Ways to Hurt Communication

Project managers can hinder their effectiveness as communicators on their projects in many ways.

Treat Communication as Unidirectional

In other words, the only people who seem to communicate are project managers. A major reason for this situation is that some project managers think that being in charge means not listening to anyone . After all, many project managers occupy their positions because they are good, if not better, than anyone else available. Unfortunately , this success can result in an arrogance that can limit communication, mainly from project managers to team members . Conversation becomes one way. Since 75 percent of oral communication is lost, chances increase that project managers ” who mainly use oral communication ” find their messages ignored or forgotten. [12]

However, an important requirement of effective communication is that it goes two ways. A "give and take" in the dialog must occur where signals, whatever they may be, flow freely between two people or among group members. This communication should occur at all levels and should be open and fluid throughout an organization, and a leader has the responsibility to remove any roadblocks .

Communication, therefore, does not only flow downhill, so to speak. It flows throughout an organization in many directions. It flows vertically, up and down. It also flows laterally with people communicating with each other on a peer level. Project managers must foster lateral communication as much, if not more so, than its vertical counterpart for no other reason than to help people to complete their work successfully.

Exercise Poor Emotional Intelligence

Effective communicators, whether in a leadership position or not, exercise good emotional intelligence. They are aware of their own emotions and desires and can control them to have the desired effect. They also have good empathetic ability; they can acquire an understanding of the emotional state of other people. [13] Both self-awareness and empathy give people, therefore, the capability to communicate effectively.

Unfortunately, many project managers lack this emotional intelligence. They are so focused on method and result, they forget that both involve the necessary cooperation of people to make it all happen. They fail to become aware of their own behavior on the emotions of others and vice versa. Consequently, major barriers to communication can arise between project managers and the people with whom they must work.

One barrier is a disconnection between what the project managers say and how they actually behave. This incongruous behavior can create a communication block and can be aggravated if the project manager fails to ascertain nonverbal cues during exchanges. Daniel Goleman notes the importance of using body language to detect and understand other people's feelings. [14] Indeed, this nonverbal mode may be as important, if not more so, than the verbal one as Goleman continues to observe that the incongruity between words and body language can reveal emotional truth about another person. [15]

Overemphasize Data and Information

Many project managers assume that more is better and the more data released, the better the communication. Nothing could be further than the truth. Too much data or information can worsen circumstances.

A perfect example is the tendency for project managers to generate many reports containing superfluous data. Often, project managers generate way too much data in the wrong format for the wrong people. In addition, they generate much "bad" data. That is, the data are incomplete, inaccurate, cryptic, and perhaps even contradictory. In the end, it causes more harm than good to communication.

I believe project management software is a major contributor to this situation. This software places considerable power in the hands of project managers. The danger is that this software provides too much power. Data get collected for collection sake and many reports are generated. Unfortunately, data and information are often incorrect or incomplete, resulting in miscommunication . Like many things, the perception is the more, the better. Too much of a good "thing" can prove burdensome, especially if incomplete and inaccurate.

Fail to Perform Audience Analysis

This failure in communication is closely allied to the previous point. Rather than define the audience for their communication, many project managers communicate using a "shotgun" approach in the hope that the right people get their message. This approach, however, can result in people losing a meaning of the message or ignoring it altogether.

The reality is that projects have multiple audiences, each with unique needs. Audiences, called stakeholders, really involve multiple levels of communication. One level of communication is that which applies to all stakeholders, from senior management to individual team members. There is also a level applicable to a selective audience, e.g., steering committee members or team members.

Failure to ascertain the informational needs of audiences can negatively impact communication flow, especially on the performance of a project team. Ignoring the communication needs of a team can hurt team development and performance, causing it to be inefficient and ineffective . Therefore, project managers cannot assume that good communication will occur naturally.

Rely Too Much on the Technology of Communication

Like data and information spewing forth from them, the number of technologies themselves used in the project environment are immense ” beepers, cell phones, fax, e-mail, analog and digital phones, voice mail, and software packages. Whether at work or at home, people are increasingly using multiple tools, not just one. All this technology has caused a flood of information in the form of messages and continues to rise in volume.

