Keys to Effective Communication for Project Leaders

It’s vital to always be mindful about how you’re communicating to others since doing it poorly can have ramifications on job site productivity and efficiency

Keys to Effective Communication for Project Leaders
Technician Rod Jones loads a restroom after servicing it at a construction site.

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A study from consulting firm FMI Corp. and PlanGrid discovered that 52% of all construction industry rework is a result of poor data and miscommunication. Also, 45% of project managers say they spend more time than planned on communication with various project stakeholders — largely due to poor communication.

The need for leaders to become better communicators is clear. There is also a clear path to get there. Leaders must recognize the elements of effective communication, understand when it makes sense to utilize a certain mode of communication, and learn how to overcome common communication barriers.

Foundational elements to effective communication

“The people you are communicating with will never believe you if they don’t trust you,” says Peggy Newquist, a principal and co-owner of Constructing Opportunity. 

When a leader can display empathy, typically through the words they use, people are more likely to listen. Examples include, “If I am understanding you correctly,” and “I can see how this can be frustrating for you."

When a leader establishes trust and displays empathy, their credibility strengthens. Great leaders are reliable and honest, build rapport, admit what they don’t know, maintain confidentiality, avoid exaggeration and accept responsibility.

Close the communication loop. It’s important to recognize that communication is not as simple as just sending and receiving messages. To ensure effective communication, leaders should commit to a four-step process:

  • Sender sends message
  • Receiver hears message and responds
  • Sender clarifies
  • Receiver confirms

“Closing the communication loop like this can help avoid a lot of miscommunication,” Newquist says.

Master both forms of communication. Effective communication is about more than just the written or spoken word. Non-verbal communication helps establish tone and emotion. Depending on how it is delivered, it can either help or hinder communication.

Newquist points out that there are several types of non-verbal communication, including:

  • Eye contact and blinking
  • Tone of voice
  • Facial expressions
  • Gestures
  • Posture and body language

“When your verbal and non-verbal communications don’t match, you’re likely to have miscommunication issues,” Newquist says.

For instance, if you’re gritting your teeth while telling someone they did a great job, what message does the recipient really receive? Mixed messaging causes confusion and can also hinder trust and credibility.

Understanding which communication mode is best

Email and text can be fast and cheap. The problem is that these modes can also be rather impersonal. People can also misunderstand messages, sometimes triggering an emotional response.

Email in particular can be effective for non-urgent communications. It’s also useful for following up on other communications to get some documentation. Emails are also great for handing out praise, or sharing documents and photos — especially when sharing with numerous people. 

“Just make sure your emails are always professional,” Newquist says.

Phone communication can be useful when asking questions or gathering feedback. Because the conversation is happening in real time, agreements can be reached faster. On the negative side, there is no inherent documentation like you get with email.

“Phone is a great channel when you need to apologize, anticipate a lot of questions, need to explain something complicated, or need to discuss something personal or urgent,” Newquist says.

Face-to-face communication also allows you to reach consensus faster. Leaders can also capitalize on non-verbal communication to help get their message through in the right way. On the negative side, face-to-face communication can be costly and time-consuming. It also requires strong documentation because nothing is being transmitted in writing.

Face-to-face is an ideal communication mode when you want to:

  • Demonstrate the importance of the conversation
  • Interpret thoughts and feelings
  • Enhance credibility and trust
  • Build relationships
  • Gather feedback
  • Address sensitive issues

Overcoming barriers to communication

When a leader works with the same people on a regular basis, it is easy to neglect the step of finding out how they like to communicate.

“Because we work with them so much, we assume we know,” Newquist says.

But that’s not always the case.

“Check in with people regularly. Ask if they’d rather you text them or call them,” Newquist says.

Noise can be a barrier in the construction industry. So can distance and visibility. Climate can also be a barrier, whether it’s a frigidly cold job site in the winter or swelteringly hot job site in the summer.

“Think about all of these things that are working against you when trying to communicate,” Newquist says.

Barriers can also be business or industry jargon.

“Sometimes a leader needs to work extra hard to clarify and confirm,” Newquist says. “Be especially careful with industry acronyms when communicating with clients who might not be familiar with them.”

Watch the words you use, as well. Words and phrases such as "hopefully," "probably," "someone," "if time permits," etc. are referred to as “weasel words.” Newquist says these words allow leaders to make statements without establishing accountability.

How people like to communicate often ties back to the way they grew up. For instance, baby boomers often prefer face-to-face. Millennials often prefer texting and email. At the same time, most people are capable of adapting. But it’s still always good for a leader to check in with people to confirm how they like to communicate.

Introverts and extroverts have very different personalities. Thus, they also have different ways they like to communicate.

“Some people like to speak to think,” Newquist says. “Then there are people who think to speak. Leaders have to be cognizant of different people’s styles. Sometimes you need some ground rules, too, as in ‘give me a minute to think this through,’ or ‘let’s talk through this for a minute.’”

To that point, leaders should also recognize that hearing is not synonymous with listening. Hearing is a sense. Listening is a skill.

“Listening is your interpretation of what you hear,” Newquist says. “Leaders must make a conscious effort to listen. When you really listen to someone, that’s how you show empathy and build trust — and that’s how you become an effective communicator.” 


About the Author

AEM is the North American-based international trade group representing off-road equipment manufacturers and suppliers, with more than 950 companies and 200-plus product lines in the agriculture and construction-related sectors worldwide. AEM has an ownership stake in and manages several world-class exhibitions, including CONEXPO-CON/AGG.



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