14 August, 2017

Great Team Communication: The 10 Commandments

By Mike Clayton

Appreciative Inquiry, feedback, performance management, Project Politics, servant leadership, Team communication

Have you got a great project team? If you have, then one thing acts like top-grade oil in a highly-tuned engine: great team communication.

With great team communication, everything seems so much easier.

Conversations are friction free, problems get described, addressed and solved. And work gets shared and handed-off efficiently.

Contrast that poor team communication.

It’s like the oil in your engine is burnt and gritty. Everything seems harder and nothing flows smoothly.

So, in this article we look at how to create great team communication, and share ’10 Commandments’.

The thing about communication is ‘assumption’.

We assume it’s easy. We assume it will just happen. And, poor communication is, itself, riddled with assumptions.

But great team communication doesn’t ‘just happen’. You need to create it. And by ‘you’ I mean the Project Manager, who must take the lead. And I also mean every member of your team, who must share the responsibility for it. Everyone must work to maintain great team communication.

As an aside, it would be easy to use the phrase ‘good team communication’. But that would suggest a poverty of ambition. Why wish someone a good holiday, when you can just as easily wish them a great one. The essence of great communication is taking the trouble to articulate what you really mean. And to do so in a way that has maximum impact.

So, to create great team communication, you’ll have to work hard. I’ve never been keen on ‘rules’ yet projects seem to susceptible to good practices that lend themselves to that kind of language. So here, let’s borrow different language, and set out..

10 Commandments for Great Team Communication

Great Team Communication
Great Team Communication
  1. Get the Fundamentals of Great Team Communication Right
  2. Set Expectations for Great Team Communication
  3. Create an Environment for Great Team Communication
  4. Develop an Infrastructure for Great Team Communication
  5. Take every Opportunity for Great Team Communication
  6. Build and Strengthen Relationships for Great Team Communication
  7. Use Great Team Communication for Performance Management
  8. Understand the Role of Politics in Great Team Communication
  9. Don’t let Conflict Spoil Great Team Communication
  10. Great Team Communication is Vital when You are up against it

Like similar lists, there’s a danger that this one looks a little obvious. Reading it, I hope there’s nothing there to surprise you. You may even think: ‘I could have written that’. So, let’s examine each of these in turn and draw out some specific – and actionable – advice.

Get the Fundamentals of Great Team Communication Right

The fundamentals of great communication are simple. But simple is never easy.

You have to care.

Be Present

You have to care about the other person and what they are saying – either in spoken or other form.

So that means you must be truly present when you are listening. And you must listen hard to what they are saying. We like Stephen Covey’s admonishment in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to:

Seek first to understand… Then to be understood


The second fundamental is respect. Treat other people as you would want them to treat you: with courtesy and kindness. This is the basis of Quora’s BNBR policy.

Be nice, be respectful

Part of this is the need to treat everyone on your team as an individual. Otherwise, you risk treating them as if they were someone else or, worse, as a stereotype.

But go further. Adopt some responsibility for and compassion towards the people on your team. Let your communication crate an impact on them.


The last of my fundamentals is clarity. It’s pretty easy to write long, wooly emails. Or to speak in shorthand because you assume I know what you are talking about.

Take the time to express yourself clearly and concisely. Take responsibility for other people understanding you…precisely, and with no ambiguity.

Set Expectations for Great Team Communication

Create Your Standards

Great team communication doesn’t just happen. At the start of your project, work with your team to define what it means. Then create a set of expectations and responsibilities you can all sign up to.

Great #project #team communication doesn't just happen. You and your team must work at it. Click To Tweet

Use On-boarding

Now when you take on a new team member, your first step must be to spell out the team’s communication requirements. Indeed, do this when you first interview them or brief them on your project. Many failed working relationships start with getting communication wrong.

Lead by Example

And then, lead by example. Set and practice an exceptionally  high standard for your own communication. Who better to quote on this, than MK Gandhi:

Be the change you want to see in the world.

Create an Environment for Great Team Communication

The right expectations will start you off, but you also need to create and maintain the right environment.


This must start with mutual respect. Following on, is a tone of collective responsibility for great communication. This means everyone thinking carefully about:

  • what information to share
  • who to share it with – who wants it and who needs it
  • how best to share that information

Positivity, Support, and Enthusiasm

Do your part to help create an optimistic project environment. Research seems to show that a positive workplace creates happier and more productive work-habits.

Team spirit is also important, so use meetings and social gatherings to give people a chance to build working relationships. Create opportunities at informal settings to allow team members to think creatively, and speak freely about concerns.

