Why are QSs and other construction professionals often so wary of project managers – and what can be done to overcome this?

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a black tie dinner, which for a young industry professional promises a good night out. Conversation flowed freely among the guests at my table, a combination of contractors, cost managers and an architect. However, when my hosts introduced me as a project manager – an awkward silence ensued.

I usually hover among groups at networking events, but in instances like this I have a split second to decide whether to ride the storm or make a hasty exit to avoid being lynched. At a dinner, there is no escape!

Working with and knitting together happy, co-operative teams is a hot topic of soft skills debate in the project management industry (indeed, February 2008’s edition of Project is dedicated to communications). With these endeavours in mind, what is it about the perception that other construction professionals have of project managers, presumably derived from their experience of working with them, that can provide such a negative image?

The Association for Project Management last autumn held a series of master classes given by those who work with project managers. Each talk looked at the hazards and highlights experienced within their project case studies.

Perceptions ranged from the lawyer’s technical detail of having a duty to warn of issues, resolving disputes and the legal status of written documents, to the contractor who largely discussed clarity of processes whether management, procurement or governance.

Given the difference in approach, the recurring theme in each case was communication and understanding, whether we are implementing and explaining our favourite PM processes, relaying client requirements or simply pottering along with day-to-day activities. Where problems arise is not only when we are not giving others sufficiently detailed information, but also where misunderstandings arise between ourselves and the team.

We conclude that here lies the path to poor relations. It is all too easy to follow the checklists of a communications plan, but we must actively seek to understand others through questioning, listening and discussion.

The 2006 winner of the APM’s Young Project Manager of the Year award, Helen Timperley, was recognised for her work in managing complex communications between numerous stakeholders and the design team. Speaking at the award’s road show in May 2007, Timperley cited her biggest challenge as encouraging discussion and debate within the team and explained how she used this to build a positive working relationship between all parties.

For the project manager, however, traps do not stop at verbally conveying a message. Written communications can often prove a tough enemy too. They do not tell a recipient the tone in which they should be read – and you cannot ask them any questions without looking mildly insane.

As you can see, I am not a QS – and the lack of figures here displays a mild phobia of statistics. But where we project managers and QSs overlap is the need for understanding of one another’s work and the importance of communication to forge a successful working relationship.

When a wildly happy project manager calls you up, it is not always the start of your road to project Armageddon but may be just a chance to catch up. At the risk of sounding like a certain Tory MP – hug a project manager – we just need your project love.