3 min read

I’m like the Mary J. Blige of PMs

Every project brings a certain amount of stress and sometimes drama—and you’re always at the center of it all. If you are the project manager and you don’t feel like you’re at the center, something might be wrong. Or maybe life is perfect? Either way, having the skills to communicate effectively will help to diffuse the drama.

Part of my philosophy as a project manager is to show some personality and a little bit of attitude (sans the drama, of course). If you want your colleagues to respect you and trust the decisions you are making for them, you have to be honest about yourself and the approach you take to your work. The trust and respect won’t come overnight, but in time it seems to work to your advantage.

I was once assigned to a project mid-stream because another project manager on my team left the company. It’s never fun or easy to join a project in progress. But, when doing so, I find it very important to immerse myself in the project history and understand the many aspects of the project. I like to get a view of how the team is working together and communicating—this can become apparent very quickly in a project status meeting. After a few weeks of meetings on this particular project, it became very clear to me that there was one team member who was exhibiting some negative behavior. And when I say “clear,” I mean that three people complained about this person directly to me. (This is what I mean when I say that project managers end up at the center of the drama.)

I had worked with this person on projects in my past at the company, so I had a certain level of trust and comfort in dealing with her (and vice versa). I knew I had to talk to her about the very obvious issue and that it was not an easy thing to do. But I knew that my team would have a hard time getting through the project with the tension she was creating. What to do? How do you approach a negative person without seeming like a managerial jerk? And how do you actually get the behavior to change? I asked her to join me for lunch.

We talked about music and art…and eventually the company, and the project. It wasn’t surface-level conversation at all. It was a friendly lunch; I genuinely liked this person and wanted things to work out for everyone involved. I recognize that there are at least two sides of every story; when we got in to the project-specific talk, she let me know a lot about what happened before I joined the project. I got a view of what had happened before I joined the team and was able to understand where (from her side only) the negativity was coming from. Of course, it did not warrant the negative, unprofessional behavior I had witnessed, so I brought it up in a very direct way.

We discussed the issues that I was seeing, and in the end I asked her to work on her communication style with the team. I told her that she was too harsh and that the rest of the team wanted to work WITH her to accomplish the project goals. I had to ask her to try to improve, not only for me, but also for the rest of the team and the client.

Its never easy to be direct with someone about something that might be a sensitive topic (like your personality!), let alone a respected colleague. But it’s important, as a project manager, to realize that you are the one who can help to remedy a negative situation.

Relationship building is a key to success in project management. Think about it: How easy is it to just talk your friends? In this case, it was tough for me to solve, but I knew that if I didn’t approach the topic in a friendly way it would be toxic for the team. In the end, my colleague took a more professional approach with some people, but also ended up trusting me even more. Eventually we worked together on a few accounts, and she became an advocate for my work in an environment where her team wasn’t so inclusive of project management.

In any case, it’s important to remember that no matter how much drama a project brings, you need to keep an open mind and approach an issue directly.

And in case you did not get the reference in the title: