What does it take to be an excellent project manager? While degrees and certifications and/or the ability to carry out daily tasks and responsibilities are important, being a highly effective project manager isn’t simply about deliverables, meeting deadlines, or having technical know-how. Some of the most important skills a project manager can have are “soft skills.” These are the interpersonal skills that will help your team members to feel valued, heard, and motivated in order to help your project succeed.
The term “soft skills” might sound a little, well, soft, but these skills will have a big impact on your project. In today’s ever-changing project landscape, soft skills are more important than ever. These skills help you create positive relationships with and among team members, keep things afloat when a project shifts directions or runs into difficulties, and ensure that your project runs smoothly from start to finish.
Here are five of the most important interpersonal skills every project manager should have.
As a project manager, you work with a lot of different people: team members, project sponsors, vendors, and clients. You’ve got a long list of stakeholders to keep updated and, hopefully, relatively happy.
When you have so many people to manage and so many different ways to communicate (i.e., email, video conferences, face-to-face meetings), good communication skills are key. Most PMs understand that poor communication can derail a project. In order for a project to succeed, you need to ensure that everyone is on the same page, working toward the same goal(s), and kept in the loop about any issues and changes. This is easier said than done, particularly when it requires you to communicate with people at different levels and switch your communication style and content to fit the specific person you are speaking with.
Regardless of who you are talking to, the best way to be a great communicator is to listena nd ask questions. Whether you’re in a meeting with a team member 1-1 or chairing a project update meeting with several stakeholders, listening is one of the most important things you can do. Ask the right questions, and pick up on what is being said and not being said. With a deep understanding of the situation and people at hand, you’ll get a handle on how your team members are feeling about the project and be in a better position to problem-solve when issues pop up.
Learning how to effectively provide feedback is equally important. Feedback or constructive criticism can improve performance, as long as it is offered in a specific, action-based way.
As a PM, you may feel like you’re talking all day, every day, and may feel a bit overwhelmed by the number of meetings and conversations you are engaging in. Centralizing your communications can help streamline the process. Using a project management tool can help by providing you with a central place for all of your updates and discussions at both the task and project level. Centralizing communications can help you keep your focus on what matters most: getting the work done.
Most of us use negotiation skills daily in a variety of personal and professional settings. Successful project managers develop their negotiation talents to quickly and effectively find common ground amongst team members. This allows them to reach agreements efficiently, particularly when conflicts arise.
Negotiation can be thought of as a formalized discussion aimed at resolving issues that come up between team members, stakeholders, vendors, etc. As a PM, part of your role involves negotiating scenarios and working closely with others to find mutually agreeable solutions to a shared problem. Negotiation typically goes beyond one discussion: it also involves execution. You first need to ensure that everyone feels heard and is on the same page. Then, follow-up to make certain all parties are doing their part and satisfied with the outcome.
Remember that good negotiators know — in most cases — that every issue requires some give and take. Compromise is important, and project managers who are willing to negotiate with various team members and stakeholders are typically seen as fair and respectful. Strive to be open-minded and flexible when it comes to managing conflict throughout the life of your project.
Cool under Pressure
As a project manager, you’re likely to find yourself in the “hot seat” for a number of high-pressure situations. Difficult conversations with stakeholders, approaching deadlines, things not going according to plan are all commonplace for many of us. You need to not just survive the chaos of running a project, but be able to thrive in it. The best way to do this is remaining cool under pressure or unflappable.
Project managers must be able to make judgement calls under pressure. Thinking on your feet and coming up with creative situations while keeping the team members positive on track requires a calm, level head.
How does one hone the skill of “unflappability”? Be self aware. Understand what triggers your stress. Maybe you find it easy to provide constructive criticism, but struggle to remain calm when deadlines are approaching. Understanding your own pressure points will help you plan ahead to know how to deal with issues when they pop up. Of course, you’re human and you’re likely to get stressed from time to time. The next time you’re faced with a situation that has you frazzled, use it to your advantage and learn from it. Reflect on how you responded in the moment: What occurred? How did you react? What do you think you could have done better? What would you do differently next time?
Even the most beautifully detailed, thought-out project plans can be derailed. Project managers know that no matter how sharply honed our organization skills are, unpredicted issues are bound to pop up. Issues can happen for reasons that are out of your control, stakeholder demands, team member interpersonal issues, vendor delays, etc., and changing direction is often required to get the desired outcome. The most adaptable project managers aren’t afraid to change course when needed.
Adaptability is one of the most important interpersonal skills you can have as PM. Knowing how to flexibly respond to change without sacrificing the whole project plan doesn’t mean that problems will magically disappear. It does mean; however, that you’ll minimize the fallout and steer the project back to where it needs to be. Of course, anticipating pitfalls ahead of time can help. Adaptability can be learned with practice; preparation for contingencies when things don’t go as planned can be helpful when issues arise.
The terms “project manager” and “leadership” go hand in hand, but what makes a good leader? PMs who are effective leaders can motivate, inspire, and moderate when required. Leadership as a PM involves showing grace in stressful situations, maintaining flexibility for team members when required, and ensuring that project’s values and vision are adhered to. Good leaders also encourage a supportive work culture by encouraging professional development for individuals, as well team building with all members of the project.
As you lead, incorporate other interpersonal skills: communicate the project goal clearly, relate to your team members with understanding and empathy, steer the project to success through the sometimes-rocky periods, and inspire your team members to work toward a shared goal. Giving feedback and constructive criticism comes part and parcel with the job, too.
Leadership skill grows with time and experience. There’s no “one size fits all” to be a good leader, but generally speaking, a PM needs to be able to understand what it takes to motivate their team, keep everyone working cohesively, and use their own unique competencies to meet project goals. If you’re looking to hone your leadership skills, seek out mentorship from a senior PM or other leader in a similar industry.
Soft skills are just as important as technical know-how. PMs can develop these skills over time with a commitment to personal and professional development. The best way to achieve these “must have” interpersonal soft skills is by putting them into practice every day. As with most things, self-awareness is key, too. Seek out opportunities to develop and learn these skills throughout your career. Work to hone your soft skills, and you’ll find they soon become your strengths, guiding the way through every project you take on.