By Alan Zucker
June 15, 2022
Excellent “soft skills” differentiate the great project managers. Since 90% of a project manager’s time is spent with others, it is no surprise that communications and emotional intelligence are vital traits. They are situationally aware, assess context, and communicate more effectively with their teams, customers, and stakeholders.
Communications models and theories provide a framework to comprehend individual and team behaviors. The models explain the observed dynamics, which improves understanding. Project managers that apply this knowledge will be more effective. They will recognize issues sooner, employ more productive techniques, and have more successful outcomes.
Importance of Non-Verbal Communications
Over 90% of communication is non-verbal. The words we use only represent 7% of the message. Body language (55%) and intonation (38%) convey more information than we realize. Consequently, face-to-face communications are most effective and provide the highest level of understanding and fidelity.
We can observe—but not necessarily measure—this phenomenon. Email, texts, and chat applications are message-only mediums. Intonation is conveyed on conference calls. Video conferences enable all three modes of expression; body language is truncated. In-person meetings enable the full communications spectrum.
As an instructor, it is easy to see if students are engaged and comprehend when teaching in-person. Virtual classes provide some visual cues but seeing one-inch faces offers far less fidelity. Classes with no video are a hollow experience.
The Sender-Receiver Model describes the process of sharing ideas with others. A complex set of interactions are required to complete this commonplace transaction.
The sender encodes an idea and transmits it to the recipient. Then, the receiver decodes the message and acknowledges receipt. But until understanding has been confirmed, we are not sure if the message was correctly received.
There are three primary lessons from the Model:
- Communication is about the recipient. The sender is obligated to communicate the message so that the recipient can understand it.
- Communication is a closed-loop process. The process is closed when confirmation of understanding is received. Simply acknowledging receipt is insufficient.
- Noise and filters adversely impact the quality of communication. This includes poor technology, acronyms, cultural differences, and language barriers.
This model explains the failure of many communications. Complex or abstract ideas are not clearly articulated or understood. Words have different meanings based on context. Ineffective communication methods are used. Understanding is not confirmed. The results are misinterpretations, poor assumptions, and disappointment.
The Allen Curve describes how frequently we communicate with those around us. MIT Professor Thomas Allen observed an exponential decline in how often engineers communicated with their colleagues. The critical distance for regular weekly communications was 50 meters.
Allen’s first described this phenomenon in the 1970s. He updated and validated his research in the digital age. Despite the profusion of electronic tools at our disposal, we still communicate with those closest to us. Learning this lesson, leading companies have engineered their workspaces to promote serendipitous encounters to increase innovation and performance.
As our project teams grow, communications get increasingly more difficult. Communication paths describe the possible number of one-on-one interactions within a group.
While team size grows linearly, the number of communication paths grows exponentially.
|Team Size||Communications Paths|
Communication channels are a proxy for organizational complexity. Consequently, large teams require more formal and thorough communications plans than small teams. A group of 10 sitting in the same workspace requires less structure than a geographically distributed team of a hundred (4,950 communication paths).
Depth vs. Breadth of Communication
There are many communication options. Selecting the best medium depends on many factors, including the depth versus the breadth of the intended communication. Depth describes the richness or fidelity of the interaction. Breadth is the size of the group receiving the message.
Face-to-face communications have the greatest depth and the lowest breadth. Relationship building, problem-solving, and conveying challenging messages are all done best in person. Anthropologically, humans are hardwired for small group meetings, as evidenced by communications models.
It is easiest it is to communicate complex information in-person. We gesture and read facial expressions and body language. If we have a whiteboard, we draw pictures. We use less precise wording because we can instantly observe if our message is understood. If not, we clarify and reiterate our ideas.
Relationship building is a critical communication skill done best in-person. Social norms and expectations are built into these interactions. Shaking hands, making eye contact, politely smiling, and nodding to indicate understanding are just a few examples of how we develop trust and fellowship.
Phone Calls & Video Conferencing
Video conferencing and phone calls are the next best meeting in person. Phone calls convey intonation but lack non-verbal cues. Video conferencing adds facial expression yet lacks the full fidelity of face-to-face.
These media can be suitable substitutes for small or one-on-one meetings, especially if there is a well-established relationship. However, as the number of participants grows, productivity declines rapidly. The optimal meeting size will vary based on the objective and communication medium.
Email & Messaging
Email, messaging, and chats have lower fidelity than all other modes. They are asynchronous and only provide a narrow transmission band. Misunderstandings or misinterpretation of meaning often ensue. Consequently, they are poor choices for communicating complex information that requires problem solving or dialogue. However, they are fine for broadly sharing simple information.
Research on the impact of the communication mode on the outcome of negotiations demonstrates the differences between in-person, phone, and email:
- Face-to-face negotiations were most likely to result in a mutually beneficial outcome.
- Phone conversations had a lower success rate and resulted in a one-sided agreement.
- Email negotiations tended to fail.
Younger workers are more comfortable with the newer communication technologies. But that does not make them more effective for complex interactions. Not long ago, I worked with the president of a college fraternity. He tried to handle conflict with the membership through text messages and chats. He had to revert to old-fashioned, one-on-one conversations to resolve these issues.
Broad Electronic Communication
Electronic distribution channels are easy and effective ways to communicate simple information to many people quickly. These channels include large distribution emails, texts, and website and social media updates.
Municipalities, schools, and large enterprises use emails, texts, websites, and social media updates to quickly communicate traffic incidents, building closures, and similar information. The message is clear and straightforward—avoid this road or intersection, do not come into the office. When using this medium, check the message for clarity.
Successful project managers employ the lessons from communications theory and related empirical research to communicate and engage their stakeholders more effectively. The outcome is clear—greater project success.
About the Author
Alan Zucker has over 25 years of experience leading projects and project management organizations in Fortune 100 companies. In 2016, Alan founded Project Management Essentials to share his passion for and experience in project management, leadership, and Agile.
Alan is a frequent keynote speaker and thought leader. He authors monthly articles, is regularly quoted in the industry press, and is a podcast guest. He is an adjunct faculty member at George Mason University and the University of Georgia; and is a senior instructor with several national, professional development organizations.
Alan has a master’s degree in economics from the University of Maryland and a master’s and a certificate in IT Project Management from the George Washington University. He is a Project Management Professional (PMP) and Certified Agile Professional (PMI-ACP) through the Project Management Institute. He also holds multiple Agile certifications from Disciplined Agile, Scrum Alliance, and Scaled Agile.