  • Ask for meaningful feedback, and give specific feedback frequently.
  • If conflict arises, tell the other person you value the relationship enough to take a composure break. Agree to meet in a neutral location 30 minutes later.


In this four-part tutorial series, openness is the critical fourth factor to produce a high performance result. On project teams, openness will not come naturally, nor will it happen easily. In fact, it maybe one of your greatest challenges as project leader.

Highly effective teams constantly strive to create an environment of open communication. The key to success is to create a foundation for both task and relationship communication. As the project leader, one of your most critical and essential tasks is to set the example for openness. Then it is to facilitate the development of openness as a key team norm.

Open the gateway to inspired performance by using the techniques you have read about in all four articles in this tutorial series. High performance begins with Clear, Compelling Direction (PMNETwork, February 1993). Then add TLC – Teamwork (PMNETwork, May 1993), Leadership (PMNETwork, August 1993), and now Communication.

Effective project managers manage details. An excellent project plan, however, is only part of the formula for project success. The other critical part is for you to be an effective project leader. Lead your team to an inspired result by using the techniques previewed in this series.


Dr. Jaclyn Kostner is president of Bridge the Distance (Denver), an international training and consulting firm that specializes in leadership and high-performance single-site and virtual (multi-site) project management teams.


Christy Strbiak is a senior partner with Telesis (Denver), a training and consulting firm that specializes in the human aspect of quality management, including integrating leadership and team skills with TQM.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.



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