Project Management Institute

Do you trust that project manager in the mirror?

Generating positive energy through trust

You are a project management professional, PMP®. You have your work breakdown structure, stakeholder analysis, risk response plan, communication plan, quality plan, resource histogram, a schedule with 5,000 plus tasks, and a critical path. Your sponsor, team leaders, and users couldn't care less. You convince yourself, “my organization just has low project management maturity; it can't be me.”

You might need to think again.

Effective project managers realize that a PMP certification is not enough to render them competent at their work. A PMP certification is the combination of book-learning and experience that makes up the nuts and bolts of project management. Certainly, this knowledge is necessary for effective management; however, it does not guarantee competence. Rather, in some cases a project manager's overconfidence in the PMP or even himself can work against him. Often it is the case that at the end of a project, the team members are left in total abhorrence of each other, and the group is rife with division. This cannot be called professionalism.

The project manager must work on three levels: On the first level, the PMP is a project manager, responsible for the planning, execution, and control of the project. On the second level, the PMP is a project leader, who must create a vision for the project and motivate the team members to pursue it as a goal. On the third level, he is a trusted project advisor, who must connect all stakeholders emotionally as well as rationally to the vision and the execution of the project; he must build trust-based relationships with customers and key stakeholders. All three levels are necessary for project managers; often it is this trust-based relationship which is the most difficult aspect to achieve because it requires a strong sense of self knowledge. A PMP must move beyond the fundamental grunt work of project management and become a trusted project advisor who may have to assume additional personal risk to make the project beneficial, instead of detrimental, to the customer.

A project manager's advisory effectiveness rises or falls on the basis of trust. To many, consideration of a quality with such a high level of emotional investment as trust seems a waste of time when regarding a professional relationship; they view business interactions as purely rational. Others, while recognizing trust as an essential soft skill, still fail to scrutinize their own actions, which may be eroding trust. Still others minimize trust-based relationships to just ‘getting along’, without fully considering the great benefits of the emotional elements of trust. But consider, for example, how often office communication is reduced to the impersonal level of the computer, and the difficulties arising in the interpretation of tone and hidden meanings often serves to compound any already existing tension. Then, emotional barriers spring up, and an all-out finger-pointing war erupts. An emotional reaction to a situation is merely human nature, and this should be taken into account even in professional relationships. Inter-office relationships that are healthy on both an emotional and a rational level facilitate constructive communication. Trust is the cornerstone of constructive communication and teamwork, and trust-based personal relationships between team members translate to seamless professional office relationships.

What are the benefits of building trust-based relationships? According to Maister, Green and Galford in their book, The Trusted Advisor, from a purely commercial standpoint, trust expedites business. If a professional project manager has the trust of his stakeholders, less time will need to be spent on status reports, unplanned communication requests and other procedural sources of tedium. This in turn leaves more time for focusing on the actual project at hand. On a more personal level, if stakeholders trust their PMP, they will be more likely to seek and follow his advice, warn him of potential pitfalls, and involve him earlier on in a project. (Maister, D., Green, C.H. & Galford, R. M., 2000, p 14-15)

Before one can go about constructing these trusted relationships, one must recognize and be willing to accept the emotional aspect of trust, as well as the need to take a good long look in the mirror to see how his behavior could possibly stand in the way building trust. As far as the emotional aspect of trust is concerned, professional project managers must be willing to develop personal intimacy with stakeholders. People do not trust corporations and organizations; they trust other people. Business relationships cannot be immune from this personal element. Before he can build trust, a project manager must also have a certain level of self-awareness. He must examine his behavior, his treatment of others, to determine whether he is more likely to encourage or discourage his stakeholders’ trust.

