The Subtle Art of Diplomatic Communication with Project Sponsors
Rookie project managers interacting with their sponsors make two kinds of mistakes: speaking when they should be silent, and being silent when something should be said.
It’s an art to balance sponsors’ need for timely and accurate information with being diplomatic in how and when that information is delivered so that it is effective.
Early in my career, I bragged that diplomacy was not my strong suit. I thought diplomacy was an inefficient barrier to me “telling it like it was” and got in the way of effective communication. I thought most of the world’s problems could be resolved if people would just see things my way as quickly and efficiently as possible.
As my career progressed, I learned that I was wrong. Being diplomatic is key to effective communication, and it’s essential if you are going to play in the project management big leagues.
Diplomacy is about tact—communicating in tough situations without antagonizing anyone more than necessary. Sponsors are human, and most of them are trying to do the right thing for themselves and their organization. So being diplomatic isn’t about avoiding hard conversations; it’s about honoring the humanity of others by trying to understand their goals and motivations and being respectful while delivering timely and accurate information.
Here are eight keys to more diplomatic and effective communication.
- Know the difference between being wrong and having a different opinion. People base opinions on data, personal experience, and assumptions. You and I might look at the same data and take a different meaning from it.
- When someone is wrong, consider when and how to most effectively give them better information. Sometimes it is imperative that misinformation be politely corrected immediately, and other times it can wait for a private conversation that doesn’t embarrass the speaker.
- Avoid seeming like you are challenging a sponsor’s wisdom or authority, particularly in a situation that has onlookers. Seeming to publicly rebuke or ridicule your sponsor is a poor career move.
- Understand the goals and constraints of the sponsor’s situation. Ask more and better questions. What is the business case or rationale that is driving the schedule? Are there components that could be deferred?
- Don’t be afraid to speak the truth. If the best data available says the project schedule is in jeopardy, then your duty is to report that as clearly as possible.
- Be ready to ask for what you need and explain why you need it. If you need more time or resources or some political help, ask for it.
- Seek regular feedback. Ask the sponsor how and when they would like to get information from you. Ask how you are doing so far.
- Try to understand motivation. Don’t just ask for a decision; ask for the rationale behind it. This helps anticipate the sponsor’s needs and generate better options next time.
The power differential in the project manager-sponsor relationship can be daunting. It’s important to be respectful but not cowed. Treat your sponsors the way you would like to be treated if the roles were reversed.