Five simple hacks to build credibility as a project manager

You’ve been hired as a project manager at the tech company of your dreams. You’re not an engineer, and you’re thrilled to have found another way to contribute. But now, a few weeks in, you’re struggling. Your team thinks you don’t understand their work. Your “What’s the status?” questions, intended to unearth blockers, seem to annoy everyone.

You don’t have credibility. And without it, people look at your role something like this:

“Building credibility” is hard to do…or is it? At LifeLabs Learning, we love creating simplicity out of complexity.

Before becoming a leadership trainer, I spent five years as a project manager in consulting and healthcare technology. Below, I’ve distilled those experiences into my “secret sauce:” five hacks to boost your credibility with your technical team. To keep them actionable, I’ve suggested a first step toward each one.

1.Cut holes in the black box: In his seminal book High Output Management, Andy Grove emphasized the danger when a company’s day-to-day operations are a “black box” to its leadership team; if you don’t know how your product is made, you can’t anticipate issues. Simply put, you need to understand your team’s work before you can manage it.

Your first small step: Build a workflow diagram, noting the steps and interdependencies from your team’s input (e.g., data) to its output (e.g., front-end visualizations).

2. Build a common vocabulary: Building a shared language is critical to a project manager’s credibility. You must learn not just what the team does (which you’ve mastered with Step 1), but also how they talk about it. Listen for the words your team uses, and adopt those terms yourself.

Your first small step: Build a “team dictionary” of commonly used terms & their meanings. Share it! It will benefit everyone, particularly new folks who haven’t mastered the vocabulary.

3. Be transparent, especially with bad news: You’ll often know about project setbacks before your team does. Maybe your sales team warned that you’re likely to lose a new business pitch, or the product team signaled that they’re shifting the roadmap. While you don’t want to worry your team unnecessarily, they need to know information that could impact their work. This matters because of the way our brains handle surprise, especially negative surprise; it intensifies emotional responses up to 400%.

Your first small step: Have a “communication norms” conversation to see how your team wants to receive project updates. Slack? Email? Standup? Let them know what process you’ll use, so they don’t have to worry about missing anything.

4. Give credit. People often see project managers as the “face” of the team. As a result, chances are good that you’ll be thanked when your team ships a product. Your mission is to ensure your team members receive the same credit. Failing to give credit has real consequences: Gallup’s research shows that employees who don’t feel recognized are twice as likely to consider quitting in the next year.

Your first small step: If you get an email thanking you for the project delivery, copy your team on your response, noting one thing each person did to contribute to the output.

5. Close the loop. In a study of 26 project teams across seven companies, Teresa Amabile identified the biggest motivation booster as a feeling of small, continued progress. Feeling progress can be challenging as an individual contributor, especially when you don’t know what happened to your product after it was shipped. Because you’ll usually be aware of the broader context, you have an opportunity to get this information and share it with your team.

Your first small step: Set recurring reminders — in Slack, Boomerang, or whatever tool is helpful for you — for yourself to get feedback following product delivery, either directly (from a customer) or indirectly (e.g., asking your account team). Make it a norm to share those updates with your team in your recurring meetings.

There you have it! Following these tips will make your team see you not as a barrier to their success, but as an indispensable enabler of it — and that’s the dream of every project manager.

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