What is worrisome is that many project managers construe using such tools as the same as communicating. Just the opposite is the case and the greater the reliance on technology, the greater the potential for miscommunication and poor communication will increase and lead to trouble. In The Pursuit of Wow! , Tom Peters says that one of the biggest culprits is overreliance on the technology, such as e-mail. The reason? The vital face-to-face interaction gets ignored, only adding to more problems. [16]

More importantly, I believe, is that such situations interfere with communication in general and a message in particular is the personal touch that makes exchange between two people so meaningful. In other words, it lessens the "human moment" that Edward Hallowell describes as "an authentic psychological encounter" in the same physical space. This space, according to Hallowell, is people's physical presence and their emotional and intellectual attention. According to him, this loss of the human moment can result in "toxic worry." [17] Naturally, people's guards rise and effective communication, no matter the technology, decreases or ceases.

Project managers, therefore, should view using more tools with great suspicion because they can generate a false sense of effective communication. Ray Boedecker observes that using tools and methodologies often creates a false sense of security when communicating information. [18]

Fail to Listen to Multiple Views

Many project managers exhibit poor communication skills in one big, obvious way ” they fail to listen, particularly to alternative viewpoints. Instead, they act like they know the answer to everything. The reality is that they do not know all the answers, resulting in tunnel vision. Part of the problem, I believe, is that many project managers rise to their position because they know a specific subject area very well. As their scope widens, however, their knowledge requirements widen but what they know narrows. They need, therefore, to consult with people who know more than they do in a specific area. Unfortunately, few project managers recognize this circumstance, sending signals that cause barriers to effective communication. Barriers include feeling that they know everything, perceiving that consulting others is a sign of weakness, and subscribing to Theory X. Such barriers result in filtering communication up and down the chain of command, internally and externally to their projects. Examples of situations that can lead to filtering communication include a fear of "shooting the messenger," a concern about embarrassing someone in authority, and a mistrust of colleagues and superiors.

Of course, project managers gain much by expressing a willingness to listen to different viewpoints, e.g., improved morale and better decisions. Unfortunately, few people really exercise good listening skills in general or in managing projects in particular. In Love 'Em or Lead 'Em , Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans observe that few people are effective listeners and that skill often remains undeveloped. [19]

Even when many project managers do listen, they do so poorly. They interrupt people or become defensive, increasing a barrier or creating another one. Either way, communication breaks down, especially if it results in a debate rather than a dialog.

Take a Win-Lose Approach Towards Conflict

Conflict may not necessarily be negative although the common perception is that it is because of the high level of emotional intensity it involves and the difficulty in handling it.

On projects, the opportunity for conflict is quite prevalent , especially if it is defined in a way that Stewart Tubbs and Sylvia Moss describe as a struggle between parties over incompatible goals and resources and the interference of others. [20]

Unfortunately, a negative perception of conflict seems to prevail among many project managers. They react to it in a manner that destroys communication, e.g., trying to avoid, accommodate, or squash it. Avoiding and accommodating conflict affects communication because project managers hope that it will fade away, only to result in a Lose-Win or Lose-Lose outcome. Squashing conflicts affects communication because project managers demonstrate their superiority in the chain of command, resulting only in a Win-Lose outcome. Whether accommodating, avoiding, or squashing conflict, communication will suffer because of fear, mistrust, resentment, or a combination of them.

Project managers must use confrontation to address conflict. They must bring out the real issues and open a dialog on them; otherwise , conflict will not disappear but fester until an explosion occurs. The idea is to open and maintain communication during and after conflict to come to a Win-Win outcome by encouraging everyone to work together and communicating openly and empathetically. To make that happen, project managers need to identify the reasons for disagreements and exercise the necessary degree of empathy to achieve understanding.

Many project managers must also realize that poor handling of conflict affects communication at many different levels, not just interpersonally. It also affects communication within the team and other organizations outside a project, e.g., senior management. Project managers who fail to acknowledge this relationship can find themselves and other team members outside of the communication loop, especially if in an adversarial position.

