Here’s the dilemma: when it comes to client relationships, there are two seemingly opposing approaches to making projects go smoothly. On one hand, you can develop strong personal relationships with your clients and let love rule. Unfortunately, this often becomes problematic when difficult conversations around deadlines or budget are needed; the project often suffers as we strive to avoid conflict. On the other hand, you can be a hard-ass, set firm boundaries, and drive it home without concern for friendship or joy. The problem here is that it’s not a very fun approach for either party, and even if you deliver a successful project, the client may never want to work with you again.

It’s the same quandary any new parent faces. Of course you want your kid to love you, but the mother or father who doesn’t set boundaries with their children will face many more parenting challenges down the road. The good news is that somehow, (good) parents manage to pull it off. They set boundaries, they enforce rules… and their kids still love them. (Most of the time.

So let’s do that: let’s do both. The foundation for both sides of this equation is set in the very first meeting with your client: the kickoff. This most typically takes the form of a single event, but I’d like to suggest splitting things into two separate meetings:

  1. An informal meet and greet to establish first impressions and rapport. This meeting should be relaxed and enjoyable and set the tone for your future relationship.
  2. A formal project kickoff to set rules, expectations, and boundaries. This one is a lot less fun but no less important. It sets the parameters of the working environment the rest of the way.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on with both:

Informal Meet & Greet
We all know that first impressions are important, but there are even stronger reasons why this is the case in project work.

Your brain is evolutionarily designed to react to threats. Originally, this applied to predators and enemies, but all that wiring is still in there. Now when you start a new project with new clients, your brain registers uncertainty and fear. The result is that you naturally view the people on the other side of the table as a threat: enemies. And hey – they’re probably thinking the same. Not a good start.

Many PMs are quite happy to accept this adversarial relationship as a fact of life and just try to do their best. Well that’s just dumb. It creates barriers, there’s less collaboration, less openness to ideas and change, and general unpleasantness. Conflict increases, overall communication decreases, and project outcomes generally get worse. We need to kill all of that stuff right fast.

How? Quite simply, get them to like you. Psychologist Robert Cialdini discusses five factors of likeability in his book entitled Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion:

  1. Physical attractiveness – Congratulations if you have this going for you. For the rest of us, it comes down to brushing our teeth and dressing nicely.
  2. Similarity – People like others who are similar to them and are wary of those who are different. Find some common ground and connect. Almost any topic will do: personal background, opinions, interests, etc.
  3. Compliments – People also like people who like them. An easy way to take the first step is with compliments. So go ahead and give some, but make sure they’re genuine. False flattery will backfire.
  4. Contact and Cooperation – This one boils down to positive familiarity, which is a bit tricky if you’re just meeting for the first time. Meeting face-to-face is a great start. You’ll have to build on this later with things like mutual goal setting and cooperative problem solving.
  5. Conditioning and Association – This one involves a bit of practical psychology: connecting yourself with positive associations. One way you can do this early is by talking about your previous (successful) projects; go ahead and name drop! Another is by utilizing what psychologist Gregory Razran called the Luncheon Technique. The idea behind this is that  if you meet over a good meal, a subconscious positive association is formed. Food is power.

With these ideas in mind, I propose a casual affair, perhaps at a restaurant. There’s no formal agenda here – it’s just about meeting everyone, getting to know each other, and finding some common ground. Talk about sports, their hometown, cats – I don’t care. Use the techniques above to create a good first impression, build some rapport, and set a positive tone for all future interactions.

Setting Expectations & Boundaries
OK, hopefully they really like you by now because it’s about to get real. You see, this isn’t a nice, fun meeting; this is where you lay out all the hard facts and set realistic expectations for how the rest of the project will go. The agenda here might include:

  • Project goals and success metrics
  • Project requirements (everything you’re going to do and how)
  • Out of scope items
  • Schedule and budget review
  • Issues and risks
  • Change process
  • Communication protocols (point of contact/signoff authority, status reporting, etc.)
  • Client responsibilities and deadlines
  • Anything else that might cause grief later

This looks like an outline for a terrible meeting, true. Have no fear, though – this won’t ruin everything you’ve built so far. In fact, you’ll be laying the groundwork for long-term project happiness.

There are two psychological principles that make this work.

  1. First, people are OK with some unpleasantness as long as it gets better and ends well.
    This was demonstrated nicely by psychologist Daniel Kahneman in what he calls the “cold hand situation.” In this experiment, people put their hands in very cold water for 60 seconds, then got a break to warm up. Next, they repeated the exercise – this time for the same 60 seconds, followed by a slightly warmer additional 30 seconds. Afterwards, they were asked which experience they would prefer to repeat. Surprisingly, 80% opted for the longer version. How does this make any sense? It’s because the brain likes experiences that improve over time. It forgets the earlier discomfort and recalls only how it ended. If this still sounds crazy, recognize that you probably do it too. Think about anything that you pay for up front, like all-inclusive vacations or subscriptions.
  2. The second principle is called hedonic adaptation: the theory that even when one’s life circumstances change (for better or worse), people tend to adapt to the situation and return to their default level of happiness. A 1978 study of lottery winners and paraplegics in the 1970s demonstrated this to be the case in even the most extreme situations. Hopefully, our project environment isn’t quite so drastic as that. In any case, by setting expectations and ground rules up front, the client gets used to working in this way and it becomes the new norm.

In order for these principles to work, you have to set them in motion right from the start. Be firm at the beginning of the project: find opportunities early to enforce the boundaries you’ve set and establish a precedent. And don’t worry too much about souring everything with this. These painful parts won’t seem so bad at this stage because everyone is still excited about the new project at this point. Plus, you’re still being likeable, right?

(Side note: As per the peak-end rule, you don’t want issues throughout the project to become highlights (lowlights?) of the whole project. Nor do you want to end off the project in conflict. By following the advice in this article, most bad surprises are eliminated and other potentially sticky situations are dealt with as a matter of course.)

If you focus separately on the two goals of being likable and setting expectations and boundaries, you can achieve the best of both worlds: a friendly, cooperative relationship, but with effective project guidelines. The result will be smoother sailing the rest of the way.


Carson has been doing the digital project management thing for over a decade now, and still loves every minute. After hours, Carson listens to music no one else likes, plays hockey poorly, and co-runs the DPM Edmonton Meetup.

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