11 Essential Soft-skills That Make a Project Manager


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Soft skills

Recall from this post what project manager must need – the project management knowledge, to be able to perform using this knowledge and personal skills to deal with people involved with the project. While PMBOK®’s 47 processes provide the required knowledge, application of this knowledge delivers performance. Below are 11 soft skills essential for success as a project manager.

1. Leadership

“Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.”
– Peter Drucker

Leadership is an essential characteristic of project manager. PMBOK® defines leadership as ‘the ability to get things done through others’. In a good way, actually. By inspiring people to do the work. By making people wanting to do the work. This is typically done by conveying the vision of the project and the value that team members will be creating by successfully completing the project.

Leadership is all about effectively conveying the big picture and inspiring team to achieve the goal.

Taking the example of University project from Acquire Project Team process , make each team members realize that they are part of the solution that impact several hundred thousand people year on year in getting through college. Such visibility will bring in holistic approach and team members will be able to work around the issues on the project to achieve common goal of the project.

Leadership is also about showing people how they can achieve their own objectives by aligning themselves to the project’s objectives. If a senior engineer on the team has a career goal to be an architect showing him that getting involved in the design phase, putting in the additional effort to acquire required knowledge and contributing can help him grow into that role.

Click here to read about differences between a Manager and a Leader!

2. Team building

“None of us is as smart as all of us.” – Ken Blanchard

A project involves different people such as customer, sponsor, vendor, consultant, PMO, quality assurance team, and management. The core team that does project work interacts with most of these people, and more importantly with each other on the team day after day. It is important that team members feel safe, collaborate well and trust each other. The goal of team building exercises is to develop a project environment that helps people bond with each other.

Sharing information, involving people in decision making, keeping the team in the know-how of customer’s business related news, keeping open both upward (with management) and downward (with subordinates) communication channels, resolving conflicts in a timely and fair manner, protecting team members from external disturbances are some of the actions a project manager do in this regard.

Project manager can also showcase team’s good work on public platforms such as all-hands meeting in the organization to make team feel proud of the work they are doing as a unit. Highlighting customer appreciation team has got, and specific recognition or rewards received are also good ways to make the team feel important.

A team that gels well will have its members helping each other during tough times and sail ahead.

3. Motivation

“Motivation will almost always beat mere talent”
– Norman Augustine

When people know that their work is making a difference – to the customer, end users, company, as well as themselves – they stay motivated. People have various personal and professional needs and goals, and they need to be satisfied on that front. For some people it may be about financial compensation, for some it is sense of accomplishment by doing challenging work, for some it could be hierarchical growth and for others it could be getting recognition of their hard work. Knowing what motivates each of your team members and helping them get those things will keep the team motivated.

Read about the 5 motivational theories you must know and practice, here!

4. Communication

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
– George Bernard Shaw

While good communication seems easier to achieve, it can create lot of issues on the project.

Communication is a two way street. Open and honest communication from top-down will ensure the same bottom-up. Which means to say that when project manager communicates decisions and information transparently with the team, team members feels comfortable about opening up with the manager about their concerns, issues and even provide constructive suggestions. Open communication practice builds mutual trust amongst team members.

According to a web poll conducted by CompTIA, nearly 28% of more than 1000 respondents said that poor communication is the number one reason causing IT projects to fail!.

Project manager should identify efficient communication channels with each of the stakeholders, keep cultural differences in perspective and communicate information on a regular basis.

Active Listening

This is a communication technique where listener gives constant feedback to the speaker, by re-stating what they have understood. This way both speaker and listener make sure that the message has been communicated as intended.

To practice active listening the listener should overcome the urge to ‘waiting to speak’ and instead focus on really understanding what is being spoken, and channelize her energies to relay back the communicated information by phrasing in their own words.

Degrees of Active Listening

5. Influencing

“Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”
― Albert Schweitzer

Influencing is about using your relationship with team members effectively to ensure they collaborate and cooperate well on making right decisions and achieving project goals.

First and easiest way to influence team members is to lead by example. If you expect team to turn up early for work start doing it yourself. If you expect team to not cut corners, subtly show instances where you went that extra mile to finish some work where cutting corners was easy and nobody would have noticed. Being subtle is the key, else people may take you as show-off.

Keep team’s interest in mind while making decisions and let them know. When decisions do not go in their favor, they would respect you for your effort.