Rely Solely on One Approach to Communication

For example, some prefer meeting one-on-one to communicate to a group. Others prefer communicating electronically , e.g., via e-mail. While having a preferred approach is fine, the danger comes when relying on only one way to communicate. When that happens, some project managers find that their messages may get inadequate attention, or worse , overlooked. To be really effective communicators, therefore, project managers should employ multiple means of communication.

One interesting phenomenon that is gaining momentum is to communicate project information visually. Before the advent of microcomputers, short of a histogram and a bar chart, visual communication was not commonplace. With visuals, many project managers have found it much easier to overcome communication barriers. They must employ them discretely, however. Format and content can have an impact on how a message is perceived and reviewed. More often than not, it is a visual one.

Once again, project managers need to define the audience for whom they are communicating. Many project managers fail to do so and employ an inappropriate approach that causes or yields to communication barriers.

An interesting observation that I have found over the years is that some project managers who do not communicate well in person have no problem doing so through e-mail. While e-mail can prove very helpful to overcome communication barriers, it should not be used as an alternative to more effective approaches to communication. Unfortunately, some project managers rely exclusively on e-mail, failing to interact with stakeholders and sacrificing rapport, or the "human moment," so essential to engender meaningful communication on projects.

Stress the Negative

Nothing can be more demoralizing to a team than a leader who is constantly negative in thought and action. Negative leaders are "downers." [21]

Project managers can exhibit negativity in many ways that impact the quality of communication. They can "shoot down" ideas from team members, or they can rescind the actions of others just because an idea was not their own.

Project managers, through their thoughts and actions, therefore, set the stage to determine how communication will occur. If they take a positive, proactive approach, communication will likely be effective. If they take a negative, reactive approach, communication will likely be inefficient and ineffective.

A very common indicator of how well project managers handle communication is their handling of "bad" news. They must do so carefully or their action will negatively impact their relationships with stakeholders.

One case, for example, is how project managers respond to negative information. Do they blame someone when something goes wrong? Do they get hostile towards people? If yes, the barriers to communication will arise and affect the relationships with stakeholders.

Another example is how well project managers communicate negative information. Do they do so with a lack of understanding or empathy? Because project managers must continually address issues dealing with corrective actions and replanning, they must be especially sensitive to this issue if they hope to develop and sustain trust with stakeholders.

The real issue is that project managers must be sensitive about how they come across when dealing with negative information. If negative, they will increase barriers to effective communication. If positive, the barriers will decline, perhaps even disappear. It is more of a question of how it is handled rather than what it is.

Treat Communication as an Ad Hoc, Even Passive Function

Of course, communication will happen whether project managers do anything or not. However, the quality of communication will be key, and project managers can do much to influence that quality.

Many project managers do little to influence the quality of communication on their projects and that is reflected in the results: rework , meaningless meetings, lost information, and much more. All this contributes to schedule slides, budget overruns, and poor quality of work.

The reality is that the quality of communication directly reflects the overall personality of the project manager and that of the entire team. Sloppy communication increases the chance, therefore, that the overall quality of managing projects will be the same and reflect back on the work of the project manager.

All too often unfortunately, communication is treated in a matter of fact manner. What project managers should do is take the initiative and provide the infrastructure that sets the stage for effective communication. They need to create that sense of community that John Gardner discusses in On Leadership , whereby people willingly communicate and offer to initiate it. [22]

Project managers must do more, however, than provide common meeting grounds. They need to receive the necessary feedback on overall progress. Many project managers fail here, too, by not giving feedback on personal or group levels. It is an important aspect of communication on projects that project managers keep everyone informed of ideas, issues, and progress as well as see and give feedback on overall performance. It is not enough to give people feedback on their own performance.

Lack Self-Awareness of Thoughts and Actions on Others

Self-awareness, so important for emotional intelligence as Daniel Goleman discusses, can influence the quality of communication. A lack of self-awareness manifests itself through the actions of project managers, either on an individual or group level. What follows are a few common ones.

Criticizing someone before a group can lead to a huge barrier to communication. Thinking perhaps to demonstrate their dominance , some project managers will criticize someone before peers or superiors. Nothing can squash future dialog between a project manager and team members faster; no one will take the chance to be humiliated.