The next step is for the professional project manager to begin building trust-based relationships with stakeholders. He should do so by conscientiously working on the four key components of trust: credibility, reliability, intimacy, and low self-orientation. (Maister et al., 2000, p 69)

Credibility is accuracy combined with believability. If a project manager finds that stakeholders are paying him lip service or outright ignoring his project plans, he probably lacks credibility. A person with credibility not only knows what he is talking about, but exerts a presence on his audience which lends intensity to what he is saying. Someone can accurately talk about all the facts surrounding some issue, but if his presence, that is, how he looks, acts, and talks is not pleasing, he will not have credibility. The simplest way to build credibility is to tell the truth. Always. Even when the truth is, “I don't know”. Little lies, exaggerations or even awkward hesitations quickly destroy credibility, and thereby destroy trust. Tailor deliverables to the preferences and needs of stakeholders; avoid templates that water down the message. Another way to improve credibility is to speak and write with expression. Good expression, eye contact, and body language that gives off positive energy connote enthusiasm, interest, and care. Tell a story with the facts, be fascinated with your project, and people will listen. Lastly, before speaking, a professional should make certain that he has done all his homework, and that he has all his facts up-to-date. This will give him accuracy, as well as confidence in what he is saying. (Maister et al. 2000, p 72-74)

The second component of trust is reliability. Nothing is more frustrating for any project manager to deal with than unreliable team members in a dynamic, fast-paced project environment. However, when team members lack confidence or trust in their project manager, they often fall into inconsistent, unreliable performance patterns. A project manager has the duty to examine his own behavior carefully and realize the critical importance of his own reliability. A reliable person follows through on his promises with dependability and consistency. According to Maister et al. reliability is action oriented; it can be established by making specific commitments regarding small items. Things as simple as returning emails and phone calls quickly make an impression on stakeholders, and lead to their being more trusting with larger matters. State clear goals and follow through on them. Reliability begins with the project manager. Consistency is key. (Maister et al., 2000, p 74-76)

The third component of trust is possibly the most difficult to successfully achieve. The cross-functional nature of project teams tends to bring out some of the sensitive and awkward issues within an organization, a situation most professionals dread. Developing intimacy means developing emotional closeness with team members, customers and sponsors in order to be able to discuss these sensitive topics when the need arises. Intimacy involves the highest emotional investment of the four components; it is like an emotional game of chance. The first step in building intimacy is to have courage; one must be willing to take the first step if he wants others to follow suit. Secondly, one must recognize the value of candor, which includes learning how to disagree and debate without being disagreeable. One should think about the phrasing of difficult questions before posing them, and be willing to take personal risks to achieve the rewards of having substantially more than cold and dry business relationships. (Maister et al., 2000, p 77-79) One sign of a growing intimate relationship with your project customers and stakeholders is discussions that include topics outside the project, personal favors, or personnel decisions.

The last component of trust is low self-orientation. This means being more interested in the team, customer, and stakeholders than oneself, and showing it. Nothing can inhibit a project manager/client relationship more than a project manager who professes to immediately have the solution. A project manager with low self-orientation can more intensely focus on the client's real needs, asks open-ended questions, and doesn't give advice until he has earned the right to do so. Rather than jumping in to offer immediate solutions, he focuses on helping the client to clearly define the problem. Socially, he does not relate every story to himself, and takes responsibility for failed communications. He listens to clients as a friend and shows that he cares by minimizing distractions. Stakeholders value this genuine desire to be helpful. (Maister et al., 2000, p 80-82)

Through rigorous self-examination, development of self-knowledge, practice and feedback mechanisms project managers can learn the trust building skills needed to develop trust-based relationships. These trust-based relationships can yield enormous benefits for project managers, teams and customers. Once these four components of credibility, reliability, intimacy, and low self-orientation have been integrated into the project manager's work ethic, he can successfully work with project team members, sponsors and other key stakeholders to exert extraordinary influence and resonate waves of positive energy and achieve superior project teams. Trust gives him the tools to go beyond the PMP to project management professionalism!

PMP is a trademark of the Project Management Institute, Inc. which is registered in the United States and other nations.


Maister, D.H., Green, C.H. & Galford, R.M. (2000) The trusted advisor. New York: The Free Press

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 or any listed author.

©2004 Jack Ferraro, PMP
Originally published as part of 2004 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Anaheim, California



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