And a key part of your role is to be supportive to your colleagues, with a balance of listening, sympathy, and guidance. Maintain an ‘open door’ policy to attending to your team member’s questions, frustrations, and concerns.


A great way to create a positive and supportive environment is a ‘pay it forward’ approach of doing nice things for your people. Don’t stand on rules, when you know the right thing to do. Treat people’s needs generously, and they will reciprocate with a generous attitude to you and your project.

Equally, be generous in the way you share information. People can perform more effectively if they are better informed. And if you withhold any information that affects them, you will be sowing the seeds of gossip, rumour, and dissension. Well–informed colleagues are more keen and better able to participate.

Develop an Infrastructure for Great Team Communication

The natural next step from a great communication environment is to put in place the infrastructure that facilitates it.

For a start, when you invest in your team and its effectiveness, you create a positive boost in morale. And, compare with not investing in the tools your team needs. in my favourite model of leadership, ‘Servant Leadership’, part of your role is to find and secure the resources your team needs.

But if you choose your infrastructure wisely, it will make great team communication easier. And what’s easier, we do.

Minimum Friction

The principle I advocate is one of ‘minimum friction’. Make available the tools and the media which are as easy as possible for your team to use.

Then, encourage team members to select from the tools available to them. And they should choose the ones that are easiest for the person they are communicating with.


This applies, above all, to technical solutions. The range and number of tools available for project communications is astonishing. When selecting which one to implement, you will have many considerations. And here, I am assuming you do have a choice. I know that many Project Managers will not. You will get what your organization provides. But, if you are charged with the responsibility to deliver a big and important project, I’d argue it gives you  the right to make a case for the most appropriate tools.

A Simple Guide to Selecting Technology

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Some of the considerations that are relevant may include:

  • familiarity to team members
  • ease of use
  • flexibility
  • range of functions
  • speed of implementation
  • cost – including set up and maintenance time
  • integration with other tools
  • security

So, ask yourself (and research the answers to):

  • What are your must-have features that will allow you to do what you need to?
  • How much pain and pleasure do you feel when doing the things you’ll need to do a lot? I’m looking for a net neutral to positive feel.
  • And how familiar will the system feel to your team and other users?
  • How quickly can your team get started withe the new technology?
  • Do you have experience of the vendor? What are they like?
  • What is customer support like, and what do their customers say about them?
  • Will their service and features allow you to grow, expand, and develop your your project without a major migration? This can include use of add-ons.
  • What is their business ethos like? This is about integrity and code: how do the owners and senior people come across?
  • Is the pricing consistent with the products and services you’ll get? …and at all tiers as you grow your requirements and number of seats?
  • How robust does the underlying technology appear to be? Uptimes and bugs, basically. What are people saying?
  • And how well does it integrate will other tools you and your team use?
  • What experience will your users, clients, customers have in interacting with you and your team via this tool?
  • How secure will your data be?

If two or more options score the same or nearly the same, then frankly, go with your gut or toss a coin. Your choice is unlikely make any difference to your project…


Meeting cycle and style

Another part of your team communication infrastructure is your meeting cycle. both live and virtual meetings will be a keystone of your project communication strategy. Finding the right cycle is important. When is the right time? Where is the best place. And how often is the right frequency?

Don’t forget that the answers to these questions will evolve through the lifecycle of your project. So too will you agenda, and maybe the style with which you facilitate the meetings. Some meetings will benefit from formality and structure. Others will need to be free-flowing and informal.

Take every Opportunity for Great Team Communication

Having set up your infrastructure, don’t forget the gaps. If you only communicate to a structured program, you’ll miss the chances to build relationships, dig deep into issues, and share fabulous moments.

As a project manager, here are my favorite informal communication opportunities:

  • Wandering around the office towards the end of the day, gauging the mood
  • Welcoming people into the office at the start of the day
  • Inviting someone to ‘walk with me…’
  • Sending a brief ‘thank you’ note
  • Strategic coffee making, to coincide with someone you’ve not spoken with in a while
  • Ad hoc coffee room meetings – or better yet, white-board meetings
  • Buying someone a coffee and a bun
  • Walking out with a colleague at lunchtime, to buy lunch
  • A bowl of sweets or a jar of cookies on your desk, to entice people to come and see you

Build and Strengthen Relationships for Great Team Communication

Great communication automatically generates great relationships. And it works the other around too.

And working relationships start from…

Working together

Where you can, get two or three team members to work together on work packages. It helps them assess one another’s talents, builds trust and respect, and leads to professional friendships. Because, ideal work relationships have a human and a professional element.

