Project Management Soft Skills Defined: Emotional Intelligence

Illud iterum dicere potes!
I’ve had a number of discussions, with some of the best project managers I know, as we discuss ways to simplify methodologies and streamline our delivery process. Many organizations are trying to train their next generation of project managers, and all seem to run into the same basic problem. You can hand someone the PMBOK, teach them how to use MS Project, and send them off to PMI certification classes – but that doesn’t guarantee an effective project manager. The toughest thing to train is the “soft skills” – how to get things done through other people without being able to tell them what to do.

Typically, when this topic comes up in conversation, folks understand what you’re trying to say, but we all have a tough time verbalizing exactly what kind of training or special knowledge is missing … the stuff you can’t get from a book … the stuff you only get from experience …

I’ve been beating my head against this wall for a long time, but I think I’ve found a way to characterize these PM “soft skills”. Recently, I went through a “360 feedback” exercise at work; the objective was to develop leadership skills, and one of the follow-up readings was an article from the Harvard Business Review by Daniel GolemanWhat Makes a Leader? This is one reprint that’s actually worth ordering – a short summary of Goleman’s book on Emotional Intelligence. It’s directed towards the development of business leaders, but the key components of Emotional Intelligence do a pretty good job of capturing those critical “soft skills” that effective PMs need. (More here, and here.)

(Components from the HBR article … the comments are my own …)

The Five Components of Emotional Intelligence (applied to Project Management)

Self-Awareness: the ability to recognize and understand your moods and emotions and drives as well as their effect on other

When you’re struggling through difficult design decisions or change management issues, a good project manager needs to separate personal opinion from the discussion at hand. You need to pay attention to how you’re coming across to the project team, especially when you’re trying to get them to go that extra mile, make that critical deadline. The objective is to get to the best decision, not to advocate your personal opinion.

Self-Regulation: The ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods; the propensity to spend suspended judgment to think before acting

The PM needs to be the voice of reason when deadlines get tight and project meetings get a bit tense – especially when dealing with functional resources that don’t typically think in project terms (some folks are more comfortable with ongoing, repeating process, not tasks that come to an end).

Motivation: A passion to work for reasons that go beyond money or status; a propensity to pursue goals with energy and persistence

Projects, by definition, end. From the onset, the project manager has one underlying objective – to eliminate their own job by getting the project done. It takes a certain amount of vision and self-confidence to become comfortable with reinventing yourself every few months. Also, there is right way and a wrong way when it comes to persistence (follow up and follow through); when working with a frazzled team, this can be a bit of an art.

Empathy: The ability to understand emotional makeup of other people; skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions

People call these “soft skills” for good reason; there aren’t many checklists to walk you through the conversation when trying to figure out why your lead programmer is threatening to bolt over a minor change in requirements … or why your business process owner is holding out for (what the rest of the team thinks is) an unrealistic requirement. It’s tough, taking people out of their comfort zone, introducing change, asking folks to create something out of nothing; the empathetic PM can relate to how people feel, while still figuring out how to get them to do what needs doing. You must always give people credit for having a working brain, relevant experience, interesting opinions and valid feelings. Don’t treat people like robots or wrenches … even if they are coin-operated contractors …

Social Skill: Proficiency in managing relationships and building networks; an ability to find common ground and build rapport

Projects come and go, but the key contributors on this year’s team are, for the most part, the same folks that were with you last year, and will be with you next year. It’s a lot easier to have the tough conversations with folks that respect you for having a working brain, relevant experience, interesting opinions and valid feelings (deja vu …). Projects end, but relationships continue and deepen. Besides, it’s a great reason to expense a couple of lunches … I’m a fan of Chicago style hot dogs, deep dish pizza, and “breakfast for lunch” (mmm, pancakes), by the way.

I’ve just brushed over the highlights of Goldman’s work. For me, today’s success was just realizing that there just might be a reasonable framework for identifying categorizing and developing those sought-after PM soft skills.

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James MacLennan

... is the Managing Partner at Maker Turtle LLC, a digital consultancy focused on creating value in ways that align with your strategy and drive engagement with employees, customers, and stakeholders. He is an active creator, providing thought leadership through on-line & print publications, and public speaking / keynotes.