Communication works for those who work at it

Abstract

According to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (3rd. Ed.), “project managers can spend an inordinate amount of time communicating with the project team, stakeholders, customer and sponsor” (PMI, 2004, p. 221). Kerzner (2001, p. 273) reinforced this statement and said that “proper communication is vital to the success of a project.” Mulcahy (2002, p. 211) went so far as stating that “90% of the project manager's time is spent communicating.”

None of these strong statements are referenced, nor is any evidence-based research provided to support them. The overwhelming importance of the communication issue seems rather accepted as “common knowledge.” At the same time, it remains by far the shortest and least explored chapter of the PMBOK® Guide, despite the bulk of recent research and growing interest in this area.

It would seem that it is precisely because “the art of communications is a broad subject and involves a substantial body of knowledge” (PMI, 2004, p. 223) that it is difficult to decide what is pertinent and of practical use to project managers when faced with the abundance of literature on the subject. This gap in project management knowledge is neither due to the lack of theoretical frameworks nor the absence of evidence-based knowledge.

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 a variety of reference models that can prove both inspirational and helpful to the development of a variety of communication skills that better suit project managers’ evolving present and future challenges.

Introduction

“To motivate your team, you must communicate both up and down channels.” (Howard, 2005, p. 8)

As stated by Adler (2005), project management (as most professions) has its own language, therefore, “one must be conscious that most executives are not trained in PM lingo” (p. 14). Westcott (2005) took this thought one step further, and said that the language used can actually alienate clients and create distrust (p.14). McCoy (2005) emphasized the importance of relationships with team members and the necessity of spending additional time with individuals “thoroughly discussing the issues and providing guidance” (p. 30). The overall message is clear: “Communicate, communicate, communicate.” However, most basic training programs in project management and the PMBOK® Guide provide little knowledge on the subject of communication and many project managers still seem at a loss at how to create “meaningful communication.”

Also well documented is the fact that for recruiters, communication skills are cited as the single most important decisive factor in choosing managers. Several authors mention that communication skills, including written and oral presentation, as well as an ability to work with others, are the main factor contributing to job success. These are not recent preoccupations: five years ago, AT&T was already spending over $10 million per year (for the U.S. 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 nearly impossible 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.

It is not within the scope of this paper to cover the extensive literature on communication. The goal of this paper is rather to scan the abundant literature in order to start a very important discussion about basic knowledge and lessons that would seem useful for the project manager in his different roles and tasks.

In order to do this, this paper will:

  • Briefly review communication in the context of both 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.

As rightly stated in the PMBOK® Guide (PMI, 2004), “The art of communications is a broad subject and involves a substantial body of knowledge” (p. 223), therefore, this paper can only hope to skim the surface of this important and under-studied aspect of projects and programs.

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, portfolio management, program management and project-based organizations, project managers are now called upon to interact with a very diverse pool of stakeholders. Yet, because it involves people, communication is a complex and continually changing subject that is difficult to measure. Although human communication has been studied widely in the fields of business, anthropology, sociology, and psychology, 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 a difficult thing 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 in the last 10 years. 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 project managers may need to rethink the overall context of how they have approached the communication issue in the past.

A close look at the PMBOK® Guide reveals that chapter 10 of the 2004 edition, dealing with Project Communications Management, remains, as in previous versions, the shortest chapter, and its content is very similar to previous versions. It seems to try to simplify the complex issue of communication: “Communications skills are related to, but are not the same as, project management communications” (PMI, 2004, p. 223).

The chapter briefly presents the “sender-receiver” model as well as concepts of “encoding and decoding.” No references are provided to document the source of these theories and no further readings are suggested. The remainder of the chapter describes the different communication processes with their inputs and outputs.

Let us now turn our attention to the Gower Handbook of Project Management, which is a popular recommended reading for the student of project management. Turner and Simister (2000) provided a comprehensive Part VII labeled “People.” This provided a wide range of people-related management activities, such as selection and career development, competences, teams, and leading…all very interesting and essential areas of knowledge for the project/program manager to master. However, although implicit in chapters 38 to 45, contrary to other project management knowledge areas, the theme of communication is not identified as a specific issue, nor is there a chapter devoted to it anywhere else in the book. Much of the content revolves around “what needs to be done” in terms of communicating with different stakeholders of the project environment, often listing processes and tasks such as setting up meetings, the frequency of these, and so forth.

Another popular reading for the student in project management is Kerzner's Project Management, A systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling and Controlling (2001). In this 1203-page read, communication was brought up in Chapter 5, “Management Functions.” Here again we find such basic principles of “encoding and decoding” without any references being provided as to where these concepts come from, along with a very long list of equally undocumented statements and recommendations, such as:

  • “Noise tends to distort or destroy the information within the message. Noise results from our own personality screens…” (p. 277)
  • “Communication is also listening. Good project managers must be willing to listen to their employees, both professionally and personally…” (p. 281)

Although the advice offered by Kerzner sounds like “good common sense,” it is not supported by any materials, nor is it illustrated by case stories, and comes across in a very “matter-of-fact” fashion no longer acceptable in an evidence-based business environment.

