Communicating with Clients: The Chameleon Effect

Once you have completed multiple projects, it is easy to draw from the tried and tested library of ‘what will work’ and ‘what won’t’. A sort of lego block library that can be used to build the next project plan or the next start meeting. Many of our projects, especially if you project manage in the same industry or the same piece of software can resemble others. Client teams may remind you of a previous project or you may even re-use your project plans time and time again. It is easy to resurrect the blue-print, but we should remember that every client is unique and there are a myriad possibilities, differences and opportunities with each project.

With every unique client comes the need to change communication style and adopt a chameleon approach to both the client needs and the project processes. The ability to change your style of communication, and in some cases, your approach to other things like processes, project planning, updating and more, can be beneficial to your project and client – even the difference between a difficult uphill struggle versus a smooth, no pedals down-hill ride.

What is meant by the Chameleon effect? In Psychology it refers to the non-conscious mimicry of postures, mannerisms, facial expression and other behaviours of another person that unintentionally matches that of others in a current situation (L. Burrows, 1996). However in the art of project management we can refer to it as a ‘toned down’ version, but there are key things that should remain, for instance mannerisms, tone of voice and so on, the most obvious change is that actually as project managers this should be conscious rather than non-conscious.

How do we achieve this Chameleon effect? How do we achieve it in a conscious state, that isn’t some weird stalky like mimicry that can be off-putting to the client at the other side of your project plan?

Understand your audience. How many times have you attended a project kick-off meeting and observed the room, observed your co-project manager but also their reactions to others, their body-language when other people are talking or possibly when they are challenged? Have you ever taken notes on the type of person you might be working with? What their current job role is and how much project management they may have been exposed to, or how little they seem interested in the detail of project management – for example project plans or action logs. All this information gathering can be useful, not so that you can mimic their body language or equally turn off the use of project planning, but so that you can understand what might challenge them and what might work for them. You should aspire to building up a project manager profile that ideally includes technical abilities, needs analysis, support that might be needed for managing their own teams, resources and tasks. This profile will help you to fully understand the other person you will be working with and will allow you to adequately plan your time and what style you will need to take when working with them.

Use your audience knowledge and adapt. When talking about adapting this isn’t just lowering your tone on the telephone or making more eye contact face to face. It is deeper, focusing on things such as the way you might word emails or reminders for tasks, how you put together status reports and other documents. Through the new understanding of who you are working with you should have knowledge of how they may present information, how they structure emails and so on. This is the perfect springboard for mimicry and the chameleon effect in how you communicate back to them. If your customers present data to you in a short and snappy way, or their emails are bullet pointed one word-ers – use that approach back – in most circumstances this isn’t because they are busy people, although that will have an obvious effect, but it is their style of working or reading and absorbing information. There is little point in trying to change their approach and it will be a much more fulfilling experience to work with the grain rather than against it.

“Every judgement made by an individual is conditioned by his personality type and every point of view is necessarily relative.” Carl Jung

Understand how your style might be perceived. We all have our own style, the way we write, the way we talk and how we interact with other people. As a project manager it can be difficult, you are in a complex situation working with multiple people sometimes picking up the phone to one person and then emailing another straight afterwards. You ability to change like the chameleon can get lost in pressures and milestones. Sometime there is little time to reflect on how you might be perceived. The key to success with winning over customers and clients can be down to understanding your own style and knowing how that style might affect others. We have all met people that we ‘just don’t get on with’, but it can be tough to take on that mantra as a project manager with so many people in our immediate world at work.

“The World exists not merely in itself, but also as it appears to me.” Carl Jung, Personality Types
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