Relationships take a lot of work. Are you working on your project relationships?
The importance of building productive working relationships with your team can't be overstated. It's a fundamental part of a project manager’s job—as time-consuming and critical as creating the project plan, managing risk, updating the schedule, monitoring the budget, and communicating to stakeholders.
So how do you know how well you're doing it? You might need to evaluate your project relationships if team members...
... voice concern that they don’t know where they stand in terms of roles or expectations.
... don't come directly to you with questions, issues or concerns about the project.
... resist participating in meetings and avoid the project's communication channels.
... seem unenthusiastic about collaborating on solutions to project challenges
WHAT YOU CAN DO
As the saying goes, “no man is an island,” and no project team should ever feel like it is working on an island. As the project manager, you should be the face and voice of the project. You need to make sure each team member can clearly “see” and “hear” you; likewise, they need to know that they will be seen and heard.
You must be fair and consistent in your dealings with the team, it should go without saying. But you also need to acknowledge that each team member is an individual, with different strengths and weaknesses, work styles and motivations. That means you want to try to be flexible and attentive to each relationship as it evolves. A formulaic approach will only garner formulaic relationships. You want more. You want the best that each team member has to offer.
The ultimate goal is to find how your team’s individual talents can best serve the project as a whole, and how you can help them make that happen. This requires honesty, respect and support from you. In return, you can rightfully expect, and should receive, the same from your team.
Define Your Role. Before you can define what you expect from team members, you need to describe what they can expect from you throughout the project. Make it clear that your eyes are always on “the prize.” From project kickoff to closeout, they should be completely confident that everything you say and do is in the name of project success.
Set Expectations. Once you’ve established your role, you need to set expectations for the team as a whole, and for each team member. Some of these expectations will be universal regardless of the project or team makeup—accountability for their work and effort, commitment to the goals of the project.
And some will need to be tailored to each individual’s skillset. This requires time for discussion, questions and clarification with each team member. Expectations can’t just be handed down “from on high.” Yes, you are ultimately in charge as the project manager, but to establish productive work relationships and generate buy-in, you want these expectations to serve as motivational tools, not emotionless dictates.
Be Available. From the get-go, some team members will have no qualms letting you know exactly what they think and how they feel. Others will be less inclined to speak out in the presence of their peers. Whether your preferred managing style is “open-door,” “walk the floor,” or something a bit more reserved, it is critical that you make yourself available to team members for private, one-on-one conversations. These talks can be much more informative than what surfaces in official settings.
Be Appreciative. Diligent team members are bound to bear down on their daily tasks and responsibilities. When they occasionally look up from the work at hand, they should feel that their contributions are being recognized and acknowledged in relation to the bigger picture.
Appreciation can’t really be conveyed in monthly status reports. Make it personally meaningful by thanking them face-to-face whenever possible. In addition, make their contributions visible to the rest of the team and sponsors by giving shout-outs to deserving team members in weekly meetings as well as informal group settings. Recognition is a powerful relationship-building tool.
Be Trustworthy. You can’t expect team members to openly share their concerns about the project if there is any apprehension that bad news will affect their standing or be shared in a detrimental way with peers or superiors. If a culture of fear has existed on other projects in the organization, make it clear that it won’t rule the day on your project. It might be difficult to convince an individual who has been burned before; others may prefer to play politics. But showing that you value honesty over calculation will eventually pay dividends, be it uncovering festering problems or encouraging more realistic estimates and assessments of current risks.
Be Congenial. It doesn’t hurt and can often help to show interest in your team members’ lives outside the workplace. This doesn’t mean you have to step outside of your comfort zone or try to feverishly form friendships with everyone, though that might happen naturally at times. The point is, professionalism and collegiality are not mutually exclusive. In the end, a team that knows you care about them beyond the spreadsheets and timelines is a team that will almost always work harder for you and the project.
Be Yourself. Finally, there is no substitute for authenticity. You don’t want a job that forces you to be someone else. That won’t bring you satisfaction, and it won’t be effective in leading others. Be yourself, and at the very least, your team will know who they are in the trenches with.
Whether you're an introvert or extrovert, building productive team relationships is part of the job. And like all relationships, it takes work. Get to it!