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Communication Is Not Enough: How to Manage Project Relationships


We often hear about the importance of communication in project management. Some even claim that the job of a project manager is 90% communication. I guess it is true that we must communicate a lot, especially if we are a part of a project involving numerous stakeholders and a large project team.

While this can be accurate, it also misses the point.

PMBOK blind spots

PMBOK includes a chapter on communication and another one on stakeholder management. These chapters are closely related and work hand in hand. It is hard to implement one without implementing the other. However, communicating more is not the objective, just like establishing contracts is not the goal of the project. Both are done to help support the successful execution of a project.

What do we find regarding communication and stakeholder management in PMBOK? These chapters are structured like the other chapters in PMBOK, with processes, tools, and techniques. It is very mechanical. There are many useful elements to consider, yet something seems to be missing.

The value of relationships

Beyond making a list of stakeholders, a communication plan, sending formal email, and reports, there is something even more fundamental that needs to be addressed. It is relationship management, and that is what I invite project managers to focus their energy on. It is far more powerful than putting names in a stakeholder register and building a mailing list for your project.

What is relationship management? I could quote a theoretical definition, but I will keep it simple:

“Have you built positive relationships?”

If you only apply tools and techniques, it will be viewed by others as a cold, mechanical process. Although it is better than no communication, it will become just one of those numerous communications received in a day. In the modern world with technology everywhere, Wi-Fi everywhere, and almost permanent mobile connection with business applications, communication is now constantly in our lives. Personal and business communications come in at all times of the day. Most likely, your communication becomes just one more message that they receive.

Yet, you need others to succeed. It is rare that a project is a soloist effort, impacting only one person.

A communication plan and a stakeholder management plan are not enough. They don’t prove (or shall I say communicate) that you are trying to help them, or even that you understand their goals and challenges.

Building true and honest relationships matters more, and building relationships is just as important within the project team as it is outside. Good relationships can be the difference between outstanding success and dismal failure. They help you understand the context and perspectives of others, in addition to their expectations, motivations, and constraints. Even understanding their other activities will be useful.

Building the relationship

Here are some elements of building a relationship:

  • Understanding their point of view: This is more than simply being able to repeat what they said. It is closer to empathy.
  • Able to have honest conversations: When you have developed a relationship, authentic and difficult conversations can happen without fear.
  • Able to say no: With a relationship, “no” is viewed as an honest option and one of the very rational potential answers, instead of resistance.
  • Open lines of communication: Informal communication can happen, outside of formal email and committee.
  • Resolution of issues: Issues can be resolved before being escalated.

If you think that it is a waste of time to build relationships, it is likely that you don’t value them. This will be the message that you will be sending to all those you work with. It is also very likely that the other person will not value the relationship either.

Relationships are useful when things don’t go as expected. If you haven’t built strong relationships throughout the life of your project, it will be much harder to complete it. However, a relationship can also enhance the likelihood of overcoming a problem. It makes it easier to complete complex tasks, and even enhance creativity, brainstorming, and our ability to exploit opportunities as they appear.

Here is the challenge question: When you are discussing material with someone, do you communicate like a machine performing a script, or do you build a true relationship?


For more brilliant insights, check out Michel’s website: Project-Aria

Additionally, check out his book, Leadership Toolbox for Project Managers: Achieve better results in a dynamic world:


Michel Dion

Michel Dion is a CPA and PMP, living in Ottawa, Canada with his wife and 2 kids. He also has a certification in Internal Audit (CIA), Risk Management (CRMA) and Fraud (CFE). Michel has managed in his career many projects, including special initiatives and emergency projects. He is developing a website called Project-Aria, and is very active in the project management community on the web. The key areas of focus of Project-Aria are project management, leadership, productivity, mind and health, and career and training. He has loved technology since the moment he played on the TRS80 a while ago. Despite that, his two sons insist that they know more about technology than him. Sometimes, he will comment on other subjects, as he likes fitness, travel, chess, photography, and music. He also has a goal of mastering four languages: English, French, Spanish and Swedish. Pay Michel a visit at Project-Aria by clicking the button below.

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