Project Management

When Stakeholders Think You’re Hiding Something

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Project managers work hard to keep stakeholders informed. Nonetheless, sometimes when a stakeholder asks about the status of a project, he or she gets the impression that a project manager is hiding something or being less than honest.

Here are three circumstances where stakeholders may get this feeling, and how you as the project manager can handle them to ensure you’re viewed as trustworthy.

1. You can’t disclose certain information or documents. On our projects, we become the caretaker of all information and documents, including some that can be extremely sensitive. Stakeholders might request the home phone number of a team member, the contingency target of a budget or other confidential information. In some cases, your organization may require a security clearance or other confidentiality measures.

In this sort of scenario, it’s appropriate for a project manager to say, “Let me check on disclosure agreements and provide allowable information."

2. You’re the bearer of bad news. Project managers sometimes must communicate negative issues, risks or unforeseen events to stakeholders. The risk here is that a stakeholder might believe the project manager had prior knowledge of the problem, or even allowed the problem to fester as a way of extracting additional funds for the project.

To avoid a “shoot the messenger” scenario, it’s a good idea to not blame someone for a problem. A better tactic here may be to arrange a discussion on the topic with key decision-makers. This could lead to a satisfactory acceptance or a suitable compromise.

3. You made an error. You may have inadvertently distributed a report with wrong information. Mistakes happen. As soon as possible, apologize and acknowledge that the wrong information was given.

Our reputations as project managers depend on us being creditable and trustworthy. We must always be honest and remain professional and polite, no matter what the concerns of a stakeholder are.

How do you handle stakeholders who question the truthfulness of a project’s status?

Posted by Bernadine Douglas on: May 26, 2015 06:25 PM | Permalink

Comments (8)

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Nice article Bernadine Douglas. In my view during the course of development of project management plan or when project manager is assigned to a particular project a precise and concise understanding is to developed between stakeholders and project manager regarding the which information can be shared and which not.

It's true that we come across such situations as discussed in the article more often than not. It's important that a project manager always maintain an open , clear , friendly & honest relationship with stakeholders. It is important to earn trust of the stakeholders.

Hi success_anil, thanks for your comment. I agree, it would be nice to have that precise and concise understanding. It is hoped by most project managers that this would happen upfront. However, in the case it does not, hopefully these tips can help. Thanks again.

Hi Nalaka, thanks for your comment. I agree, it is important to earn the trust of stakeholders. Unfortunately, however, for whatever the reasons sometimes the trust can get broken, do you agree? Remaining open, clear, friendly and honest are really good points. Thanks for sharing.

To succeed PM's need to share knowledge and solve issues, collaboratively. They will fail if they're perceived to be hiding information and/or blaming others. Thank you for these succinct, well put points to help PMs to maintain trust when things go awry.

Thanks Bernadine for picking a very crucial aspect of project management. I totally agree with all the review comments mentioned above. However, I would like to share my own experience and techniques to keep stakeholders informed and winning their trust. The first and foremost thing is to never ever give them a bad surprise. I make it a point to get crucial reports reviewed by senior and important stakeholders prior to meetings like steering committee meetings etc. This practice has developed the faith and confidence in them about me. Secondly, I ensure that they understand the details about critical things by explaining them in depth. Asking questions whether I am able to answer their questions correctly or they want me to explain again. This has helped me in establishing the fact that I do not hide things and can go to any extent to make things clear. Raw methods but quite effective. In fact I've many times earned praise from many critical stakeholders about this practice. While they still make noise on issue and constraints they never doubt my intent. Hope Thu will help others....

Hi Barnadine,
I appreciate your article, thanks! It is a good topic, and one that novice PMs are often unprepared to handle. I'm glad to see the comments don't seem to contain platitudes about merely "establishing trust." I find that conversations on topics like this can often contain little to no actionable information.

I particularly appreciate the idea of having as much planning and agreement upfront as possible. It is easier to maintain trust, when expectations are set and adhered to. However, if expectations are broken for any reason, I find that the best way to regain trust is to listen, confirm your understanding of where trust was lost and respond to that.

I have some experience with this as a PM and a lot of experience with this as a client. One thing I can say is that often when, as a client, I've lost trust in my vendor, they've also lost trust in my organization. Likewise, when I'm a PM and someone loses trust in me, I have often lost trust in them around the same topic.

The important thing to remember is that as the PM, it is really my job to have communication work and to reestablish trust, so it is my job to listen and figure out where trust was lost, what expectation/s were missed, and what sorts of actions are necessary to get the project on track again.

This could include listening to how someone feels, and how it has impacted their relationship/s with co-workers or supervisors/manager. I find that if someone is allowed to express how a situation occurred for them, they are then able to engage in a calm conversation for a solution without the distraction of finger pointing.

For my part, I may have feelings about how things happened too. This is where I don't get to share (i.e. dump) on my client/sponsor/etc... I can talk with my manager, supervisor, or co-worker to deal with my upset and then I can proceed with finding a solution. It is important, when approaching someone, whom I want to discuss an upsetting project with, to let them know my intention is to air my upset and clear my thinking, so that I can focus on a solution. I also ask them if I can count on them to be a trusted and confidential ear. After I talk with them, I ask if there is anything they see that I need to address in my attitude, and I often check back in with them later with a status of how the project is proceeding. It is important not to leave them thinking of our client in negative terms.

Trust is very delicate part of team management and team building phases. I normally use informal channel/discussion within boundary to build trust among the team. I normally encourage Water-cooler conversations for positive environment building. I also ensure that it is within formal boundary so that these conversation are not dragged in negative direction with unnecessary subjects.

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