Project Management

Stay Confident for Awkward Communications

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Stay Confident for Awkward Communications

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The project manager's life often includes facing awkward situations. Have you been impressed by leaders who maintain a confident demeanor through difficult business communications? Like those communicators, you can be a better project manager by being prepared for awkward communications with your project team, stakeholders or sponsor.

In this post, you'll learn about a couple of awkward situations and how to handle them. First, you'll see how to handle the situation where you need to hide your disagreement with a message that you are conveying. The second situation is where the message you are relaying is late and you need to make the best of that situation.

Hiding Your Disagreement

How It Gets Awkward:  Consider, for example, that you are given the task is to convey to your project team, stakeholders  a message that has come down from the leadership chain (perhaps through your sponsor) and you don't agree with it. The message may have to do with resource changes in your project or a business priority change or something similar. For example, you may have to communicate that certain resources will be shifted to another higher priority project forcing unclear adjustments to be made by all involved.

How to Remain Confident:  Despite what you want to say, it is rarely appropriate for you to express your opinion in these matters. Deliver the message in a steady, professional, factual way. But also, express empathy when you hear reactions from your audience. You can acknowledge their frustration, disappointment and other emotions while still remaining confident.

Note:  This empathy skill has become highly desirable as well as critical to success for project managers and I'm doing my best in my articles and posts to make sure that you recognize when and how to use it.

When Your Message is Late

How It Gets Awkward: There are several reasons why you might be conveying a message that would be considered late. It could be information that took longer to obtain than you forecast to your team. It could be a decision that took a long time to come from leadership that significantly impacts your stakeholders and project team.

Consider the case where your task is to communicate out that a certain project decision has been made and that you previously told sponsor and stakeholders that the decision would be made two weeks prior. It was not made by the date you forecast for whatever reason, and you know that the delay will cause your sponsor and stakeholders difficulty and frustration. (Yikes!)

How to Remain Confident When It's Not Your Fault: On first glance, it appears you can simply say or imply that others were at fault. But that builds distrust in other groups, leadership or the business process. There is no good reason for you to make a judgement here. Stay confident by saying you just got the message and are relaying it immediately. If you hear complaints about the delay, show empathy. And if someone asks why there was such a delay, you probably are not sure, so say so. Focus on the message. And empathy.

How to Remain Confident When It Is Your Fault: It's definitely more difficult to remain confident in this case. You can make the best out of this situation if you apologize and own up to the responsibility. While this is a short-term problem for your reputation, when you own up to the error you will be more trusted in the future. For example, if the perceived delay was only because of your optimistic forecast of how long it would take to get the decision, then "you'll know better next time because you know that is important to your partners". If you hear complaints, show empathy. Next, move the conversation to the actual message.

In the case where the business decision was late, whether or not the delay was your fault, the message is going to force adjustment by your audience which will likely result in a second wave of complaints or frustration. Your tendency may be to respond firmly to complaints with your judgements and action planning in order to maintain control, but this can lead you down a troublesome path. Instead, realize this communication session is likely not designed to solve all problems and to determine all ramifications of the decision. You can defer until later the actual working sessions for everyone to figure out what to do.

So the key points here are to stay confident by preparing in advance for awkward communications:

  • Avoid volunteering your judgements as to whether you agree with leadership messages or decisions
  • Show empathy when your target audience responds and keep showing it
  • Focus on the message and its implications, but defer planning specific project adjustments until cooler heads prevail

You can use these points as guides during other examples of awkward communications as well. 

Posted on: August 20, 2020 11:45 PM | Permalink

Comments (15)

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Nice article (Agreed). I do believe Awkward communication situations arrived because of the level of understanding. Being a certified PMP itself is a dynamic impression. I love stakeholder management which gives complete assessment including qualification and level of understanding of stakeholders, so the PM always has a forecast about his own communications interactions and level of mindsets. 

Great Insights. It actualyl reminded me with a situation that recently happened.

Thanks for sharing

Thanks Joe.
These situations are never easy to handle.
Some of what I have seen work is
- Keeping your calm
- Not taking the frustration and anger directed at you personally
- Preparing (if that is an option) for such meetings with necessary details and anticipating some of the questions that will be asked

I agree

Would love to hear more about what an empathetic response would look like in these situations (show empathy).

Very nice article.

I like the line "defer planning specific project adjustments until cooler heads prevail". Very true and practical but often not followed.

Thanks : nice artice

Thank you for the article. I think 2020 will be known as the year of "awkward communication" as technology sometimes fails us and you can only ask "would you repeat that" and "no, you go ahead" so many times.

Thank you for the article.

Very good.

Nice Subject

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