Jan 25 2006

Become a Better "People Person"

Listening in a BIG way helps smooth communication.

Communication is a key to success. Everyone knows that. But for some project managers, establishing the trust and rapport necessary for genuine communication doesn't come easy.

"I've known managers who were scared to death to talk to people," says Warren Blank, who conducts leadership training for the Federal Executive Institute.

Typical is one manager who approached Blank after a workshop and told him that he wanted to work more closely with people on his project. "But I don't know how to talk to people. I don't know how to relate to them," he told Blank. "I'm not a people person."

This problem is not uncommon, especially for new managers who are thrust into roles as leaders and facilitators. The wallflower suddenly must become the life of the party. Or at least it feels that way.

Try This

Blank recommends a simple formula he calls the "BIG connection" for helping shy managers establish relationships with fellow employees and project participants. BIG stands for Background, Interests and Goals.

Managers can easily start discussions by asking people where they are from, where they went to school, where they worked before coming to the agency or where they have worked within the agency, he says. They can also inquire about co-workers' interests, such as specialized areas of interest at work or hobbies at home.

"You can find common ground and build rapport by asking people about their background, interests and goals," Blank says. "And once you understand their goals, you can explain how your path or project meets their needs."

Blank recommends that managers use the BIG approach to establish better relationships with their bosses. After all, bosses have needs and goals too. "Before you ask your boss for new computer equipment, find out his or her priorities," he says. "Then, when you really understand those priorities, show how your proposal meets your boss' needs."

The ability to communicate depends heavily on a manager's ability to listen. Jack Cline, for example, found that listening was a good way to begin a project to install a new information technology system for tracking parts and materials at Anniston Army Depot in Alabama.

Cline, deputy commander at the depot, says the move to the new tracking system represented a "paradigm shift" for the people who repair tanks and other combat vehicles at the depot's approximately 40 shops and assembly lines. "They were scared," he says.

The project team tasked with implementing the new system consisted of people from organizations across the depot — the IT shop, the contracting office, financial departments and the industrial shops that repair the vehicles. At the first meeting, after project leaders explained the problem and proposed solution, they sat back and let team members express their fears regarding the proposed change.

"We let them vent and get their issues out on the table," Cline says. "It was an open dialogue."

The underlying message of the participants' concerns was, "How will this change affect me and my organization and how we do our day-to-day business?" he says.

Sit Back and Listen

The discussion also allowed stakeholders to identify their individual needs and tie them into the planned solution for tracking depot materials. By listening to their concerns — and by letting representatives from different departments listen to each other — Army officials began building the trust and rapport required for successful installation of the new system.

The lesson for project leaders is this: Although your inclination is to keep your project moving forward, you must still take time to listen to questions and objections. "You have to let people know that you're not dismissing their concerns," adds Terry Weaver, director of the Center for Information Technology Accommodation at the General Services Administration. "Critics often have good information that you need to hear."

Federal executives and management experts caution that project managers must be sincere in their efforts to listen and learn about the background, interests and concerns of the people they work with. The relationship is doomed if co-workers think a project manager is trying to manipulate them or is simply feigning interest in their opinions.

"Once you're caught in manipulation, you're done. No one will follow you," Blank cautions.

But the rewards of genuine communication are tangible. At the Anniston depot, Army officials expect the new tracking system to garner a 25 percent gain in operating efficiency through lower costs, fewer delays and improved quality of work, Cline says. A pilot project was completed in November, and the complete system will be installed later this year.

"You cannot over-communicate," he says. "You've got to build rapport with everyone engaged in the project, so they know that they can talk to you about any issues. They need to hear from us the project's goals and objectives, but we also need an attentive ear so we hear if there are problems developing and to let people know we are working to address their concerns. That way, you get out of your stovepipes and you start working together as a team."