Positive Behaviours and Communication Should be Set BEFORE the Project Starts, So Why Aren’t They?

Positive Behaviours and Communication Should be Set BEFORE the Project Starts, So Why Aren’t They?

It’s staggering how some project relationships start to sour before delivery has even begun. After the euphoria of a major project win has died down, mobilisation can be a stressful time. Cracks in communications and cultural differences become apparent quickly as the pressure is on to recruit staff, appoint subcontractors, secure approvals and set up the processes needed for delivery.

As project details become clearer there are often negotiations over prices and schedules. This is the time when you most need clear communications and mutual trust - and it’s often where relationships start to break down.

Given how much both clients and contractors depend on successful project outcomes, a modest investment in setting the right tone for behaviours and communication before the serious work gets underway makes sense. But it rarely happens.

Three times in the last year we’ve been called in to help rectify situations where projects didn’t get off on the right footing. Serious communication and trust issues had developed and both sides needed to get back to doing what’s best for the project, instead of blaming each other for delays, increased pricing and other issues.

How to Reset the Relationship

Our objective when we run workshops like this is to help ‘reset’ how the parties communicate with and behave towards one another. All demons have to be exorcised, which means issues, disputes and suspicions have to be aired, acknowledged and resolved. It can get messy but it’s the only way to re-establish trust between the parties.

We help senior staff to understand their behaviours using a recognised behavioural assessment tool. We explain why behaviour matters and how our own behaviours could be perceived. We also teach techniques to deal with people whose behavioural style is similar to or contrary to their own. 

We do this using management exercises that stress-test communication and trust. We take regular time-outs to revisit what was happening within the group. Participants analyse and understand how and why those situations arose. 

Embedding Positive Behaviours

We then rejoin the exercise, trying to keep and do more of what was working well, eliminate or reduce anything disruptive. We introduce new behaviours that we agreed during the time-out would have helped prevent or diffuse the issues that arose previously. We embed ‘what good looks like’ within all participants.

The outcomes include:

  1. how you will address issues, 
  2. what type of communications are preferable for dealing with given situations, 
  3. what language is and isn’t acceptable 
  4. how to ensure that difficult conversations don’t ‘infect’ other areas of work but are contained within their context.

These workshops are highly effective. They help to establish mutually agreed standards for behaviour and communications that can be cascaded throughout all teams involved in the project. 

But the success raises an important question: why wait until things have gone wrong?

In any project, positive behaviours, clear communication and a commitment to the same goals are critical. In the context of a multi-million pound project the up-front investment needed in this type of workshop is a pin-prick in the overall budget. That investment will be repaid many times over, not just for this project but for future ones too.

This type of workshop should be standard practice. Why isn’t it? 

I can only think it comes down to two factors: one, people aren’t used to doing it, so don’t think of it; two, it’s not a comfortable exercise to put your behaviour and communication style up for scrutiny, possibly in front of your clients and colleagues.

In my view, senior executives should be able to overcome that reticence. The mental and financial wellbeing of a lot of people depend on getting projects off on the right foot. And in any case, feedback on how we behave and communicate can only help us be more effective in our roles.