Click here to read about 5 types of power a project manager must know!

6. Decision making

“Decision is a sharp knife that cuts clean and straight; indecision, a dull one that hacks and tears and leaves ragged edges behind it.”
– Gordon Graham

Decision making is about how does a project manager goes about handling issues on the project. These are few basic techniques in decision-making:

  • Command – this type of decision making is authoritative. Project manager’s decision is final, and team is expected to follow it.
  • Consultation – is when you consult your team members and stakeholders and then take the most rational decision in the best interest of the project.
  • Consensus – means that a decision that appeals to the majority of the team is taken. This may not be the best way to make – means that a decision that appeals to the majority of the team is taken. This may not be the best way to make decision because decision of majority may not necessarily be in the best interest of the project.
  • Coin-flip (random decision) – this is the least preferred one and best avoided. Decisions made using this technique do not generally gain respect of team members, since there is no reasoning involved.

Time constraints, trust, quality and acceptance are four contributing factors to decision style.

The other option to making decision is to follow six-phase decision-making model:

  1. Define problem in a clear and concise way
  2. Brainstorm multiple solutions and ensure that decision is not arrived in haste
  3. Define evaluation criteria, explore pros and cons of each of the alternative solutions, choose the best solution
  4. Figure out who are involved in implementing solution and who gets affected, involve them to gain acceptance of this solution
  5. After implementing the solution, analyze, evaluate and list lessons learned
  6. Evaluate to what extent project objective was achieved by this solution

7. Political and cultural awareness

Many a teams have geographically separate team (virtual teams) and/or teams that is co-located but consists of people from different cultural backgrounds. Knowing each team members and their backgrounds helps project manager to communicate in a fashion that makes it easier for the members. When people from different countries work together, project manager should understand their way of working, and the environments that they feel most comfortable working with.

Project politics can be positive or negative factor for the team. Project manager should ensure that authority is used skillfully and in a right manner by self and other senior members on the team.

8. Negotiation negotiation

“Negotiation means getting the best of your opponent.”
– Marvin Gaye

Negotiation is a good conflict resolution skill. While there are issues on the project you as a project manager should ensure that you listen to both the parties and make decisions in a fair and just manner. And that both parties know about this.

While negotiating it may not be always possible to please both parties. Attempt for a win-win situation to both parties, where each one is able to compromise to certain extent in order to come to a resolution.

Listening, stating, and articulating problems might themselves present solutions, which neither parties could have considered earlier. It is important to NOT take sides while negotiating and be fair and just in arriving at a resolution.

9. Trust building

A true leader is the one who earns his team’s trust, and can trust his team without a doubt in his mind.

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”
― Ernest Hemingway

A leader can earn trust by sharing information with team, being transparent about decisions, getting people involved in decision-making process, being genuinely interested in team members’ growth and by helping people achieve their goals.

A leader also need to be able to communicate straight, without beating the bush, and be receptive to team member’s suggestions and concerns. Listening to their concerns, empathizing with them and making earnest attempt to solve their problems will also give you team members’ trust, even if you are not able to solve some of their issues.

 10. Coaching

 “A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.”
― John Wooden

Coaching is about helping team member discover their own potential and elevate themselves from their current position of skill level to next position.

Coaching includes counseling to help people change their mindset about a situation and help perform better.

Coaching can be a great motivator for team members. Knowing that they are being helped by an expert makes them take those additional steps to achieve their goals. Coaching can produce amazing results and you would see that most of world-class sportspeople have coaches who help them achieve extraordinary results. While training is focused more on increasing a specific skill level, coaching deals with increasing skill level as well as overcoming one’s own mental ghosts and self-doubt to excel in their field.

11. Conflict management

“The better able team members are to engage, speak, listen, hear, interpret, and respond constructively, the more likely their teams are to leverage conflict rather than be leveled by it.”

― Runde and Flanagan

Conflicts are part of any system, more so when people are involved. Conflict management might easily be one of the core skills a project manager must master in order to manage projects well.

There can be zillion reasons for a conflict to surface on project team – competition to get a scarce resource, communication gaps, unclear requirements, system downtime, personnel policies, and so on.

If managed well a conflicting situation can bring together people and make them more focused towards achieving project objectives.

Refer to the detailed conflict management lesson to understand more about conflicts and techniques to manage them well.

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