Talk the talk
PEOPLE SMARTS >> BY SARAH STONE WUNDER
Early in his career, Gnana K. Bharathy, Ph.D., PMP, learned just how important good communication skills are.
While investigating a contaminated environmental facility in Wellington, New Zealand, Dr. Bharathy and his team asked the contractor on the site to stop drilling in a certain area because it was full of underground utility cables.
Although the team communicated via fax the exact locations of the cables to be avoided, the contractor proceeded to drill wherever he wanted to.
“The next day we went there, and they had dug all over the place, and [the site] almost blew up,” says Dr. Bharathy, now a project manager for the Ackoff Collaboratory for Advancement of Systems Approaches at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.
It was a near-miss, but he learned that sometimes simply communicating a message isn't always enough. “Communication is one of the key glues that keep projects together,” says Dr. Bharathy. That is why project managers must ensure their messages are heard and understood. If they don't, they may find they're putting their projects—and careers—at risk.
Being a project manager comes down to planning and execution, and these tasks are all about communication, says Christopher Duncan, president of Canton, Georgia, USA-based Practical Strategy Consulting and author of Unite the Tribes: Ending Turf Wars for Career and Business Success [Apress, 2003], “If you get out there and you can't communicate, you are in big trouble.”
But communication skills extend far beyond simply knowing how to speak and write well. “It's about connecting effectively with people and getting them to do what you want,” says Mr. Duncan.
Knowing how to do that can make all the difference for project managers looking to get ahead. But it's not exactly a forté within the ranks.
“Many project managers haven't been trained at all, while those that have tend to have technical project management training, and only recently have project managers received training in the people skills as well,” says Christine Petersen, PMP, director of VIRAK, a Geneva, Switzerland-based communications training company.
That's why—before project managers even say a word—they must have a strategy in place.
“There are more ways to communicate incorrectly than correctly,” Mr. Bharathy says. “By not having a plan, not identifying the right stakeholders and not emphasizing the priority of the job, mixed messages can occur.”
The first step for project managers looking to advance is to approach good communication skills like any other subject to be learned, Mr. Duncan says.
“The problem is that no one takes it seriously,” he adds. “Project managers are obviously people you can put a book in front of and say, ‘Learn it.’ They're task-oriented people. But they don't take the human side of the equation seriously. You have to sit down and address that skill like any other skill.”
Once project managers have decided they're ready and willing to tackle the subject area, Mr. Duncan says a wealth of books are available on communication skills, as well as sales and motivation, which he adds are fundamental pieces of the equation.
Mind Your Body
Proper body language can be key to conveying the right message, but it's a skill that can be difficult to hone. Because people can't see themselves and their facial expressions as they speak, they might not be aware of what messages they send or the effects they have on colleagues.
And it can take 21 days of constant practice to build or break a body language habit, says Christine Petersen, VIRAK. “This can be difficult for people who have never thought about it before, especially if they've been brought up in a technical field,” she says. “It requires project managers to start to look into personal and interpersonal skills.”
Often the easiest way to control body language is to tell the truth.
“It comes down to integrity,” says Stephen Hall, Modular Mining Systems Inc. “You have to communicate what you really feel. If there's a discrepancy, that will come through in the body language.”
“If you could get project managers to say one phrase in their mind, it's ‘What's in it for me?’” he says. “You need to communicate with your team from this perspective if you want to motivate them to take action. In other words, ‘What's important to this individual that I'm speaking to?' If project managers spent a couple of minutes thinking about that before writing an e-mail, they'd be addressing what matters to the recipient and would get much greater cooperation as a result.”
Next, project managers must focus in on whom they should be talking to in the first place.
“The project manager needs to keep contact with several stakeholders in different levels inside and outside their organization,” says Eduardo Maximo Espínola, PMP, MBA, a Curitiba, Brazil-based program executive for M7 Integrated Solutions Ltda., and a PMI component mentor. “They need to communicate effectively with these different publics. It is a crucial success factor, mainly because today the project manager is acting in strategic and tactical levels.”
That requires project managers to customize communications.
“Often project managers are communicating to two audiences: the internal stakeholders and the external stakeholders. This is where the poor communication comes in,”
Ms. Petersen says. “If you have a technical background, often you'll use technical words or acronyms that the stakeholders might not understand. We assume the team members know more than they do, and, as a result, the messages might be incomplete.”
Gauging the frequency of communication can require some finesse, too. Although many stakeholders should be included in conference calls and e-mails, project managers need to be careful not to over-communicate, says Dr. Bharathy.
Too much information, and project managers may look like they don't know how to prioritize.
“It's a fine balance,” says Stephen Hall, PMP, project manager for Modular Mining Systems Inc., a mine management technology provider with headquarters in Tucson, Arizona, USA. “You have to determine what that balance is. If you communicate too little or if you wait, sometimes it's too late. If you communicate too much, you become the guy who cries wolf, and people stop listening.”
“The balance of too much or too little, too soon or too late, may be different for each stakeholder,” he adds. “You really need to know your stakeholders and set expectations.”
Sarah Stone Wunder is a Chicago, Illinois, USA-based business writer and editor.
<< www.pmi.org << MAY 2008