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By Joseph Zagerman, Assistant Professor of Project Management

Captain, conductor, or coach are words often used to describe the role of the project manager.  Leading the project team and managing project deliverables requires a variety of skills. There is evidence to suggest that communication is the essential skill project managers use in getting stuff done.  According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), 90% of a project manager’s role focuses on communication-related activities (PMBOK, 2017).

Insight from my Students

I am currently facilitating a Research Methodology and Writing course at Harrisburg University as part of my students’ Capstone experience in fulfillment of their Master of Science Degree in Project Management. Most of my students currently work in the field of project management.

During one of our recent classes, while discussing the role of the project manager, we sought to identify the most critical skills contributing to a project manager’s success.  In no particular order, responses from my 26 students are as follows:

  • Empathy
  • Listening
  • Writing
  • Presenting
  • Open-Mindedness
  • Ability to provide and accept critical feedback
  • Strong leadership skills
  • Technical skills
  • Teaching
  • Time management
  • Organizing
  • Team building
  • Business savvy

It appears that communication is the universal red thread here.  Communication is the lifeblood of a project.  The ability to harness project team members’ talent through active and engaging communication inspires team members, builds confidence, enhances morale, and yields better project performance.

Research among project managers indicates that active listening, non-verbal communication, friendliness, trust, and respect, open-mindedness, and feedback and collaboration are the top communication skills for leading project teams.  Let us take a closer look.

Active Listening

Active listening skills involve concentration, focus, and checking to confirm understanding of the intended message.  In practice, project managers should be able to deliver clear instructions to the project team by first understanding the project’s scope as described by stakeholders.  Ascertaining the scope of the project is achieved through active listening and questioning skills.

Non-Verbal Communication

Research indicates that 55% of an intended message involves body language, 38% includes vocal quality, and 7% focuses on the verbal/content component.  When all three elements are incongruent, the receiver of the message relies on the non-verbal part.  As a project manager, be aware of what your non-verbal communication skills reveal to stakeholders.

Friendliness, Trust, and Respect

Relationship dialogue involves having a friendly, open, and respectful demeanor.  By doing so, trust and respect are earned.


Be open to suggestions and other points of view when communicating with others.  Covey (2013) espouses, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Feedback and Collaboration

By understanding the team’s dynamics and behavior and then adapting their communication practices accordingly, project managers can encourage collaboration.  The stages of team development – forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning come into play here.  At each stage, the project manager can utilize various communication strategies to facilitate team success.  For example,  in the storming phase, conflict often arises among team members.  The project manager can use their communication skills to resolve disputes and disagreements.

Constructive criticism is an oxymoron.  To construct is to build.  To criticize is to tear down. In contrast, constructive feedback focuses on positives and opportunities for improvement.

Final Thoughts

The goal of communication is to inform, entertain, or persuade.   The art of persuasion is all about influence.  Project managers must be adept at influencing project outcomes in terms of funding, extending deadlines, or resolving problems.  Establishing a dedicated communications framework plan may serve as the ideal first step to ensure effective communication with project team members, stakeholders, executives, and clients.  A comprehensive communications framework includes:

  • Purpose
  • Outline of the project needs
  • Communication methods
  • Timelines, dates, and frequency
  • Roles and responsibilities

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