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Papers > People in Projects

Communication by people in project teams

Adam A P Roberts



A newly appointed Director at a NHS estates department hired a Programme coordinator to assist in creating order to the portfolio of projects that he had inherited from his predecessor. The programme coordinator seem to have made assumptions as to the requirements of the Director, and the Director seemed to have assumed that the coordinator understood his requirements. It would appear that both parties were confident that they had communicated their expectations clearly and concisely enough to have been understood by each other. This paper investigates the underlying cause to how two people can interpret each other differently to what they believe is being communicated. The paper then reviews the issue; if two people can misinterpret one another over a three-month period; then there is a high probability that an entire project team will experience some communication failures in a lengthy project, implying that communication and understanding people is key to delivering successful projects. This paper also identifies the dynamics of people in projects, although it may suggest methods of over coming communication failures, it remains inconclusive in offering a solution that would result in the completion of a successful project, every time.

Word Count: 4520

Key Words: Success, People



The purpose of this paper is to identify some of the major differences that are relevant in the way people deliver projects, often resulting in a very different outcome. This paper will focus on how two people working on the same change project at the same time, seem to have a completely different understanding of the project requirements.

It will identify methods that can be utilised to improve the results of a project and will bring into discussion the different ideologies from multiple sources. These ideologies will include include authors of text books, white papers and web based information, quotations from various lectures will also be used, as well as content from individuals and group based interviews that have been conducted during research for this paper.

A discussion relating to ‘why people perform so differently under similar circumstances’ and ‘why some people succeed while others fail to deliver similar projects,’ will be reviewed. A further discussion regarding the probability of a single methodology or system’s approach will be looked at, investigating a “one size fits all” solution in the attempt to ensure that all future projects are successfully concluded. Emotional Intelligence Buchanan and Huczynski (2010) P. 728the ability to identify, integrate, understand and reflectively manage one’s own and other peoples feelings” is considered as this single method of success, and Woodruffs argument cited by Buchanan and Huczynski (2010) P.224emotional intelligence is not a useful concept and that it’s impact on job performance is exaggerated” is further reviewed.

Discussions are held with project professionals regarding the various methods that they use to communicate during their projects, focusing on how different people communicate and how subtle changes to the delivery of a communications can have a profound impact on how it is received by the recipient. We scrutinise the delivery of the communication and the impact that the delivery can have on the project itself. It seems possible that the same message delivered in a different way could also be actioned in a different way, resulting differently. This would imply that people interpret the same message in various ways, depending on the influencing factors. Mullins (2010) P.222 cited Cook suggesting that there are two kinds of information in a social encounter. The first kind of information he calls static information. More interestingly is the second kind of information, which he calls Dynamic Information -  information which is subject to change - for example mood, posture, gestures and expression” this could be further explained by Attribution Theory, as Mullins (2010) P.237 goes on to say “We judge their behaviour and their intentions on past knowledge and in comparison with other people we know

The paper questions how to build and manage a team, whilst keeping them motivated and how to find the strengths and weaknesses of the individual member. Belbin (2009) P.132 suggested that; “… the interaction of members within a team becomes more important the more often a team meets”

As two identical people have not yet been discovered, it is reasonable to suggest that there is no single answer to the questions that are being asked. The aim of this paper is not to identify a single process or procedure that may be implemented as a complete approach, but to offer ideas that can be utilised to assist with the improving of team performance. This paper reviews many opposing and similar texts on the subject reviewing various methods of increasing the quality and quantity of deliverable outputs, relating to the productivity of both the project manager and the project team.

Interviews have been conducted with various teams, comprising of project managers and project team members, in order to gain insight from their perspective in relation to the question on how to motivate the team, to increase productivity and efficiency within a project. These interviews have highlighted the importance of drawing on the individual’s strengths and minimising their weaknesses.


The Director of one of for the NHS trust Estates department made the decision to investigate the reasons behind recent project failures and team performance. In the course of the implementation of change, the Director employed a strategic programme coordinator to assist in coordinating the multiple projects that the estates department were currently managing. There seemed to be confusion on the part of this coordinator, regarding his role and that of the Director’s requirements. Anthony (2012) P.201Confirmation bias explains why two people can look at the same data and see completely different things” Although the coordinator was sure that he was clear in what the director’s requirements were at the time, it would seem in hind site that both parties were going in different directions.