Given the years during which project management developed, it is not surprising to find the rather mechanistic approach to communication that permeates its literature. Unfortunately, when set in traditional structures, project-based organizations (PBOs) seem to display a great number of communication weaknesses, like the difficulty to coordinate organizational learning and development (Hobday, 2000; Bresnen, Goussevskaia, & Swan, 2004), and the difficulty of grouping stakeholders from different “thought worlds” (Dougherty, 1992), not to mention the even more important task of linking projects to organizational processes and strategy (Gann & Salter, 2000; Lindqvist, 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 to develop. 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 such qualitative issues as the meaningfulness of a meeting, as well documented in the sense-making literature since 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 “the number of two-hour meetings” to “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 have been offering guidance to students of all levels on how to develop meaningful relationships at different levels and in different contexts.

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

Communication

Context

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

In accordance with the more mechanistic approach to communication (sender-receiver & 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 and effective form of leadership. Here, managers are closely engaged with followers, motivating them to perform beyond their transactional agreements. Ashkanasy and Tse (2000) described 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…they show empathy to followers, making them understand how others feel” (Ashkanasy & Tse, 2000, 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 a prerequisite for meeting followers’ emotional needs, one needs to have an accurate assessment of how followers feel, a competency often seen (in the frameworks of the past) as reserved to 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, Munz, and Bommer (2005), a leader's ability to accurately recognize emotions in followers involves the ability to accurately decode others’ nonverbal expressions of emotions (such as in 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). Further, some 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) took this concept even further when investigating trust relationships in the workplace, and their research provided evidence that helped increase understanding of how trust also affects performance. These authors pointed out 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.

Increasingly, 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 in complex environments, if they do not explicitly develop the skill of listening, they may not hear the suggestion or information from subordinates that can eventually launch the idea for a project's or even the whole organization's success (Blair, 1995).

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 sciences; however, many can be readily imported to suit the project managers’ situational needs. In the remainder of this paper, I will briefly present a number of techniques used in my years of experience as a psychologist and occupational therapist.

Techniques

Ambiguity Reduction

This involves looking out for possible misunderstanding and clarifying. The greatest source of ambiguity here seems to be that words may have different meanings depending on the individual's past experiences, the context, and/or 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 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 a momentary confusion and say one word when they mean another. It is not the object of this paper to document the good scientific reasons why this happens; however, a good manager should be aware of the potential problem and counter it. Finally, of course, people might simply mishear and, depending on the situation, the omission of a simple word could be devastating. To help with reducing the ambiguity of communications, the following steps are generally useful:

  • Playback or Reformulation, during which one simply and briefly rephrases or paraphrases what the 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.

Assertiveness

To assert is “to declare; state clearly”; this is usually a good manager's aim. If someone argues or even loses their temper, one should remain quietly assertive. However, a good manager may want to first acknowledge what is being said by showing an understanding of the position, or by simply replaying it. Perhaps, the manager could state their own point of view clearly and concisely, adding a bit of supporting evidence, and only then suggest how to move things forward, either by investigating the supporting evidence for both avenues or by scheduling a time to further discuss the issue.

Confrontations

When you have a difficult encounter, it is important to stay professional, not lose self-control, because most times, it will just make things worse. Although criticism and discipline are rather contradictory to the transactional framework, difficult situations may arise. In the new framework, it becomes of utmost importance to first assume that there might have been a misunderstanding, and question in order to check the facts. This simple courtesy would have saved many managers from much embarrassment in past frameworks.

Seeking Information

There are always two ways of asking any question. One way (the closed question) leads to a closed answer (Yes, no…). The second way (the open question) will hand over the speaking role to someone else and force them to say something a little more informative and often creative. Unfortunately, in their quest for efficiency, many managers are more proficient in the first mode.

Let Others Speak

Of course, there is more to a conversation (managed or otherwise) than the flow of information, and one may also have to win that information by winning the attention, confidence, and trust of the other person. The most effective way of promoting trust is to show interest and give people attention. To get somebody to give you all their knowledge, you must give all of your attention.

Silence

Silence is a very effective information-gathering, tool as it makes most people nervous and they try to fill it—an excellent way to get a person to talk.

Wrap Up

At the end of a conversation, one should give people a clear understanding of the outcome. For instance, if there has been a decision, restate it clearly (just to be sure) in terms of what should happen and by when. If you have been asking questions, synthesize and summarize the significant (for you) aspects of what you have learned. Wait for validation or corrections before closing the discussion or meeting.

