Trust Falls Are Lame: 7 Practical Tips for Building Team Relationships

Break down the PM stereotypes. Build trust & camaraderie with transparency, collaboration, & self-accountability.

Inflexible, controlling, process-oriented. These are just a few of the stereotypes that project managers frequently face. Dealing with these stereotypes can make every project feel like an uphill battle but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Every time you interact with a team member is an opportunity to prove the stereotypes wrong.  Though there are many variables in a project that we can’t control, there are many that we can control! By focusing on building relationships, improving your communication skills, and creating a positive experience on projects, you can break down those stereotypes and improve your ability to work with your team.

There are a few tips I’ve learned over the years that have helped me continue to build trust and stronger communication with internal teams. This not only leads to more successful projects, but also to more fun and positive experiences all around—which shows in both the work and our internal and client interactions.

1. Team members are humans, not “resources”.

I hate the word “resource” when used as a replacement for “person.” Doesn’t that just sound cold, impersonal, and like the person you’re referring to is just a means to an end?

I never call my team members “resources” (even when I’m not talking directly to them) because I believe that it encourages thinking about internal teams in the wrong way. There’s no good reason not to just say “person”—we’re not working with robots!

2. Let the team know the “why”, not just the “what.”

PMs frequently need to work with their teams to gather estimates, define project details, or discuss how long a task will take. And in the past, I’ve sometimes tried to be succinct and just asked for the information I need rather than giving more context.

But over time, I’ve learned that often it’s much more effective to tell someone why you’re asking for that information, what you’re planning to do with it, and why having that information will help the project be successful.

Being asked “when will this get done” or “why are you tackling this problem that way” without understanding why doesn’t make anyone feel good. But if a team member understands your ultimate goal and why you need the information you’re asking for, they’ll be a lot more helpful.

This isn't to say that we, as PMs, need to justify or elaborately explain every request we have. Of course, use your best judgement on a case-by-case basis, but try to get into the habit of informing the rest of the team about motivations and ultimate outcomes. Doing so will help the team understand the importance of the inquiry and build trust.

3. Decide on a project process together—and provide opportunities for adjusting when things aren’t working.

At Viget, we formally define the process and tools for each new project. Our goal is to have the whole team provide input on what process and tools are the best fit for the project (though we do have “default” processes and tools that we can use as a starting point).

We discuss process as a team at the beginning of the project — whether it’s during a dedicated meeting about process or via another channel like Basecamp or Slack. The important thing is that the team has the opportunity to collaborate on the project plan, process, and tools. This can also be a good opportunity to make decisions about frequency and structure of project meetings or standups. This approach ensures the team is contributing to the decision of how to communicate most effectively and helps to avoid the pitfall of having meetings that people feel aren’t needed.

On most projects we also facilitate a mid-project retrospective. This provides an opportunity for the team to reflect and provide feedback on the project and our processes so the PM can help facilitate changes as needed to improve the remainder of the project. This could be as lightweight as an informal discussion during a team standup, or as in-depth as a formal team survey and meeting to discuss the results—you decide the best fit for your team and project.

4. Flex your communication style—and know when it’s not necessary to interrupt workflow.

Different people have different communication styles and while it’s beneficial to adopt general processes that can work across projects and teams, it’s also important to be cognizant of how individual team members prefer to communicate.

For instance, when I need to have a 1:1 conversation with a team member, I know that some people find it easiest to jump on a quick Google hangout (if they’re remote) or discussion at their desk, while others typically prefer to stick primarily to Slack (chat) communication. I try to keep people’s communication and workflow preferences in mind before reaching out them.

Also, some people prefer not to be contacted via Slack unless the issue is time-sensitive. Remember to ask yourself before you bother someone whether you need an answer now or if it can wait—and if the latter, consider sending an email or Basecamp post instead. I’ve fallen into the trap of not thinking about this—until I put myself in the other person’s shoes and realize what a distraction random Slack messages can be!

5. Be accountable for your own progress at the same level you expect the team to be accountable for theirs.

At Viget, we use “YTBs” (a short list of what you worked on yesterday, what you’re working on today, and any blockers) as a quick way to update each other during a project on progress and planned work (usually shared via Slack).

The PM team has started regularly posting our own YTBs in project channels along with the team members, rather than just instructing the team to do so. That way other team members know what we’re working on too. Not only is this information helpful to them (e.g., if they’re trying to coordinate a deploy around your QA work), but also helps you be as transparent about your own work and progress as you’re expecting them to be about theirs.

6. Don’t be afraid to joke around—or get vulnerable.

As PMs, part of our job is to make sure meetings are productive and communication is efficient. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make things fun, too! Be yourself and don’t be afraid to lighten things up by injecting humor into a meeting or posting a funny GIF in Slack. Little things like that can help the project feel less stressful and help the team bond.

That being said, work isn’t always laughs and GIFs. If you have concerns about a project that’s veered off-track or need team input on a stressful decision, don’t be afraid to be transparent about that with the team. While it's important in many cases to be the eye of the storm and stay calm, it can also sometimes be a good thing to be vulnerable and share your concerns. This can go a long way towards showing the rest of the team that you trust them and value their input.

7. Be willing to go the extra mile right along with your team.

At Viget we prioritize work-life balance and generally don’t expect people to work crazy hours. That said, now and then there will be a time crunch on a project where the team needs to put in some extra time or work off-hours to get a project done on time.

In those scenarios, don’t just ask your team to do it—be just as willing to make yourself available to help in whatever way you can (on related project work, QA, or even just for moral support). Set an example for your team, show them that you’re all in this together, and help the team cross the project finish line.

When it comes down to it, transparent communication, collaboration, and self-accountability go a long way towards establishing trust and building relationships with other team members. This will ultimately lead to a more positive team dynamic and a more successful project experience all around!

What other tips do you have for building better relationships with teams? Share in the comments!

Grace has a penchant for curiosity and organization. She manages projects for clients including the Wildlife Conservation Society and ID.me from our Falls Church, VA, HQ.

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