This paper focuses on the interaction between the programme coordinator and the Director, looking into the differences between the two individuals and how a better understanding may have assisted in creating a more successful outcome.Anthony (2012) P.201 goes on to say; “as the great philosopher Paul Simon said”, ‘still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest’

There were several factors influencing the way in which the programme coordinator could deliver the perceived requirements, not least the fact that the Director was attempting to make changes to the structure in which the trust delivered all future projects. This in itself caused many obstacles, as there was resistance from many of the team members, who did not see the value in these changes. Buchanan & Huczynski (2010) Pg.550 – “restructuring can have a negative effect on work performance. It causes confusion among employees as to how they should do their jobs, reduces their trust in their employer and increases their level of stress” To change the way people work, is to change their routine, which has in some cases been formed as a habit over many years of service. The issue here seemed to be that most of the team members were quite content with the way things had always been, even if this meant failure. In order to break any habit, the person involved must first, actually want to break the habit and, in this case, by not having the team’s support made the change all the more difficult and obstructive. Charles Duhigg (2012) P.270to modify a habit, you must decide to change it” It may have been prudent, through consultation, to get the teams full support, before making changes that influenced their work patterns. He goes on to say; “If you believe you can change, if you make it a habit, change becomes real

The coordinator seemed to have the issue of understanding his own requirements and understanding the requirements that of the project team. This understanding was a necessary factor, in order for him to complete his part of the project. There are many directions that the Director could have taken in this instance, one of which would have been to complete a 360-degree feedback during the investigation, allowing all team members the opportunity to communicate their opinion and concerns regarding the correct course of action, for the Trust. This would have allowed the team to take ownership of the change project and perhaps buy into the changes that were proposed. He could then have had confidence that everyone understood the change requirement and what was expected. Although this could cause ammunition for office politics – an anonymous 360 degree questionnaire evaluating a change process, may very well have brought out concerns and questions, from the existing team members. These concerns could have been tackled with a strategy put in place to deal with them.There are however opposing views as to the appeal of a 360 degree evaluation process. Goleman (1998); Appendix 5 - “360-degree feedback may not always offer a pure reflection of the person being evaluated” This type of evaluation would have assisted with gaining insight as to how the team were handling the change and would have allowed the Director to be more empathetic to their needs and requirements. The Director may not have been aware of the effects that these changes were having on the team members and the unwelcome stress that had been the result.  Goleman (1999) P.365People are poor evaluators of their own level of empathy” It could also be suggested that by not having completed a full evaluation, that it would be extremely difficult to implement a successful change of this magnitude as not all of the variables are known. Goleman (1999) P.286, “Systems theory tells us that to ignore any significant category of data is to limit understanding and response” which would imply that in this case the interpretation of the personalities involved in a major change would have a serious effect on the success of that change.

There were further influences that contributed to the perceived requirements, by the programme coordinator, that of believing that he new what was required of him. In the same respect, the Director could have perceived that he had made his point clear enough. This would suggest that both parties were confident of their requirements. Goleman (1999) P.269heightened self-confidence helps us do even better” In this case, however one or both parties may have been over confident in delivering something different to the requirement, as the requirements were communicated in such a way that the programme coordinator may have miss interpreted them.  Sutherland (2011) P.117Part of the problem is that when trying to decide what goes with what, people almost invariably bring to the task prior expectations that distort their interpretation of their observations” by this, it is possible that both parties were confident in their own perceived deliverables. The Director may have been confident that he had expressed his requirement clearly and that the coordinator had understood what was required of him and the coordinator may have believed that he understood those requirements.


This paper revolves around a case study that is personal to the writer. The writer recalled most of the details in this paper and a follow up interview was carried out with the Director of the NHS Trust to get his views on the events of this period.

Research on the various points that have been raised, was carried out with the view of identifying better ways of interaction between team members.

Textbooks have been referenced, to attempt to back up any statements and assumptions that have been made throughout this paper.

An open discussion with various project professionals, were the question on what makes a project succeed or fail and if they thought that a project should be systems focused or people focused was carried out.  

A one to one meeting was carried out between the Director and the coordinator for the purpose of this paper, to discuss the positives and negatives of the project and to question the Director on his interpretation of the outcome between the coordinator and himself.


Case Study: In July 2012 the London Underground suspended all project works throughout the network in preparation for the 2012 Olympic Games, with this announcement came multiple job cuts by the many sub contractors that operate within the network. Most people that were used to working on the railway, either looked for work outside of London, took a 3-month sabbatical, or as I did, started looking outside the industry for Project Management work. After sending off my CV to several places, I was offered a position in the National Health Services (NHS) as a Strategic Programme coordinator.

The NHS, operate in a completely different manner to that of the railway, which presented problems for me to adjust my way of thinking. The main issue that was identified was that a new director had been appointed and he was attempting to change the current mind-set of the individuals in his team, the problem being, in my opinion, he didn’t seem to be too sure of what he wanted to achieve, only that it needed to change. This meant that nobody else had a clear path in which to follow, as no path was known. I was employed as the programme coordinator, presumably, to assist him in this transition.

