As a project leader, communication is a tool, an objective, and a key determiner of success. Here are some tips for leadership-oriented communication.
* 360 degrees communication. It’s as important to communicate downward as upwards; and don’t forget laterally, either. Some companies very much have a personality where people only want to communicate upwards so they can impress their boss. If that’s what your team sees you do, it sends a message that they’re not very important to you.
* Make communication important – schedule it. Communication within a team, or between team members, is always important. Prove it by putting it on the schedule. Set up time to meet one on one with your team members so you can hear their concerns and ideas. Not only do people like to be heard, you may see a number of other benefits from this less formal communication.
* Make respectful choices. How often have you had a meeting planned with your boss or your client, and had them cancel your discussion in order to have another one? How did that make you feel? While you might have accepted it happening once or twice, by the third time that happened, you probably felt like you weren’t very important. That’s not a trust-building event.
As a project leader, you won’t always be able to avoid scheduling conflicts. It’s what you do next that’s important. Apologize. Don’t assume this had no impact on your the person you were supposed to meet with. Make it up to them by letting them set the time for the replacement. Show that you consider their time to be as valuable as yours.
* Make up your own mind; don’t use somebody else’s. Quite often you’ll get advance warning about somebody you’ll be working with. Maybe it’s a team member who isn’t a good performer. Maybe it’s a thoughtless boss or a confused client. It might seem wise to use any intelligence like that to prepare yourself for a rough time of it.
I’d agree with preparing yourself, but in a different way. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Think about how you can communicate with them to establish your own relationship with this person, rather than re-living someone else’s.
* Don’t avoid communication. The fact of the matter is, you don’t get to be choosy about who you communicate with. If someone’s connected to your project and its success, you’re going to have to work with them. When you avoid someone, you lose all the benefits of communication. What’s worse, they may notice that you’re not talking to them. Are you hiding something? Does your avoidance mean something? Maybe they’ll decide they shouldn’t like you, either.
As a project leader, you should push yourself to seek out communication in a case like this. Try to learn more about the person. Make sure you listen to them. Make sure the lines of communication are open.
* Set expectations on communications. When you join a project, you should establish expectations around communication.
For example, every time I start a project I discuss communications with my boss or primary stakeholder. Should we have a regular time to meet? How often do they want to receive communications from me? What form should our communications or interactions take? I’m not only trying to make it as clear as possible that communication is important to me. Every part of the message is that I will communicate in the way they meets their preferences. I want them to consciously set their expectations of our communications.
You can do that within a team, too. Do you expect team leads to meet with each of their team members regularly? How about with their whole team? How about the team leads together? Set expectations on communications and follow up to see how it’s working for your team.
* Watch the non-verbal communication. Things such as tone and posture are known issues with communications. Your words say one thing, your body says another. This is difficult to observe in yourself, but worth paying attention to. You might ask for feedback on this from someone you trust.
Suppose you go to someone’s desk to talk to them. You’ve asked them if they have a moment to talk, and they said yes. Now you’re talking, but they’re still looking at a computer screen or their phone. What message are you getting from that?
Sometimes the sentence you say means one thing, but your words sent a different message. For example, you can say, “I really need that report on my desk by noon; is there anything you need to help make that happen?” Or you can say, “Get that report on my desk by noon. I don’t care what you have to do.”
Another sub-message lies in courtesy words. Does a person say “please” and “thank you”? It may sound unimportant, and often it is – right up until the moment you notice that a person never thanks you for anything. It’s not just me. Say “please”, “thank you”, and “how are you” – and mean it – and watch how positively people respond to you.
* Don’t draw attention to something by ignoring it. Remember what I was saying about how much context people have to filter your communications? Here’s a classic: people notice when you’re not saying something.
Imagine you’ve got a situation on your project. Someone’s not being a good performer and there’s been a lot of drama. It’s starting to impact the team, as the gossip is overwhelming productive work. Will the person quit? Will they be fired or reassigned? You have a meeting to discuss project plans and you completely avoid the topic. You probably thought that you’d rather not distract the team with a topic that you really can’t discuss with them, but now you’ve got even more questions to answer.
* The medium is the message. Learn what tools people like to communicate with, and use them. Your stakeholders may use email, your teammates use the instant messaging tool which came installed on the company laptops, and your incredibly hip development team uses an esoteric web forum full of macros and in-jokes. You may want to set a project standard for some kinds of communication, if only to make sure that not every sub-team has its own and you can never find anybody online, but you need to recognize that the tools people use are part of their personal identity.
As with every other part of project leadership, you need to make communication a conscious action and demonstrate its value by example. Everything you say or do can have meaning to your team, and you want them to get the best message every time.
(This is an edited excerpt from a draft of a book I’m currently writing about project leadership.)