How to Build Trust with Your Project Manager


PM Trudeau brilliantly outmaneuvers Pres. Trump’s unpredictable handshake style. (Feb 13)

Are you an instructional designer? Are you’re getting stepped on by your project manager (PM) at work? Begin the process of receiving the respect you deserve by developing trust with your PM. Below is an example of a (slightly manipulative) process that instructional designers (IDs) with < 10 years in the field can use to build trust with their project managers:

  1. Speak up. Take mental ownership of your part of the business relationship. Don’t blame your project manager for your unhappiness. A new study by VitalSmarts suggests that you’re the one to blame for your co-workers bad behavior (infographic). If your relationship lacks trust, don’t just dismiss it by saying things like, “if she would only…” or “if he wouldn’t always…”. This festering distrust is an obstacle to your personal productivity and happiness. Furthermore, it’s responsibility to deal with it. To resolve the issue once and for all, Kerry Patterson (one of the founders of VitalSmarts) would tell you to speak up honestly, directly and professionally. Consider following his dos and don’ts to help navigate that conversation.
  2. Survive. In highly-effective teams and relationships, people are open to giving and receiving input from other team members. Ego and competition take a backseat to shared vision and synergy. However, this ideal is unlikely to exist at your job. (Apologies for my cynicism, but am I wrong?) If you have already observed distrust among team members, especially with your PM, and haven’t yet had an opportunity to follow step one,  do it asap. In the mean time, lay the groundwork for speaking up by laying low and following a self-preservation strategy. While this suggestion may seem contradictory to the first step, it’s only temporary and can prevent disastrous clashes between you and your PM. By submitting to “the man’s” will you demonstrate your humility and dependability as an employee. You put the PM at ease and prime the pump for your PM to be emotionally prepared to have that crucial conversation. Remember, at the end of the day it’s the PM’s job to make sure team projects run smoothly. The theory of psychological egoism suggests that your PM doesn’t care about you—only that you do your job. Let the PM do his/her job just as they expect you to do yours and you’ll survive the short term.
  3. Under-Promise & Over-Deliver (UPOD). At some point, you’ll be approached by your PM regarding project parameters (scope, schedule, budget). Typically, the PM will consult you on project estimates. Occasionally, you may be afforded the luxury of tagging along with the PM and offer input at a scoping meeting with the client. In these cases, remember to UPOD—especially in either the schedule and budget categories. Don’t mess with the scope at all for the first three projects you work on together. When terms are handed down to the PM by the client, it’s may be the result of having previously blown one or more of those expectations. It could also simply be due to normal external pressures.
  4. Request Feedback. Once you have made the PM/point-of-contact (POC) look good on a number of occasions, ask them for the client’s feedback on past projects if it hasn’t already been offered. (PMs who are effective leaders quickly passed along kudos. Less-effective ones will gobble the glory for themselves, while the efforts of the content creators go unappreciated. It happens. Be ready for that. Then find a professional way to deal with it.) Regardless of your PM’s personality, the feedback past projects should be good as long as you are delivering as expected.
  5. Plant Seeds. At this point, start planting seeds that you might have some scope improvements for future projects that the clients might love even more. Do this by citing how you could have made the changes to previous projects.  Spin it as if you had just thought of the idea and haven’t been stewing about all along. With the PM fantasizing about the accolades he/she (or you all) will receive, you’ve got them primed for the next big step.
  6. Speak up (ver. 2). The next time a suggestion for a project improvement occurs to you, bring it immediately to the PM/clientPOC and get the green light. Remember to emphasize that your suggestion won’t negatively effect the schedule or budget. If they shut you down, bide your time. Never go rogue. Patiently continue to UPOD. If you do manage to convince them, your moment of truth has arrived. Don’t blow it.
  7. Take Small Bites. Now that you have your PM’s ear, combat the temptation to over contribute. This fragile peace you’ve established with the PM requires careful cultivation. Rinse and repeat over a few more projects until you have solidify your PM/client’s trust. I’ve seen this only a few times in my career, but when it happens it’s a beautiful thing. Your PM/POC will come to you and say, “your last project was a smash hit! We want to give you complete creative control on this next project.” (Resist thinking, “well, if you had handed over design control to the person in the company with the degree—me—in the first place, we could have all gotten here sooner!” Rather, simply revel in the moment. It may not come again for a while.)
  8. Synergy. Once the flood gates have opened, that’s when you will be invited to needs analysis meetings and actually listened to when you offer suggestions like, “we need to gather additional data.”

dysfunctiondemotivator_grandeTL;DR — The more trust you earn, the more creative control the PM/clientPOC will relinquish for future projects. Only after customers are convinced that you can make them look good are they willing to be open to your crazy, new ideas from a project’s inception.


About bryantanner

I'm obsessed with learning via the appropriate technology. My professional mission is to effectively deliver instruction to learners in a way that yields the greatest results for all stakeholders involved.
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One Response to How to Build Trust with Your Project Manager

  1. Pingback: When Needs Analysis Fails: Five Simple Fixes for Instructional Designers | Anytime. Anyplace. Learning.

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