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The project manager needs to create a climate of trust

To be successful, as a project manager you need to create a climate of trust and openness in your team. I started as a project manager by accident on 1987. I was a software engineer working for a Spanish company, and the sales team from that company won a deal to deliver a software implementation project in a Spanish Bank organization. I was assigned as a project manager for that project (one year long, six people in my team, a lot of traveling, and a lot of risks). I never had managed a team before. In that project all my team members were older and more experienced than me, and I was the boss. I worked hard with the sales people and with my boss preparing an initial plan but after some days I told to my manager that I needed to give my team members the opportunity to participate in that project plan giving their inputs, ideas and feedback.

My company had not culture at all in project management; but my boss was a senior executive that had common sense enough to understand that listening to the team members would be a great idea and, we may get some benefits from that. And it was, they put on the table several potential risks to be managed, they shared some good ideas and previous experiences as technical experts. They understood that my intention was not to be the “King”, my intention was opening a good communication channel among the team and listening to them. After the planning phase my team members thanked me to participate in our planning sessions.

That project lasted more than one year and we were traveling every week to a different Spanish location, so we had the opportunity to have breakfast, lunch and dinner together. At the beginning I was so shy because I was younger than them, but some weeks later I was one more of them and they took care of me. I appreciated their personal details and learned from it. Step by step I gained their credibility.

Over the years I have listened to several European project managers telling and sharing some similar stories at professional project management events. So I learned that to be successful, a team needs to work in a climate of trust and openness, that we may call a positive atmosphere. That means that members of the team are committed and involved. It means that people are comfortable enough with one another to be creative, take risks, and make mistakes. Some organizations and managers see “making mistakes” as a big weakness. I learned that everybody may make a mistake in any project at any time, but the great think is to be aware of that, recognize it and learn from it.

When the team atmosphere is positive, it also means that you may hear plenty of laughter or at least a positive attitude. Some research shows that people who are enjoying themselves are more productive than those who dislike what they are doing.

I believe trust is a key ingredient to generate a positive atmosphere. How do team members reach a point where they can trust one another? I think it takes some time and relationship building. In the project I mentioned before we were traveling and working together all the time, we spent big part of our free time together too. That scenario facilitated our relationship building a lot. Trust and credibility can be described behaviorally. They can be seen in a more logical way than you might think.

What do people need to do build trust with you? If you think about honesty, dependability or sincerity, you have just identified some of the characteristics and behaviors that build trust. It is important to keep in mind that what one person sees as trustworthy is not necessarily what another sees. We each have different values. So when you want to build trust and credibility with others, it is as important to know what those individuals value as it is to know what is already your strong suit.

In my experience I found some characteristics and behaviors that were helpful for me to build trust:

  • Being honest: To build trust with some people, you will need to be honest and candid. The messages this sends are: “I say what I mean”. “You will always know where I stand”. “You can be straight with me”
  • Be accessible and open: To build trust with some people, you will need to be accessible and open. The messages this sends are: “I will tell you what works best for me”. “Tell me what works for you”. “Let’s not work with hidden agendas”
  • Approving and accepting: To build trust with some people, you will need to be approving and accepting. The messages this sends are: “I value people and diverse perspectives”. “You can count on being heard without judgment or criticism.”
  • Dependable and trustworthy: To build trust with some people, you will need to be dependable and trustworthy. The messages this sends are: “I do what I say I will do”. “I keep my promises”. “You can count on me”.

All of these seem to be very strong, positive messages. But some people may perceive them differently. Generally speaking, to build trusting relationships with others, people need also to provide credible evidence. Objective evidence includes facts and figures or other measured and quantified data. Subjective evidence includes the opinions of others who are highly regarded (friends, competent colleagues) and perceived as relevant resources and knowledgeable about the subject. Of course, trust is not built overnight.

Individuals have their own requirements for how long it takes to build trust with them, including the following:

  1. One time: I tend to start with a clean slate.
  2. A number of times: “I need some history; I tend to let my guard down after a few positive interactions with people or after people have demonstrated their trustworthiness”.
  3. A period of time: “I need some history, too, but I need to prefer a period of time to a specific number of times before I am comfortable placing trust in people”
  4. Each time: “I value consistency. Call me pessimistic if you like, but I think I’m just being realistic. I guess I can be hard to convince.

Building trust on a team will be one of your greatest challenges as a project manager. If a team you work with has done a good job of building trust, the other aspects of a positive atmosphere will come more easily. Those aspects may include: individuals who are committed to the team’s goals; an atmosphere that encourages creativity and risk taking; people who are not devastated if they make mistakes; and team members who genuinely enjoy being on the team. A positive atmosphere is one of the characteristics of a mature team.

Alfonso Bucero, MSc, CPS, PMP, PMI-RMP, PfMP, PMI Fellow

Managing Partner

BUCERO PM Consulting



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