Critical Project Management Skill: Relationship Development

Written by lewsauder

September 25, 2020

Relationship Development

The key function of a project manager is to influence people. The best way to do that is to have strong relationships. Relationship development is important from two major aspects. It is certainly a big short-term benefit on whatever project you are working on. But it has long term benefits throughout your career.

Relationship Development on a Project

Project managers like to complain (or point out at a minimum) that they have all the responsibility and none of the authority. It is true that most of the team members on the project are responsible to you on the project, but usually report to someone else within some other organization.

With so little direct authority, the project manager needs to be able to influence people in some way other than direct authority. In the long run, that is a better form of influence anyway.

It is also important to be able to influence other stakeholders. A Project manager needs to be able to influence business stakeholders to do things they may not have other incentives to do. This is where project relationship development should occur.

Let’s start with the project team. In most projects, you are given a mixed bag of employees and consultants. Some of these employees are pulled from various support teams across the organization. Consultants can be from multiple firms or brought in as independent contractors. Wherever they come from, you may or may not be their direct manager.

It is important to understand with each individual what their motivation is. Understanding their motivations will provide leverage when you want them to do something for the benefit of the project. If you do not have direct influence, you do not have the stick. But if you can provide some incentive that motivates them, you at least have the carrot.

This applies to members on your team as well as with project customers. Although they may have incentives for the project to be completed successfully, performing tasks to help you may not be high on their priority list. Identifying things that each business stakeholder is incentivized by can give you leverage to give project tasks a higher priority.

Developing relationships with each project stakeholder gives you that inside track to their motivations and incentives. In the long run, the carrot is always better than the stick. It gets people to do things willingly rather against their will.

Career Relationship Development

Developing relationships within a single project environment has benefits for sure. Developing them for the long term can be even more critical.

It used to be very common for people to be “lifers” at their company. My father worked at the same company for thirty-eight years from the time he returned from the service until he retired.

That still happens today, but it is much less common. The job market is much more transient, and signs indicate that it will become more so. Independent contractors are nearly the norm in project management. Project Managers have become the nomad of the business world.

With that in mind, it makes sense to continually develop relationships as a project manager. I have spent all of my career in the greater Chicago area. In twenty-five plus years, I have worked in the Chicago loop, western suburbs, south-eastern Wisconsin, North-west Indiana, and many stops in-between.

It has amazed me how many times my path has cross the same people over and over. I can not count how many times I have been on a project at a client and run into people I worked with five or ten years ago.

Burning Bridges

Some of these chance meetings were fun and nostalgic. With a few of them, I have silently said in my head, “Oh, you again.” But every once in a while, the run-in with a negative memory has been someone of influence for my new project. And I was damned glad that back when I knew them, I avoided burning a bridge.

That is often a temptation when you finish a project and move on. When there is someone on a project who has been a total thorn in your side, you might have a desire to tell them off before you walk out the door. You may never expect to run into them again. But you never know when your paths will cross again. It may be when you apply for a job and the interviewer used to work at that organization and knew that person. It only takes one call to find out that you acted unprofessional, even if it was the only time in your career.

The better approach is to connect with that person on LinkedIn. It does not mean you have to meet for coffee every other month and catch up. But if they caused you that much trouble on a project, you might as well reap some benefit of it by connecting to them and using their network to expand yours.

True Relationships

Focusing more on the positive, developing good strong relationships with every person on every project is a great way to strengthen your network. LinkedIn is a powerful tool to keep up to date. As I said, connecting does not mean you have to meet regularly. However, if you are able to find time to do that once in a while, that is a great relationship strengthener.

Moreover, having that link lets you see their posts, like or comment on them and stay in touch. Even if you wish them a happy birthday once a year, you are keeping in touch and staying top of mind. You never know when they might reach out to you for some help. And you might need them down the road as well.


Relationship development is critical for project managers. It helps them influence outcomes that they do not normally have authority to get. It also can be a major career enhancer to have strong relationships long after a project is complete.

How has relationship development helped your project management career?

If you would like to learn more about a career in Project Management, get Lew’s book Project Management 101: 101 Tips for Success in Project Management on Amazon.

Please feel free to provide feedback in the comments section below.

Image courtesy of Chaiwat at

Lew’s Books at Amazon:

Project Management 101
Consulting 101
The Reluctant Mentor

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