13.4. Team Communication

Reliable promises, emotional intelligence, and a realistic outlook are all meaningless as trust-building tools if you don’t have the skills to communicate with your team members. In his book Mastering the Leadership Role in Project Management, Alexander Laufer explains the vital importance of team communication:

Because a project functions as an ad hoc temporary and evolving organization, composed of people affiliated with different organizations, communication serves as the glue that binds together all parts of the organization. When the project suffers from high uncertainty, the role played by project communication is even more crucial. (Laufer, 2012, p. 230)

Unfortunately, many people think they are better communicators than they actually are. Sometimes a person will excel at one form of communication but fail at others. For instance, someone might be great at small talk before a meeting but continually confuse co-workers with poorly written emails.  This is one area where getting feedback from your co-workers can be especially helpful. Another option is taking a class, or at the very least, consulting the numerous online guides to developing effective communication skills. To help you get started, here are a few quick resources for improving vital communication skills:

Making Small Talk—People often say they dislike small talk, but polite conversation on unimportant matters is the lubricant that keeps the social gears moving, minimizing friction, and making it possible for people to join forces on important matters. If you’re bad at small talk, then put some time into learning how to improve; you’ll get better with practice. There’s no better way to put people at ease. This article includes a few helpful tips: “An Introvert’s Guide to Small Talk: Eight Painless Tips.”

Writing good Emails—An ideal email is clear, brief, calm, and professional. Avoid jokes, because you can never be certain how team members (especially team members in other countries) will interpret them. A good emailer also understands the social rules that apply to email exchanges, as explained here: “The Art of the Effective Business Email.”

Talking One-on-One—Nothing beats a face-to-face conversation for building trust and encouraging an efficient exchange of ideas, as long as both participants feel comfortable. In fact, Alexander Laufer suggests using face-to-face conversation as the primary communication mode for your team (2012, 230). As a team leader, it’s your job to be aware of the many ways conversations can go awry, particularly when subordinates fear speaking their mind. This excellent introduction to the art of conversation includes tips for recognizing signs of discomfort in others: “The Art of Conversation: How to Improve Face-to-Face Communication in a Digital World.

Telling stories is an especially helpful way to share experiences with your team. Indeed, stories are “a form of communication that has been used to entertain, persuade, inspire, impart wisdom, and teach for thousands of years. This wide range of uses is due to a story’s remarkable effect on human emotion, experience, and cognition” (Kerby et al., 2018).

You’ve probably experienced the way people lower their defences when they realize they are hearing a tale about specific characters, with an uncertain outcome, rather than a simple recitation of events, or worse, a lecture. Master storytellers seem to do it effortlessly, but in fact, they usually shape their stories around the same basic template. Holly Walter Kerby, executive director of Fusion Science Theater, and a long-time science educator, describes the essential story elements as follows:

A Main Character Your Audience can Identify with—Include enough details to allow your audience to feel a connection with the main character, and don’t be afraid to make yourself the protagonist of your own stories.

A Specific Challenge—Set up the ending of the story by describing a problem encountered by the main character. This will raise a question in the minds of the audience members and make them want to listen to the rest of the story to find out what happens.

  • Can Sam and Danielle recover from a supplier’s bankruptcy and figure out how to get three hundred light fixtures delivered to a new office building in time for the grand opening?
  • Can Hala, a mere intern, prevent seasoned contractors from using an inferior grade of concrete?

Three to Five Events Related by Cause and Effect—The events should build on each other, and show the characters learning something along the way. Describe the events in a way that helps build a sense of tension.

One or two physical details—People tend to remember specific physical details. Including one or two is a surprisingly effective way to make an entire story more memorable.

  • The first new vendor Sam and Danielle contacted agreed to sell them all the light fixtures they needed but ended up sending only one fixture in a beaten-up box with the corners bashed in.
  • Hala, a small person, had to wear an oversized helmet and vest on the job site, which emphasized that she was younger and less experienced than the contractors.

An Outcome that Answers the Question—The outcome should be simple and easy to understand. Most importantly, it should answer the question posed at the beginning of the story.

  • Yes—by collaborating with a new supplier, Sam and Danielle were able to acquire the light fixtures in time for the grand opening.
  • No—Hala could not stop the contractors from using inferior concrete, but she did report the problem to her boss, who immediately halted construction until the concrete could be tested, and, in the end, replaced.

Satisfying Ending—Explain how the events in the story led to some kind of change in the characters’ world.

  • – Sam and Danielle learned to focus on building relationships with reliable, financially stable vendors.
  • – Hala learned that even an intern can safeguard a project by speaking up when she sees something wrong.

Keep in mind that in some high-stakes situations, the last thing you want is more tension. In that case, you want the opposite of a story—a straightforward recitation of the facts. For example, when confronting a team member about poor work habits, or negotiating with an unhappy client, it’s best to keep everything simple. Draining the drama from a situation helps everyone stay focused on the facts, keeping resentment and other negative emotions to a minimum (Manning, 2018, p. 64). For more on good techniques for difficult conversations, see Trevor Manning’s book Help! I need to Master Critical Conversations.

[1] Thanks to Hala Nassereddine for sharing her story of her experience as an intern on a construction site in Beirut, Lebanon.

The Beauty of Face-to-Face Communication

As Laufer et al. point out in their book Becoming a Project Leader, “In contrast to interactions through other media that are largely sequential, face-to-face interaction makes it possible for two people to send and receive messages almost simultaneously. Furthermore, the structure of face-to-face interaction offers a valuable opportunity for interruption, repair, feedback, and learning that is virtually instantaneous. By seeing how others are responding to a verbal message even before it is complete, the speaker can alter it midstream in order to clarify it. The immediate feedback in face-to-face communication allows understanding to be checked, and interpretation to be corrected. Additionally, face-to-face communication captures the full spectrum of human interaction, allowing multiple cues to be observed simultaneously. It covers all the senses—sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch—that provide the channels through which individuals receive information” (Laufer et al., 2018).

Certainly, in today’s world of project management, in which distributed digital teams are becoming common practice, it may be impossible to sit down in the same room with all team members. But as much as possible, project managers should push for using technology that allows a fuller communication environment—one in which interactions are not just isolated to text.

5. Team Formation, Team Management, and Project Leadership” from Technical Project Management in Living and Geometric Order by Jeffrey Russell, Wayne Pferdehirt and John Nelson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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Essentials of Project Management Copyright © 2021 by Adam Farag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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