To begin with I tried to setup meetings with the Director and various other staff members to gather the requirements criteria for the work that I thought that he wanted me to complete. I had a feeling of enthusiasm as this was something different and would give me the opportunity to prove myself in a different industry. I was quite excited, as I believed that this was the perfect situation to be in; with a “new broom sweeps clean” scenario. I was initially under the impression that the director had a clear goal and that he would soon impart his strategy for the business to me in order for me to strategise a way forward for the programme. It was important for him to part with this information, as I was concerned that I would start running with something and end up going in the wrong direction.

On reflection, the Director may have viewed me as being too cautious and not performing, as a strategist in programme coordination, should. The director was more than likely feeling a little disappointed that I had not “taken the bull by the horns” and started pulling in ‘some’ direction, as he probably thought that it was important for me to create my own strategy and momentum. In this way I would not be pulled into the existing ways of the department of which he was desperately trying to change. However, as I was constantly looking for direction and the affirmation on what I had produced, I believe that the Director must have perceived me as a disappointment, as I had not lived up to his expectation. 

Taking a holistic view of the situation, both parties seemed to be waiting for each other to come up with an “Eureka” moment, but as neither parties understood what the other parties’ requirements were, there was a slim probability that this would happen. They would both have been feeling confused, despondent and possibly a little disillusioned by each other. Both parties would have originally felt quite strongly about the ability of the other at the onset of the relationship, but as time passed, doubt would have crept in regarding the ability of one and other as it would have been important to be able to have complete confidence in each other’s capabilities.
It is not easy to be positive about this situation, as both parties were in a difficult position. I was in a position trying to prove myself in a new industry, not fully understanding the industry (and politics) that I had moved. I had been given no authority to make any changes, although I reported to the Director, I still had a line manager who did not seem to be on board with the Directors requirements. This resulted in him continuously attempting to instruct me to do work that was unrelated to what I believed the Director wanted me to do. The Director, was under pressure to ‘plug the holes’ in the system, but had a team that were extremely adverse to any type of change. He therefore attempted to make small incremental changes, responding to constant opposition from his own team, at the same time continuing to run the department; he clearly did not have the time to guide me in the direction that he was looking to go.

There seemed to be a complete lack of clear communication from both parties. I believe that moving into a new industry is not only achievable, but also a good idea, as it brings new ideas in to the business. In this instance it may have been just an issue of bad timing, as it would have been a better idea to implement the change before bringing in a programme strategist from a different industry. 

This case study was discussed in a group of project professional’s lead by the coordinator (after he had left the NHS); the discussion centred around the interpretations of the coordinator, as at the time the Director had not been consulted. There was a mixed reaction, it can be expected that as the group were all associated to the coordinator that they would be more biased towards him than they were to the Director. The group suggested that it was the Directors duty to ensure that the coordinator was delivering in line with his requirements and that if the Director was unhappy with the coordinators performance that it was his responsibility to voice this and to offer the coordinator further direction. The group did not see that the coordinator should play any role in interpreting the Directors thoughts and if the Director had something to communicate it should have been communicated clearly and concise enough for the coordinator to understand. After further discussion and the attempt to remove bias from the conversation, the group agreed that communication is actually a ‘two way street’ and it should be the responsibility of both parties to ensure that they understand what is required of them. Each person should also have the responsibility, to ensure that what he or she has communicated has been understood. They did not agree that anyone should have to attempt to translate anybody’s thoughts and feeling, and agreed that the responsibility should be on the individual who is concerned about the other person to raise the issue for discussion.

It was evident in the discussion that not all of the individuals understood the points that were being discussed until the discussion was well underway. This reiterated the question as to why two people managing similar projects can have different outcomes – it could simply be down to the fact they are actually managing a set of requirements that they think that they should be managing, which could be something quite different to what is actually required.


It can be argued that the programme coordinator had a job to do and before commencing any tasks, that he had an obligation to confirm the requirements. It was his responsibility to supply a service to the Trust and that knowing the requirements should have formed part of that obligation. The problem seemed to be, that the coordinator was content that he understood the requirements and that what he was delivering was to the Directors expectations. This would imply that although two people communicate that it does not necessarily mean that they actually understand each other. Goleman (1999) P.202to communicate is not just a matter of pushing information at another person

There were many people working on or within this change project, however for the purpose of this paper, we are only focusing on the coordinator and the Director. The coordinator had the task of working within the changing mechanism, while the Director was continually implementing incremental changes to that mechanism. This would suggest that the coordinators remit would also require adjusting at a similar rate. Notably with the implementation of each incremental change, the team will become more anxious as they will undoubtedly be concerned about what to expect next, it can be expected that the more anxious the team became, the more difficult it would be for the coordinator to complete his task. We could assume that the Director would be continually updating the team members on his intentions. Callahan & Brooks (2004) P.27  “Problems also occur when there is a lack of communication from the tactical level to the strategic level” As he was making only small incremental changes, the consultation process for each change, may have been more trouble than it was worth. The Director would have had to weigh up these options and make a decision as to what was important enough to consult the team and what changes should just have been implemented without further discussion, taking the risk that these changes could raise issues and anxieties within his team.

