Soft Skills For Project Managers


Key Skills For Project Managers

Often the difference between the project that succeeds and the project that fails is the leadership of the project manager. Each project team is a group of individuals who needs motivation and coordination. Planning is vital, but the ability to adapt to changes and work with people to overcome challenges is just as necessary. A project manager must master the skills that are necessary to be successful in this environment. The unique and temporary nature of projects creates a work environment that mandates a different management approach from that used by an operations manager.

Operations Managers

One way to improve understanding of project management is to contrast project management with operations management. All operations managers are charged with efficiently and effectively achieving the purpose of the organization.

Typically, managers of economic organizations focus on maximizing profits and stockholder value; leaders of socio-religious organizations focus on effective and efficient delivery of a service to a community or constituency; and governmental managers are focused on meeting goals established by government leaders. For our purposes, each of these managers would be deemed the “operations manager”.

More effective work processes will produce a better product or service, and a more efficient work process will reduce costs. Operations managers analyze work processes and explore opportunities to make improvements.

Operations managers are process focused, oriented toward capturing and standardizing improvement to work processes and creating an organizational culture focused on the long-term goals of the organization. Often, specific projects are undertaken to improve their overall operational processes.

Operations managers create a culture which focuses on the long-term health of the organization and build teams over time to standardize and improve work processes. They search for and nurture team members who will “fit in” and that contribute to both the effectiveness of the team and the team culture. Operations managers are long-term focused and oriented toward continuous improvement of existing processes over longer periods of time.

An operations manager may invest $10,000 to improve a work process that saves $3,000 a year. Over a five-year period, the operations manager improved the profitability of the operations by $5,000 and will continue to save $3,000 every year.

The project manager of a one-year project could not generate the savings to justify this kind of process improvement and would not invest resources to explore this type of savings. However, the project manager might head the $10,000 project that the operations manager solicited to improve the work process of the organization.


Project Managers

Project managers focus on the goals of the project. Project success is connected to achieving the project goals within the project timeline. Project managers apply project management tools and techniques to clearly define the project goals, develop an execution plan to meet those goals, and meet the milestones and end date of the project. A project manager needs a different set of skills to both define and successfully execute projects.

Because projects are temporary, they have a defined beginning and end. Project managers must manage start-up activities and project closeout activities. The processes for developing teams, organizing work, and establishing priorities require a different set of knowledge and skills because members of the project management team recognize that it is temporary.

Project managers create a team that is goal focused and energized around the success of the project. Project team members know that the project assignment is temporary because the project, by definition, is temporary. Project team members are often members of organizational teams that have a larger potential to affect long-term advancement potential.

They seldom report directly to the project manager and the effect of success or failure of the project might not affect their reputations or careers the same way that the success or failure of one of their other job responsibilities would. Therefore, project managers create clear goals and clear expectations for team members and tie project success to the overall success of the organization. Project managers are goal directed and milestone oriented.

While there are many skills needed by a project manager that are the same as an operations manager, because project managers generally operate in an environment that is more time sensitive and goal driven, the successful project manager requires additional knowledge, skills, and abilities.

Albert Einsiedel1 discussed leader-sensitive projects and defined five characteristics of an effective project leader. These characteristics were chosen based on some assumptions about projects. These characteristics include the project environment, which is often a matrix organization that results in role ambiguity, role conflict, and role erosion. The project environment is often a fluid environment where decisions are made with little information. In this environment, the five characteristics of an effective project leader include the following:

  • Credibility – the project manager is coming into an established organization and must have a reputation or presence of credibility to receive the respect and support of the client and team.
  • Creativity as a problem solver – projects are never “business as usual”.
  • Tolerance for ambiguity – a project manager can often be unfamiliar with the kind of work the client does and needs to be able to adapt and move the project forward, even if all aspects of the company aren’t understood perfectly.
  • Flexible management style – a project manager is constantly dealing with new people and environments and must adjust accordingly. They do not have the luxury of an established rapport with their project associates.
  • Effective communicating – because of the ambiguous nature of projects, good communication skills are crucial in understanding what is expected by the client and being able to convey that vision to the project team.

Hans Thamhain researched the training of project managers and, based on the finding, created a taxonomy wherein the qualities of a project manager are categorized into the following three areas:

  • Interpersonal skills. These skills include providing direction, communicating, assisting with problem solving, and dealing effectively with people without having authority.
  • Technical expertise. Technical knowledge gives the project manager the creditability to provide leadership on a technically based project, the ability to understand important aspects of the project, and the ability to communicate in the language of the technicians.
  • Administrative skills. These skills include planning, organizing, and /managing/ overseeing/coordinating the work.

Traditionally, the project manager has been trained in skills such as developing and managing the project scope, estimating, scheduling, decision making, and team building. Although the level of skills needed by the project manager depends largely on the complexity of the project, the people skills of the project manager are increasingly more important.

The skills to build a high-performing team, manage client expectations, and develop a clear vision of project success are the type of skills needed by project managers on more complex projects. “To say Joe is a good project manager except he lacks good people skills is like saying he’s a good electrical engineer but doesn’t really understand electricity.”

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 processes provide the required knowledge, application of this knowledge delivers performance.

Below are soft skills essential for success as a project manager.


“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.


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.


“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.


“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


“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.


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

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.


