Project Status is Subjective: Linguistic and Cognitive Bias

Status reporting is one of the most important functions performed by project managers. The profession strives for objective reporting and metrics. However, by its very nature, status reporting is subjective. To be more effective, project managers should:

  • Accept and recognize that status is subjective;
  • Recognize the signs of linguistic and cognitive bias; and
  • Take affirmative steps to minimize this impact on their projects.

In August 2015, I published, The 5-Point Project Status + 6 Tips for Effective Status Reporting. This article is first in two part series that examines subjectivity in status reporting and offers suggestions for effectively managing status.

Let’s take a quick quiz: When should the progress of a project deliverable be considered behind schedule?

  • When the due date has passed and the deliverable is not complete.
  • When the due date has passed, the deliverable is complete, but approvals are pending.
  • Based on the current progress, it is highly unlikely the task will be completed before it’s due.
  • All of the above.
  • It depends.

The correct answers are D (all of the above) and E (it depends). All answers could be correct and it depends on how “complete” is defined.

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth” – Marcus Aurelius

 Linguistic Subjectivity

The way we use language and choose to collect and present data affects how status is reported and understood. Many seemingly objective terms really have imprecise meanings. When do tasks really start or finish? What is done?

These linguistic challenges can be overcome by establishing a common understanding within the project team and its stakeholders:

  • Teams should establish clear ground rules during their forming phase. The rules should include establishing a lingua franca and common, shared definitions for key project terms.
  • Critical project transition points (e.g., starting testing, accepting the product, etc.) should have clear entry and/or exit criteria so everyone understands what is meant by done.

Project managers may also unknowingly introduce bias into their status reporting by using words or phrases that carry emotional connections. For example, the words “late” and “behind schedule” may produce different responses. Project managers with high emotional intelligence will recognize how language and word choice affect their stakeholders. A thorough stakeholder analysis should include an assessment of the stakeholders’ communication styles and emotional triggers.

Cognitive Bias

Psychology and behavioral economics have documented the impact of cognitive bias on how people process information and make decisions. These lessons can be applied to project management. Common sources of cognitive bias include:

  • Sunk Cost Fallacy and Escalating Commitment: Continuing to invest in a project that is unlikely to succeed.
  • Over Confidence and Confirmation Bias: Exhibiting a level of confidence not supported by fact or the tendency to find or interpret facts that support existing beliefs.
  • Illusion of Control: Leaders believing they have greater control over a situation than they actually do.
  • Groupthink: Group members over-valuing team harmony; this often results in poor or dysfunctional decision-making.
  • Available Data and Sampling Bias: Restricting analysis to data that is readily available, convenient, or supports a specific point of view.
  • Semmelweis Reflex and Conservatism: Failing to consider new or negative information.

Cognitive bias can affect the team’s perception of risks, progress, and capabilities. Highly effective project managers will expose these biases and take steps to reduce their impact by:

  • Proactively monitoring the team dynamics and addressing early signs of cognitive bias.
  • Facilitating direct conversations with the project team and stakeholders about potential biases and the impact on the project.
  • Encouraging multiple points of view when discussing critical issues or risks.
  • Creating a constructive outlet for dissenting points of view.
  • Maintaining structure and rigor when identifying, assessing, and reviewing project risks and issues.
  • Respecting and reporting data that does not support the prevailing point of view. Often negative data is dismissed as an outlier or aberration—analyze these data points and faithfully test that hypothesis.

Presentation Bias

The Yale professor, Edward Tufte, has researched the impact of how information is presented on subsequent decisions. He is critical of common PowerPoint presentations practices where critical information is poorly portrayed and complex ideas are relegated to often-unread sub-bullets. Such practices have contributed to disastrous outcomes, including the fateful decision to launch the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.

The items included in the status reporting and their order of presentation can impact communication. Does the status report include more items about accomplishments or risks? Are issues presented first, thereby dominating the status meeting? Or, is “bad news” the last agenda item to minimize its airtime? Thoughtful project managers will tailor their messaging to portray a well-composed view of status.

Project status reporting is unconsciously subjective and biased. Our perspective, the language we use, and the way we present information can unknowingly introduce bias into how we communicate project status. Recognizing and accepting the inherent limitations and biases in conventional status reporting techniques is the first step to improving our practice.

In Part 2—I discuss how common status metrics are biased and present recommendations to avoid measurement pitfalls.

© 2016, Alan Zucker, Project Management Essentials, LLC


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Zucker, A. (2015, August 1). The 5-Point Project Status 6 Tips for Effective Status Reporting. Retrieved January 4, 2016, from