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Project Management is All About Trust

I’ve written previously that a key benefit of project management is predictability. Without the benefit of project management, the range of possible outcomes is likely to be quite large and most sponsors would have insufficient confidence to invest in even moderately complex projects.

Communication is frequently cited as being the activity which consumes most of a Project Manager’s time and poor communication has been identified as a key contributor to project failure.

While project success is predicated on effective communication, the must-have requirement for achieving predictable project outcomes is trust. This comes as no surprise when we consider that projects require the cooperation and willing participation from multiple people to achieve success, and trust is crucial to developing positive, productive working relationships with these stakeholders.

What happens when there are low levels of trust on a project?

Morale issues are just the tip of the iceberg. The main impacts of low trust are the waste and opportunity costs resulting from non-value add activities such as:

  • Excessive follow-up and verification of status updates and other routine information provided by team members and other stakeholders
  • Procrastination when making decisions until all underlying assumptions and rationale have been validated
  • Increased scrutiny or micromanagement of the Project Manager by their sponsor or of team members by the Project Manager
  • Increases in the level of detail or expected frequency of status updates
  • Finger-pointing or other forms of assignment of blame instead of alignment towards resolving the root causes for issues
  • Inefficient meetings resulting from participants inviting others to bolster or protect their interests

These behaviors further reduce trust and the vicious cycle continues.

On the other hand, when there are high levels of trust between key stakeholders, there is greater willingness to accept recommendations and updates at face value, risks and issues are managed quicker and more effectively, and micromanagement gets replaced with management by exception.

So what helps to cultivate trust, especially in those situations where team members or other key stakeholders haven’t worked together previously?

Trust usually begins with competence or familiarity.

When a sponsor wants to hire a Project Manager who has significant domain expertise or when a Project Manager requests team members who have worked on multiple similar projects in the past, they are trying to bootstrap those relationships with a high degree of trust. With more junior team members, there is a greater likelihood of close monitoring and follow-up. Once expertise is demonstrated and proven on the current project, trust grows.

Related Article: The Agile Project Manager – Do You Trust Your Team?

However, when those that we perceive as being highly competent let us down, the sense of betrayal resulting from expectation gaps is significant and it will take them that much longer for them to regain our trust.

This is why vulnerability is so important.

Being open about one’s weaknesses in front of others is one of the best ways to gain trust and secure support. Most people want to be perceived as being helpful and vulnerability on the part of someone they work closely with provides them with the opportunity to highlight their strengths and to provide assistance. In the same way as proven expertise increases trust, honest expressions of vulnerability cultivates confidence in the observer that there will be similar openness in the future.

Vulnerability has to be authentic. We have limited tolerance for false modesty or for excessive self-critique and such behaviors will quickly be perceived as self-serving or duplicitous.
The close cousin of vulnerability is transparency.

Taking the time to understand the information needs of your key stakeholders and then meeting those needs in a reliable manner in spite of how good or bad things are going earns trust. Working with the sponsor and key stakeholders early in the life of a project to define criteria for escalation and communication can help to ensure that when a problem or action is needing their engagement arises, it is presented in a consistent, objective manner.

Transparency with team members is equally critical – if a recommendation they have developed is not accepted or if a decision is made which isn’t in the organization or their best interests, help them understand why.

The final elements in establishing trust are warmth and empathy.

Recognizing other’s efforts, showing an interest in their lives and aspirations, or providing support when they require assistance will all help gain their trust. Listen actively and focus on them – the more you demonstrate through your actions that you are paying attention to what they are saying, the more appreciated they will feel. Giving stakeholders the benefit of the doubt unless they’ve given you reason to judge them otherwise also helps to generate trust reciprocity.

Henry L. Stimson – “The chief lesson I have learned in a long life is that the only way you can make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him.

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