Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success

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It's not what you say, it's how you say it to me

In a project management hangout that I was running in Melbourne last week, I shared a model of mine called the four personalities of a project manager. It was shared by one of the attendees on LinkedIn and has garnered many comments since then.

It’s a model I shared in a blog in September last year [click here to read it] and I used it to emphasise how important self-awareness - and particularly your predominant communication style - is for project managers to be able to present to senior management in a way that’s effective.

Like most I was told very early on in my career that senior managers are the following:

  1. Busy
  2. Big picture thinkers
  3. Looking for passion
  4. Detail focused
  5. Risk averse
  6. Ponderous decision makers... and so on and so forth

The funny thing is that I started to notice that no one senior manager was all of these things, they were all different.

Often, the style we adopt is one which we’ve seen others doing. I’ve worked for a number of great leaders who had mastered what it took to communicate to different personalities in different ways, but not all of their styles worked for me, largely because I had not taken the time to understand my own communication preferences.

I’ve read up a lot on communication over the years. How a project manager communicates is a key differentiator between success and failure in projects yet it’s still something that most are not very good at, despite the resources and research available.

In 1967, Dr Albert Mehrabian came up with the 7-38-55% rule of communication:

  • 7% is verbal - what is said
  • 38% is voice - how it’s said
  • 55% is body - how it’s displayed

Peter Drucker reinforced this by saying ‘The most important thing in communication is hearing what is not said.’ Jim Rohn said that ‘Effective communication is 20% what you know and 80% about what you feel you know.’

And it’s not that any of these are wrong, it’s just that they’re not very helpful if you’re looking to become the best communicator you can be.

In the absence of a communication role model, I did the only thing left to do, I turned to the movies and in Dead Poets Society, I found what great looked like.

The character John Keating, brilliantly played by Robin Williams, demonstrated throughout the movie what it took to lead and motivate a group of disparate personalities. While his preferred style was social, passionate and unconventional, he could very quickly - and unconsciously - switch into detail, empathy, quotes and facts.

He was able to performance manage, inspire, manage upwards and create human connections with all of those around him. It was - and still is - a good example of what great communication looks like.

It is important to remember however, that great communication starts with you understanding your own preferences and style. This is why I spend a full half day of my Conscious Project Leader program working with everyone on getting clear on what they do well and where their opportunities for improvement lie. It’s a session that immediately makes a difference and is a memorable part of the two-day program.

In order to achieve communication greatness, you need to be a variable communicator.

Immovable communicators insist on communicating only in their own preferences and don’t give any thought as to how other personalities would like to receive a message.

Flexible communicators are prepared to change their approach with other personality types, however they never develop the skills to gain support or build trust.

Viable communicators find approaches that are practical and that may work for a moment in time with different personalities given the situation they are in, but they never build on these skills.

Variable communicators can unconsciously switch between different communication styles and motivate teams of multiple personalities at any given time.

Of course, this is not just about project management, it’s true of any role.

Having recently run a Conscious Project Leader program for a team of graduates for a large consulting firm in Sydney, the senior leader in charge felt that it would be good for his sales team to undertake a similar program as they weren’t getting the sales results they were expecting. Variable communication runs through everything that we do. 

Becoming a great communicator means being able to vary your style and message. Remember that effective communication is about tailoring your message to their ears, not expecting them to tailor their ears to your message.

Do you understand your preferences? What do you need to do to become a variable communicator?

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