The Most Common Communication Mistakes Project Managers Make
By Susanne Madsen
Don’t get me wrong! A lot of project managers are doing a fantastic job of organizing and delivering their projects and keeping their clients happy. But it’s probably still true, that the majority of PMs are stronger with the harder skills of creating plans and reports than with the softer skills of communicating and motivating people. The below mistakes are the ones I the most often see project managers make when it comes to the softer communication skills.
- Speaking more than you listen
A big part of a project managers’ job is concerned with assigning work, resolving issues, coordinating activities and assessing progress. The pressure is on and they are busy getting everything done. In this process they often give orders and tell people what to do. Very few take the time to really connect with the individual; ask for input, listen, and check how their message has been understood. You shouldn’t just tell people what to do as that doesn’t empower or motivate anyone. Just think about the times when you have been on the receiving end of that. Instead, take the time to ask people how they are, what they make of the message you just gave them, what they worry about and how they feel the team could work smarter. Really listen to what they say. It will provide you lots of valuable information and strengthen the trust between you.
Communicating with the client in writing instead of face-to-face
Again and again I see project managers emailing their clients instead of speaking to them in person. Written communication is great for short messages without complexity, but should not be used simply because it’s more convenient or saves you having a difficult conversation. Many misunderstandings and disagreements are born because we don’t take the time to identify common ground with our clients and prepare them for what is coming.
Face-to-face communication is a must in situations where:
- You want to build trust and make sure you’re on the same page
The stakes are high, for instance regarding an issue or a significant risk
You sense disagreement or conflict
You want to ask for advice or feedback
You want to win your client’s support for an important matter
You want to understand your client’s point of view and how to best communicate with them
Saying ‘yes’ when you really mean ‘no’
Many people feel pressurized to saying ‘yes’ when put on the spot and asked directly if they can deliver something– even if they haven’t had the time to properly assess what they’re saying yes to. This relates to anything from small promises of “I will send it to you straight away” to “yes, I’ll see if we can incorporate that extra feature into the next iteration!” Overpromising is a classic and very serious mistake which doesn’t serve anyone. The problem surfaces later when you realize that you can’t keep your promise and that it’s starting to affect your reputation. Instead, take time out by saying “Can I get back to you on that?” You can also offer alternatives by saying: “I can’t do A, but I can do B”.
Relying too heavily on the weekly status meeting
For many project managers the weekly status meeting is the primary way of communicating with the team. In this meeting the project manager enquires about progress and receives an update from each team member so that they can gauge how far the project has progressed. This type of status meeting is great for the project manager, but not necessarily for the team member who may feel it’s a waste of time. Make the status meeting short and focused on progress since last meeting and on blockages which you can help resolve. To engage each team member however, it’s essential that you set up one-2-one meetings where it’s all about them and their needs; not about what you need. Ask them what they most enjoy doing, what type of support they need from you and how you can help them work more effectively.
Providing too much and too detailed information
It is often assumed that the more detail we provide our bosses and stakeholders the better. But the truth is that we need to give them just the right amount of information and no more. When you send out a weekly status report or conduct a steering committee meeting, don’t overload the recipient with unnecessary detail. Highlight the good progress you have made, summarize risks and issues and how you are addressing them, and provide an update on the budget. Make it very clear if you need their input and decision on anything or if you’re merely providing an update. Detailed information should only be provided where they are in need of making a decision on something. Keep it simple and don’t use jargon. Your aim is to engage your audience and for this you need to communicate at their level of understanding. To download a free copy of a steering committee presentation, request access to the resources page here.
Failing to ask for feedback
It is human nature to avoid that which we feel is unpleasant – and that includes asking for feedback. You may fear that people will tell you something negative and therefore refrain from asking in the first place. But by not asking you’re doing yourself a big disfavor. Firstly you’re much better off knowing what people think about you and the project than not knowing; when you know you can do something about it and use the feedback to your advantage. In addition, you are likely to receive feedback about something which you’re doing really well and which you were not aware of. It will lift your spirits and enable you to build on your strengths. Why not try it? Ask people you respect; a) what you should stop doing b) what you should start doing and c) what you should continue to do. Nice and simple!
What are your own experiences? Which other communication mistakes do you see PMs make? I’d love to hear your comments.
Susanne Madsen is a project & program manager, mentor & coach, and author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook. She has over 15 years experience in managing and rolling out large change programs. You can read more from Susanne on her blog.