Foster Healthy Project Teams with Crucial Conversations

How to approach difficult conversations for greatest impact

 

I recently had the opportunity to attend an off-site training with Aleen Bayard to discuss the importance of crucial conversations at work. Aleen covered the importance of having these challenging conversations and the best ways to approach them. Inspired by her candor and grace, I want to consider these principles against the backdrop of construction project management.

Having a crucial conversation can be the difference between a successful project completion with a communicative team and an all-out project disaster. Be it a tenant buildout or transition to an open office layout these vital discussions add clarity, encourage accountability, and keep projects on schedule.

But they’re often challenging to approach in the workplace. And while we improve the formal systems governing project management over the past decades, communication remains the Achilles heel of many project management teams. Yet addressing issues in a timely fashion enables projects to move along more smoothly and ensures everyone feels heard.

What are crucial conversations?

Crucial conversations are the issues we’d prefer to avoid addressing in the workplace. They are the conversations we most need to have but are least willing to broach. We fear the inevitable tension of an uncomfortable situation, especially at work. This discourages us from diving deep into these issues, but with the right approach, it’s possible to speak candidly about awkward situations.

Sometimes these conversations include:

  • Conflicting opinions
  • Circumstances where the outcome is uncertain
  • Situations where you have to hold people accountable

Common causes for crucial conversations

  • Fact-free planning
    Projects that are set up with no consideration of reasonable budgets or timelines. With unrealistic project planning, it’s impossible to usher the final project through completion on-budget and on-time. Unrealistic deadlines, budgets, and project scope will surely necessitate a crucial conversation.
  • Absent sponsors
    Leaders who don’t supply the guidance, leadership, time, or energy needed to see a project through to completion. In construction project management, this is often a client who doesn’t take the time needed to provide the details necessary for successful project completion.
  • Skirting
    Individuals who work around priority setting. Team members who do their own thing without understanding how their actions affect the other team members and overall project progress.
  • The project chicken
    Team members who don’t speak up when they notice a problem. Rather than voicing their concerns proactively, the project chicken waits for other colleagues to notice and broach the subject.

Approaching Crucial Conversations

While often uncomfortable, crucial conversations must be had. Effective leaders recognize that a difficult conversation will prevent the otherwise inevitable domino-effect of issues down the line. Bring issues to light privately but discuss it with the team when necessary. Ask for personal buy-in to encourage accountability. As leaders in the workplace, it’s our responsibility to have the skills, knowledge, and confidence to do so both on projects and off.

  • Share your facts
    Be prepared with your talking points ahead of the conversation. Remove emotion from the equation by clearly stating the history of what you see as the problem.
  • Seek to understand
    Use questions to understand where the person is coming from. Ask questions like “Do you have too much going on?” “Are there ways I could better support you?,” and “What do you need to be successful?” Use a multiple-choice opener to get the conversations flowing. Be earnest in your questions to make the other person feel comfortable in giving their answers.
  • Talk tentatively
    Be solution-oriented in your approach to these conversations. Speak to the person with kindness and respect. Share a conversation, don’t talk at them.
  • Encourage testing
    Frame your solution as a question to tease out a conversation. Say, “here’s what I think (of a solution), what are your thoughts?”
  • Permission slip
    Confidence is key when having crucial conversations whether with direct reports, peers, or senior leaders. Because you respect your colleagues and know they strive to do their best, you have permission to approach these conversations. With direct reports, think of the conversation as illuminating blind spots and accelerating development. With peers, you drive accountability and demonstrate respect. With senior leaders, frame these conversations as providing feedback.

Having crucial conversations leads to better outcomes. When leaders resolve conflicts faster and more efficiently, you foster improved relationships with vendors and the team, and you accelerate improved employee performance and engagement. Ask questions and listen, state your thinking, be prepared to compromise, and be solution-oriented.

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Thank you to Aleen Bayard for her illuminating approach to crucial conversations. This blog post was created in conjunction with the valuable information Aleen provided on the topic.