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  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

Project Communications Part 11 – Communication and Ethics

Project, Program, Portfolio
Ethical Communications Requires Using the Right Technique!

“What is the difference between unethical and ethical advertising? Unethical advertising uses falsehoods to deceive the public; ethical advertising uses truth to deceive the public.” Vilhjalmur Stefansson

“Stripped of ethical rationalizations and philosophical pretensions, a crime is anything that a group in power chooses to prohibit.” Freda Adler

What is the purpose of “communication”? A simple answer would be to share data between individuals, but that is a very simplistic view. A better question would be "what are you trying to accomplish with communications?" That is a much more nuanced question because it speaks to the intent of the communicator!

For project managers, ethics should be a prime consideration when determining what is to be communicated and how. The purpose of communication for projects is to inform the right stakeholders of the true status of the project as soon as that status is known. The project manager is to develop a Communications Management plan that does exactly that, and to fail to do so is to be in violation of the PMI® ethical standards. If you are interested in a more detailed discussion of those standards, please see my YouTube Channel by clicking on either the Instructional Video tab or the YouTube icon above.

While it may appear that honest communication about the status of a project would be an obvious activity, I have seen many project managers fall short for a variety of reasons:

  • Flooding stakeholders with information. In my last post I discussed the RACI Matrix and how that can be used to more discretely identify stakeholders and what their communication needs are. It takes work to maintain different communication streams, and sometimes project managers default to a “shotgun” approach – sending everything to everyone.

  • Plausible deniability as a communication strategy. I have seen two different versions of this. The first is to bury bad information deep in the bowels of a presentation with the hope that it isn’t noticed. This is very close to lying. The second is often used by management to document that an employee knows about something (think yearly briefings in your organization). If the employee violates a rule, management can pull out their briefing and say “see, you knew you weren’t supposed to do that!”

  • Excessive number of communications. This is different than flooding stakeholders with information and is really flooding stakeholders with non-information. Think of a daily email that never says anything important suddenly conveying something important. Very likely you will miss it!

  • The wrong communication method. A great example is using a push method to gather information and encourage interaction. Another example is a conference call (normally an interactive method) with controls in place so that any question must submitted and vetted rather than risk an actual discussion.

  • Hope. Hope can be the project managers greatest obstacle to communication! The project is behind schedule, but the project manager hopes productivity will increase so they fail to report. No need to alarm people for no reason! The funding didn’t come through, but they are hopeful they can get funds elsewhere. The requirements are proving more difficult than imagined, but they hope the team can work it out. And on and on. A project manager can’t be hopeful, they need to be honest with their team and with themselves.

The purpose of communication in a project is to share the absolute truth about the status of the project with the right stakeholders are the right time. It is the project managers responsibility to make sure that happens.

Next, I’ll bring it all together and close out this series.


The notion of “plausible deniability” in communications is an interesting one. Large organizations us it to indemnify themselves against criticism when they are responsible for complex work and their employees operate within a web of byzantine rules and policies that have accumulated over time. They normally develop some sort of mandatory certification process so they can assure themselves that the employees have been trained and can hold people accountable if they commit an infraction. That sets up the question “why did you do this thing when you clearly received the training?” I think a better way of approaching the issue is to spend time setting up an ethical system. I once had a philosophy teacher say that any system where a reasonable person can get in trouble for doing a reasonable thing based on reasonable assumptions is not an ethical system. I find that hard to argue with.


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