Non-Verbal

Of course, as stated by many authors, posture, facial expressions, and eye contact are very important. Coherence between verbal, non-verbal, and tone are all important. Too many people seem to pay attention only to the words being pronounced in a conversation when the qualitative aspects are increasingly being documented. Saying “Hello” with a smile and a joyful tone is not the same as saying it with a grin and low tone. As much as the first can energize the team, the second can slow it down for the day, and it is expected from the transactional manager to be conscious of the difference and its impact.

Conclusion

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 meaning and work will collapse through 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 afterwards that you have achieved that aim.

However, in the ever-changing environment of the complex organization, managers must also develop meaningful relationships with a great 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 stakeholder 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.

References

Adler, C. (2005). Talk elevated. PMI Leadership in Project Management. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Ashkanasy, N. M. & Tse, B. (2000). Transformational leadership as management of emotion: A conceptual review. In N. M. Ashkanasy, C., Hartel, E. J., & Zerbe, W. J. (Eds.), Emotions in the workplace: Research, theory, and practice (pp. 221–235). Westport, CT: Quorum Books.

Bass, B. M. (1990). From transactional to transformational leadership: Learning to share the vision. Organizational Dynamics, 18 (3), 19–31.

Blair, G. (1995). Starting to manage: the essential skills. United Kingdom: IEEE Press.

Bresnen, M., Goussevskaia, A., & Swan, J. (2004). Embedding new management knowledge in project-based organizations. Organization Studies, 25 (9), 1535–1555.

Construction Industry Institute. (1997, January). An assessment tool for improving project communications. Publication 105-11. University of Texas at Austin.

Dougherty, D. (1992). “Interpretive barriers to successful product innovation in large firms”. Organization Science, 3, 179–202.

Ekman, P. & Friesen, W. V. (1974). Detecting deception from the body or face. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29, 288–298.

Elfenbein, H. A., & Ambady, N. (2002). Predicting workplace outcomes from the ability to eavesdrop on feelings. Joumal of Applied Psychology, 87, 963–971.

Gann, D. M. & Salter, A.J. (2000). Innovation in project-based, service-enhanced firms: The construction of complex products and systems. Research Policy, 29, 955–972.

George, J. M. (2000). Emotions and leadership: The role of emotional intelligence. Human Relations, 53, 1027–1055.

Hobday, M. (2000). The project-based organisation: an ideal form for managing complex products and systems? Research Policy, 29, 871–893.

Howard, C. (2005) Leadership. PMI Leadership in Project Management. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Kerzner, H. (2001). Project management: A Systems approach to planning, scheduling, and controlling (7th ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Lindkvist, L. (2004). Governing project-based firms: Promoting market-like processes within hierarchies. Journal of Management and Governance, 8(1), 3–25.

Lombardo, M. M., Ruderman, M. N., & McCauley, C. D. (1988). Explanations of success and derailment in upper-level management positions. Joumal of Business and Psychology, 2(3), 199–216.

Loosemore, M., & Lee, P. (2002). Communication problems with ethnic minorities in the construction industry. International Journal of Project Management, 20, 517–524.

Mayer, R. C., & Gavin, M. B. (2005, October), Trust in management and performance: Who minds the shop while the employees watch the boss? Academy of Management Journal, 48 (5), 874-888.

Mayer, J. D., Salovey, P., Caruso, D, R., & Sitarenios, G. (2001). Emotional intelligence as a standard intelligence. Emotion, 1, 232–242.

McCoy, G. (2005). In High performance machine by Samuel Greencard. PMI Leadership in Project Management. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Mead, S. P. (2001, December). Using social network analysis to visualize project teams. Project ManagementJournal 32(4), 32–38.

Mulcahy, R. (2002). PMP exam prep, a course in a book. Minneapolis, MN: RMC Publications, Inc.

Project Management Institute. (2004). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (2004 Ed.) Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Rubin, R. S., Munz, D. C., & Bommer, W. H. (2005, October). Leading from within: The effects of emotion recognition and personality on transformational leadership behavior. Academy of Management Journal. 48 (5) 845-858.

Sanvido, V., Grobler, E., Paifitt, K., Guvenis, M., & Coyle, M. (1992, March). Critical success factors for construction projects. Joumal of Construction Engineering and Management, 118 (1), 94–111.

Tejeda, M. J. (2001). The MLQ revisited: Psychometric properties and recommendations. Leadership Quarterly, 12(1) 31–52.

Thamhain, H. J. (1992). Engineering management: Managing effectively in technology based organizations. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Turner, R., & Simister, S. J. (Eds.) (2000). Gower handbook of project management (3rd ed.). Aldershot, Hampshire, UK: Gower Publishing Limited.

Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. London: SAGE Publications.

Westcott, G. M. (2005). In Talk elevated by Carlye Adler. PMI Leadership in Project Management. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

© 2007 Manon Deguire
Originally published as part of 2007 PMI Global Congress proceedings – Atlanta, GA, USA

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