Five Traits of a Great Project Manager: #2 – Effective Communicator

Updated: Apr 21

Great communication involves more than just being a great conversationalist or being good at “small talk.” A strong communicator should understand how to communicate with different audiences, know what communication tools to use and when to use them, and pick up on the cues from others when communicating with them.

Trait #2: Great project managers are effective communicators.

Being an effective communicator provides the building blocks for improved relationships, enhanced teams, better decision-making, and a positive work environment.

What is effective communication?

I often hear leaders looking for project managers who are effective communicators. When I probe further as to what effective communications mean to them, ironically, they stumble and fumble with a retort, “they know how to talk to people” or something to that effect.

The most basic definition of effective communication is communication between two or more persons wherein the intended message is successfully delivered, received, and understood.

To put it more clearly, effective communication requires the ability to know what to say, when to say it, who to say it to, with the ability to manage your emotions, be an engaged listener, and be able to pick up on the non-verbal cues of others. That’s a pretty tall order, but a trait I have seen in many successful project managers.

Scenario: Communicating about staff changes

Back to the Alpha project…

You scheduled time to sit down with Sam one-on-one about his outbursts and started the conversation with the following: “Sam your work product is amazing and you add a lot of value to the team. However, I have concerns about your outbursts in the office and that is not acceptable per our team charter guidelines. Tell me what’s going on as I would like to help.”

Turns out Sam’s father-in-law is sick at home in Canada and it doesn’t look good. Realizing the demands of work, he didn’t feel he could leave the team given the tight deadline but the stress of family was taking a toll on Sam. Sam apologized for his behavior and was embarrassed he did not handle the situation more professionally. As a short-term solution, you both agreed that Sam should take time off to be with his family for 4 weeks. Sam was tremendously grateful for the time off and realized he was pushing himself to the brink of burnout. He apologizes to the team; Chloe understood as she dealt with the passing of her mother two years prior. Chloe committed to shadowing Sam for the next five days to learn what she can and assume some of Sam’s task, although she admittedly was not as skilled as Sam.

While there was a resolution on the resource side, this staffing change posed a problem on the timeline. Your sponsor will not be thrilled about the schedule delay. Your next step is to communicate the news—most of your communications with the sponsor have been via email. You determine you cannot deliver this news via email.

Developing the skill

As project managers, we connect to our teams and stakeholders through multiple ways of communication. The more skilled a communicator you are, the better project manager you are. Here are quick reminder tips to think about when developing the skill of effective communications:

Get the right information

When you determine the specific communication and information needs of your stakeholders, this keeps you focused on providing what they need. I’ve encountered many project managers who profess they have put together a 40-page slide deck to present to executives for a 1-hour meeting and were thoroughly disappointed that they only reviewed five slides. The 40 slides were about your information needs; the 5 slides were about their information needs.

To the right people

While it may seem easier to “reply all” in the email or invite everyone to the meeting (just in case), having too many players at the table can actually lead to confusion, changes in requirements, and schedule delays. From meeting invites, to the “CC” line in email, ensure that the right people are getting the right information.

At the right time

Going back to our Alpha project scenario, timing is everything when it comes to communicating the staffing changes to the sponsor. I will never forget a profound statement made by Kristy Tan Neckowicz during a virtual conference I attended: “not telling your sponsor bad news robs them the opportunity to make a decision.” In fact, the sponsor may actually appreciate that you took the time to tell them and they may even provide additional solutions to minimize the impact of the resource changes. Timing should also consider the frequency of communications to your stakeholders.

In the right format

We must be more intentional communicators today given our heavy reliance on technology. While email and text messaging are great communication tools, they are not a substitute for face-to-face communication when interaction may be needed. General guidelines are we should reserve email for FYI and getting information in writing to be referenced at a later time; face-to-face is reserved for when I need real-time interaction and be able to read non-verbal cues.

Be an engaged listener

Telling is not all there is to be an effective communicator. An effective project manager should be an engaged, active listener. That means fully engaging with the other person with the intent to learn and understand. Listen to understand, rather than wait for your turn to talk.

In summary, effective communication requires that we get the right information, to the right people, at the right time, in the right format, all while being an active listener and being self-aware.

Effective communication is a key trait that allows project managers to deepen their connection with their stakeholders on a project. Being an effective communicator provides the building blocks for improved relationships, enhanced teams, better decision-making, and a positive work environment.

What are your thoughts on this trait? How would you describe what it means to be an effective communicator? Please share your comments.

If you’d like to learn how to develop your skills as an effective communicator, ask me about my PM TALENT program.


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