The Project Notebook

Building Trust One Day at a Time

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2012, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved
No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission.

Many project managers face a challenge to build trust among the project’s stakeholders, including the team. Some project managers probably have “scars” caused by addressing challenges during a project that would otherwise be ignored, such as inferior vendor quality, project sabotage, and stifling politics. However, in an era where all actions are subject to intense scrutiny, it can be difficult to gain the trust of others.

One of the biggest hurdles in building trust is that many stakeholders expect that project managers are dishonest. In fact, some stakeholders may “set themselves up” for dishonesty. Let’s take a common example. As a part of the planning process, the project manager and the stakeholders construct a Gantt chart. An optimum timeline includes specific tangible deliverables throughout the project along with assigned resources and estimates of elapsed time. While some negotiation is to be expected between the project manager and the stakeholders with regard to total project time, the project manager often will be firmly pressured to reduce the overall time and to ignore critical schedule factors. A project manager who stands steadfast in defending the schedule may be told “If you can’t get this done in the time that we specify, we’ll find someone who will”. Faced with such a threat, a project manager may be tempted to acquiesce to the stakeholders’ demands. When the project actually completes later than the stakeholders insisted, the project manager is accused of “lying” and incurs a negative “trust rating”.

A second hurdle that a project manager may face is that the stakeholders may have had bad experiences with previous project managers. At one time I reported to a manager who liked to “hover” over all of her assigned project managers. Unable to operate effectively in this type of environment, I conducted some research on her previous employees. I learned that she had been “blindsided” on more than one occasion by subordinates who waited until the last minute to inform her of project problems. Thus, her solution was to remain “on top of” every project by constantly touching base with the project managers. I countered her practice by proactively updating her with an emphasis on progress and accomplishments. On the rare occasions that potential problems surfaced, I made certain to have a solution and to provide adequate time for discussion. Ultimately, the manager “backed off” her previous constant surveillance of my projects (but not those of other project managers).

Taking the “high road” to build trust is not easy. It means being able to defend unpopular decisions that have been made for the ultimate good of the project as opposed to satisfying only one stakeholder. It means that project managers must realize that they are highly visible in their leadership roles. Fulfilling promises that are made is crucial. Conversely, promises that cannot be fulfilled should be avoided. At one time I worked with another project manager whose answer to every request was “I’ll look into it”. He operated under the premise that stakeholders would quickly forget their requests. Instead, as stakeholders realized that no action was ever taken on requests, they lost confidence in this project manager, hounded him to resurrect their requests, and ultimately escalated their concerns.

Educating stakeholders is important in fostering their mindsets for understanding why they won’t always “hear what they want to hear” from a project manager. Explaining why a project must take more time, money and/or other resources in terms that stakeholders can understand goes a long way in promoting a shared sense of responsibility for positive project outcomes. Once the “us vs. them” mentality is eliminated, there is less focus on placing blame and more emphasis on teamwork among all who have a vested interest in a project. The project manager needs to continually reinforce an atmosphere of trust by not making “side deals” or avoiding conflict with the hope that it will pass.

A project manager’s actions are ultimately the most visible method that build or destroy trust. It can be disconcerting to realize that one is constantly “under a microscope”. However, it’s a project manager’s role to build and foster trust both for him/herself as well as for the project. Once the stakeholders put trust in a project manager, the project manager’s “trust building” responsibility becomes more of a maintenance effort and less of an uphill battle.

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at

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© 2010-2012 Ray W. Frohnhoefer, MBA, PMP, CCP