“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.

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.


 “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.

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.


For any project success, there are numerous factors which plays its role. The hard and soft skills of project managers also plays its role in the success of a project since these skills enable project managers to better plan, execute, and evaluate project progress.

The Literature

The project management literature shows recognition of the need for soft skills and the benefits of a pragmatist approach which can recognise complex social processes, despite a traditionally positivist perspective (Cicmil, Williams, Thomas, and Hodgson, 2006).
PMI (2018) offers this definition of project managers as: ‘change agents: they make project goals their own and use their skills and expertise to inspire a sense of shared purpose within the project team’. According to APM (2018), a project manager is accountable for the success or failure of a project; where a project is a unique, transient endeavour, undertaken to achieve planned objectives, which could be defined in terms of outputs, outcomes or benefits.

There is criticism of such professional organisations because they fail to explain the soft skills necessary: for example, the PMBOK Guide 5th edition (PMI, 2013) first introduced an appendix to only briefly list interpersonal skills.There is research interest in identifying the soft skills needed by project managers, but lists can be long and inconsistent (Brill et al, 2006; Stevenson and Starkweather, 2010; Ahsan, Ho and Khan, 2013).

Communication emerges as an important need throughout a project’s lifecycle (Skulmoski and Hartman, 2010).
Leadership is also important, but often does not elucidate the soft skills needed (Clarke, 2012; Awan, Ahmed and Zulqarnain, 2015).Although universities are planning to incorporate more soft skills learning within project-management-related courses (Alam, Gale, Brown and Khan, 2010; Shelley, 2015), organisations may be more interested in hiring project managers with soft skills rather than developing skills (El Sabaa, 2011).Project manager development is haphazard (Darrell, Baccarini and Love, 2010; Turner, Keegan and Crawford, 2000) and needs can be ignored (Clott, 2007).
Self-responsibility can be encouraged (Marion, Richardson and Earnhardt, 2014) and continual personal development (Ramazani and Jergeas, 2015) with coaching and mentoring, recommended (Bourne and Walker, 2004; Hans and Rwelamila, 2012).
In the general soft-skills literature there is criticism of the lack of clarity of skills, particularly that they confuse skills with personal traits and attitudes (Hurrell et al, 2013, Claxton, Costa and Kallick, 2016). 
There are many studies with student participants that show universities face a range of soft-skills requirements across different disciplines exacerbated by the lack of clarity and different views of requirements by stakeholders (Chowdhury and Miah, 2016; Jiang and Alexakis, 2017). National policy may be helpful: Chowdhury and Miah (2016) used UK policy, Oliveri and Markle (2017) used US policy. Yet, policy lists’ individual skills still need explanation of meaning.A definition for soft skills was created by combining those of Hurrell et al (2013) and Yeardley: soft skills develop over time, with practice; involve cognitive processes, manipulation of knowledge and an element of discretion in relation to effective and productive interpersonal interactions. This definition supports the inclusion of thinking skills and managing oneself appropriately in these interactions. 
Development of soft skills is challenging because trainers need to be skilled (Subramaniam, 2013; Tang, 2018), real practice is needed (Matteson, Anderson and Boyden, 2016), with feedback (Grossman, Thayer, Shuffler, Burke and Salas, 2015) and multiple approaches exist that are not guaranteed to meet required outcomes (Culpin and Scott, 2011; Dewiyani, 2015).



soft skills for project management

In comparison with general soft skills, coaching skills are clearer. Based on the International Coaching Federation, ICF’s coach competencies, coaches are expected to develop skills that involve communication, relationship-building and facilitation (Maltbia et al, 2014).
The following coaching definition uses a small adaptation to the ICF definition: ‘coaching practice is the partnering with coachees in a thought-provoking and creative process that supports the coachees to achieve more professionally’.
Managerial coaching was chosen as the most appropriate coaching genre to consider for project managers because it includes team-coaching, peer coaching and cross-organisational coaching (Beattie, Kim, Hagen, Egan, Ellinger and Hamlin, 2014), which could be useful to project managers.
Managerial coaching can be seen as goal-focused conversations (Grant, 2017) and can also represent intended outcomes: facilitating learning (Bommelje, 2015), employee wellness (Ismail, Ahmad and Zainol, 2016), building a world-class workforce (Chong, Yuen, Tan, Zarim and Hamid, 2016) and empowerment (Ellinger, Keller, and Baş, 2010).
There is debate about the exact meaning of managerial coaching (Lawrence, 2017), to what extent it includes control (Katsikea, Theodosiou and Morgan, 2015) and its training needs (Rock and Donde, 2008). There is variance in the extent managers coach (Hunt and Weintraub, 2010) and receive coach training (McCarthy and Milner, 2013).
For those who favour employees being supported to develop, coaching can be seen as a way of managing (Garvey et al, 2014). However, a case can be made for internal coaches to focus on development (St John-Brooks, 2018), and managers to focus on team performance. 

Values of a project manager



[1] Albert A. Einsiedel, “Profile of Effective Project Managers,” Project Management Journal 18 (1987): 5.
[2] Hans J. Thamhain, “Developing Project Management Skills,” Project Management Journal 22 (1991): 3.
[3] Russell W. Darnall, “The Emerging Role of the Project Manager,” PMI Journal (1997): 64.