Threatening people, either on an individual basis or before a group, can erect another big barrier. After making a threat, typical of an experienced project manager subscribing to Theory X, communication wanes or stops. Fear of encouraging additional threats may or may not be realized. People start filtering their words, resulting in measured or no communication.

Excessive questioning can inhibit communication, especially if impugning an individual's character. After hearing an idea start, some project managers shoot questions like an aggressive prosecutor on a caffeine addiction . Although reflecting great analysis of an idea, such an approach can wreak havoc on the person proposing the idea. Small wonder he or she then behaves and communicates defensively to avoid another attack from the project manager.

Jumping to a solution before defining a problem or considering alternatives is another way that project managers can negatively affect communication. When a problem arises, some project managers develop a solution on the spot; often it is their own solution. When addressing a problem with others, they work desperately to convince and ratify an already preconceived solution. Often, the listeners simply say it is a good idea and shake their heads, wondering why they were even asked in the first place.

In People Skills , Robert Bolton identifies twelve common communication "spoilers" that he groups into three categories: judging , which consists of criticizing, name -calling, diagnosing, and praising; sending solutions, which consists of ordering, threatening, moralizing, excessive/inappropriate questioning, and advising ; and avoiding other's concerns, which consists of diverting, logical argument, and reassuring. [23]

Treat Communication as Simple; In Reality, It Is Not

Achieving high-quality communication is tough and the more project managers invest into it, the greater the returns. It is extremely complex. Yet, many project managers think it is nothing more than saying a few words, issuing an e-mail, or making a telephone call.

The complexity of communication is due to many subjective factors, some observable and many subtle, that affect ” positively and negatively ” a message when sent and the way it is received.

For example, a sender crafts a message that reflects his or her perceptions. The receiver, in turn , gets the message and interprets it according to his or her perceptions. Many times a mismatch occurs and, if feedback is not transmitted, the message is either ignored or interpreted in a way never intended by the sender.

These different perceptions add complexity to the communication process of which project managers must always be cognizant. In many regards, these perceptions reflect paradigms to consider when communicating a message and, if not, can lead to a serious communication barrier, making it difficult to come to agreement or consensus.

Communication can get complicated additionally when considering the variety of barriers. For example, distance can add to the complexity of different perceptions, on a global level. Another example is the political barriers that exist within a large organization of stakeholders. Each stakeholder has not only a different perception of a message but may also have varying, subtle interests in an outcome not shared by others.

Then there is the added complexity of communication on a more intrapersonal level that goes beyond a paradigm. It is the listening skills of the people, their education, their interests, their psychological motivations, and thinking styles.

Project managers, therefore, must understand that achieving good communication is not a simple task. It is hard work and failure to acknowledge that fact can have considerable consequences ” as Dale Emery notes in STQE Magazine , writing that people often take communication for granted because it occurs often without event. When communication does go awry, even on a small scale, it can grow to a big, unintended scale, resulting in poor performance. [24]

[12] Robert Bolton, People Skills , Touchstone, New York, 1986, p. 30.

[13] Daniel Goleman, What makes a leader? Harvard Business Review , pp. 93 “102, November-December 1998.

[14] Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence , Bantam Books, New York, 1995, p. 96.

[15] Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence , Bantam Books, New York, 1995, p. 97.

[16] Tom Peters, The Pursuit of Wow! , Vintage Books, New York, 1994, p. 257.

[17] Edward M. Hallowell, The human moment at work, Harvard Business Review , pp. 59 “62, January-February 1999.

[18] Ray Boedecker, Communications: the project manager's essential tool, PM Network , p. 20, December 1997.

[19] Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans, Love 'Em or Lose 'Em , Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 1999, p. 175.

[20] Stewart L. Tubbs and Sylvia Moss, Human Communication , 8th ed., McGraw-Hill, Boston, 2000, p. 199.

[21] James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge , Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1987, p. 121.

[22] John W. Gardner, On Leadership , The Free Press, New York, 1990, p. 116.

[23] Robert Bolton, People Skills , Touchstone, New York, 1986, p. 17.

[24] Dale H. Emery, Untangling communication, STQE Magazine , p. 18, July/August 2001.

Leading High Performance Projects
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