Build Your own Relationships

Get to know as many staff as possible, in the organizations you work within and with. Learn what their interests are, so you can talk about something other than work. One Sales Director I know, talks about FROGS:

  • Friends (especially shared acquaintances)
  • Relatives (family is important)
  • Organizations (they’ve worked with)
  • Geography (places they’ve lived and worked)
  • Sport and Social activities

Networks over Structures

Hierarchies and cliques disrupt great team working. So try to move people around and give them chances to work with different people and take on different roles. As a result, you’ll get a bonus. This cross-working can also create deep project resilience. If people are away or indisposed, you have options.

Use Great Team Communication for Performance Management

One of your many roles is performance management; getting the best from project team members.


Give team members feedback on their performance. Do it to give them a BOOST. Make it:

  • Balanced between criticism and confirmation
  • Observationally-based
  • Objective – about the behavior; not the person
  • Specific enough for them to take targeted action
  • Timely – so they can still recall what they did
Give your #team #feedback a BOOST: Balanced, Observed, Objective, Specific, Timely Click To Tweet

Wherever possible, weight the balance of your feedback towards praise and encouragement. Poor performance often needs corrective feedback, but that will never move good performance to great performance. For that, you need positive affirmation of successful choices and behaviors. This helps your team member to see how to incorporate what works best into new habits.

Congratulate and thank team members for a job well done. A verbal ‘pat on the back’ from someone we respect is often the most motivating reward of all.


We gain wisdom and deep understanding of our skills through reflection. So, help team members to learn from their experiences. Sometimes the best learning comes from mistakes, but only if you approach them with a spirit of curiosity and enquiry; rather than blame. but likewise, don’t let a success escape scrutiny. It’s all to easy to assume successes are ‘business as usual’. But we can learn from them too:

  • What worked?
  • Why did it work?
  • How can we sysetematize it?
  • How can we improve on it?

These questions are a form of  ‘Appreciative Inquiry’.

Performance Management cuts both ways

Yup, Project Manager; I’m talking about you. Asking for feedback will help you improve your project management, your team leadership, and your own communication skills. Furthermore, it also builds trust and will strengthen your relationship with team members.

Understand the Role of Politics in Great Team Communication

In an earlier article, we concentrated on project politic, so do read Project Politics: How to Win The Game of Projects.

The three most valuable communication-related tips I can offer are:

Build a Strategic Network

Understand and work the network of relationships. First of all, if you treat every communication as an investment, you will realise its value and work at it. And secondly, investments pay back.

Think Long-term

As a result, view each interaction in a long-term perspective. Getting what you want now will sometimes be vital. But mostly, trading this for long-term relationship-building and demonstrating generosity will be more useful.

Do the hard politics

It’s tempting to focus your time on the team members (and stakeholders) who support you. It’s tempting to avoid the hard cases – people who are less supportive. Resist this urge. Instead, try to win them over by finding common ground, and gaining their support.

Don’t let Conflict Spoil Great Team Communication

We have written two big articles on conflict in projects:

  1. Managing Conflict on Projects: Everything You Need to Know | Part 1
  2. Conflict Management: How to Make Things Better | Part 2

So, we shan’t go into this in great detail here. Suffice to say, while conflict can be creative, don’t get drawn into disputes where you can possibly avoid it. Rather, engage in respectful discussion. You may need tat relationship one day. So, try not to burn it.

Great Team Communication is Vital when You are up against it

Crisis time is where great team communication is at its greatest premium. It’s also where you harvest the work you’ve been doing.


When crisis comes, as soon as possible, talk to your team. Let them see that you are in charge of the situation, and you have a plan. Be optimistic and show them you have confidence in a positive outcome. Then, ask them for their support, and start to allocate roles. Clarity and calmness are your allies.

Keep it Optimistic

Be serious yes, but also keep it light. People are under stress, and we never work at our best that way. So find ways to defuse some of the tension. keep people busy with work, so they can feel in control of their part of the project. Stress comes when we feel out of control. Use and encourage humor, to relax people and lighten the mood.

Warm Down

At the end of the crisis situation, it’s easy to breathe a sigh of relief and go home. People need a little time to recognize one another’s stresses, feel their efforts are recognized, and wind down. This is not time for a formal de-brief – that can come later when all the pressure is off and people are rested. But you do need to allow people time to talk and be together, if they choose.

What Would be Your Communication Commandments?

Please share your experiences and ideas below. We’ll respond to every comment.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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