With the dynamic nature of this project and the remit that the coordinator perceived that he had received from the Director, he could only assume that he was producing within the project parameters and requirements, unless there was something else that influenced his outlook and understanding of these requirements. If when the coordinator produced work for the Director, he ‘felt’ that the Director did not seem ‘satisfied’ with the deliverable, this could effect his interpretation of what he perceived. This opens up a large area of discussion, how could the coordinator hope to know what the Director was thinking. In the same respect, how could the Director be aware of the coordinators ‘feelings’ if they were not communicated to him? This brings into discussion the Director’s need to worry about emotions of the team while trying to direct the business. If we assume that all projects are both managed and implemented by ‘people’ and that people are intrinsically emotional, then we could assume that anyone leading a team should have people skills and perhaps experience dealing with emotions. In the same respect, the team members should also have interpersonal skills, in order to be able to interpret the underlying meanings of a ‘raised eye brow’ or a ‘lowered tone of voice’. Goleman (1999) P.13 writes about a study of what corporations are looking for in the MBA’s that they hire“ The three most desired capabilities are communication skills, interpersonal skills and initiative

If it is accepted that we are all different, then it can be assumed that the degrees in which we all differ, vary. Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) teach about 4 types of people:

·       Kinaesthetic

·       Visual

·       Audio

·       Audio Digital

It is not expected that any one person will completely fall into the category of only one of these types, but rather suggests that an individual may lean toward a certain type, while still having a mixture of the balance. For the individual that is more a “visual” person, they would find it easier to picture something, and for the individual that leaned toward ‘audio’ would be more comfortable listening. Many different studies put people in a box and categorise individuals as a certain type. We can only expect that this can be both helpful and dangerous, as by understanding the type of person that you are dealing with could benefit the relationship. If you assume that a person is a certain type, you may be encouraged to deal with that person in a specific manner, which may not be conducive to the relationship, if you are wrong.  In this respect we may have found that although the coordinator had believed he was doing what was required, that he had completely misinterpreted the requirements of the Director.


The outcome of this change project remains in progress, however, due to an external job offer to return to the rail industry, the coordinator resigned from the NHS after only 3 months. This coordinator had commenced working at the NHS with all of the enthusiasm and excitement that was expected of a new employee, however in only 3 months he had made the decision to return to an industry that he had previously wanted to leave.

One school of thought may suggest that there should only be one interpretation, as the Director owned the change project and the coordinator should have interpreted the requirements set out by the Director. In this respect it would be assumed that the Director should not need to interpret the coordinator’s requirements, however all evidence points towards a collaborative approach to projects and that a clear understanding is required between all members in order to achieve project success. Here we have two different people, both looking at the same project, both interested in a successful project outcome, with two different interpretations of the requirements. The Director could have insisted that every instruction that he gave be repeated back to him to ensure that the coordinator was clear as to the requirements, but this may not have been enough, as one would assume that unless the Director repeated back everything that the coordinator had said, that there could still be a miss communication.

Then there is the emotional entity, people deliver projects and it can be assumed that people are generally driven by their emotions and circumstances. It would therefore be prudent for those people delivering projects to have at least some knowledge of dealing with people’s emotions, not to mention their various circumstances that they may have, both at work and at home.

The dynamic nature of this kind of change project is always going to be difficult to complete successfully. There are many different methodologies with multiple variations to each. When we factor people into this equation with the many different types of personalities we start to find that the permutations grow exponentially. The best anybody can do, is to take stock of the project that they have in front of them and to make use of the tools that they are comfortable using at the time. There is constant research being carried out around the dynamics of people and there seems that there is currently no single fool proof method of creating a process or procedure in dealing with people in projects that will succeed every time.   


1.     Daniel Goleman (1999); Working with Emotional Intelligence – Bloomsbury

2.     Stuart Sutherland (2011); Irrationality – Pinter & Martin

3.     R. Meredith Belbin (2004); Management Teams, why they succeed or fail 2nd Edition – Butterworth Heinemann

4.     Laurie J. Mullins (2010); Management & Organisational behaviour 9th Edition – Prentice Hall

5.     David Buchanan & Andrzej A. Huczynski (2010); Organizational behaviour 7th Edition – Prentice Hall

6.     Charles Duhigg (2012); The Power of Habit – Random House

7.     Kevin R. Callahan & Lynne M. Brooks (2004); Essentials of Strategic Project Management – John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

8.     Scot D. Anthony (2012); The little black book of innovation – Harvard business school publishing corporation 


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