project leaders

Project leaders handle conflict

"How do I tell my sponsor that I don't think he is the RIGHT sponsor for my project? He has so many other duties I can't realistically expect his involvement, but I really need it."

Project leaders handle conflict regularly, facing tough situations that demand skill, confidence, and courage. Choosing to confront disagreement and deliver bad news is part of the job description. "But how do I explain this to my sponsor?" With tact, or more precisely, with skill.

Like many communication skills, the tough conversations get easier when you know and practice the skills. In this case, you can follow the advice found in Crucial Conversations, a best-selling book sub-titled "Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High."The authors claim that the ability to effectively discuss difficult topics is a major predictor of your influence and your project's success. One particular approach they describe would apply to this difficult discussion for a project manager with a potentially wrong sponsor:

Share your facts. Start with observable facts and behaviors. These shouldn't be debatable.

Tell your story. This is your interpretation of the situation. Own it with "I" language, and don't apologize.

Ask for others' paths. Ask for the other person's interpretation, their intent, their conclusions. Then listen hard. Listen to understand, not debate.*

Talk tentatively. This is not time to make demands. Humility and confidence combine to create a tone of respect, a quest for shared understanding for mutual gain.

Encourage testing. Asking for others' interpretation or their point of view needs to express a sincere intent to explore other paths. Your boss may not need a lot of encouragement, but if you are inviting team members or peers to contribute to a controversial conversation they need to feel safe.

So how would this approach help our project manager who might benefit from a different sponsor?Let's listen in.

PM: I'd like to talk with you about a potentially sensitive topic: how we interact in our roles as project manager and project sponsor. (Respectful, non-accusatory tone.) My understanding of the role of sponsor is to be regularly involved in discussing the project. In fact, I've got an article here that lays out the typical activities of a project sponsor. (The article is objective. It may not be a fact, but it is more than the PM's opinion.) My concern is that we rarely get to talk more than fifteen minutes a month. (Now the PMI is telling her story.) I really believe that the project would benefit from the level of engagement described in the article. As much as I would value your active sponsorship, I wonder if Chris [another executive] would have more time to devote to this project. (Ask for the sponsor's point of view, and genuinely listen.) What do you think about the practicality of this level of engagement for a sponsor? (Focus on the issue: the duties of a sponsor.)

Did you tense up a little just reading this? It is definitely a tough conversation. But our PM has laid out her concerns and a recommendation, demonstrating courage and respect. We don't know how the sponsor will react, but he has not been accused and he doesn't need to be defensive.

If you don't think you could pull off this kind of conversation, then make a point of building this skill. If you don't have these skills, life is full of obstacles. Skills build confidence, and with regular use these skills become part of your natural response to difficult situations.

*Listening is another topic unto itself, but it makes a powerful complement to being able to speak about difficult topics.

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