When starting a new career, we face a variety of challenges. These hardships are usually related to training and studying all that is required to execute the job. That’s why we bury our faces in books, take online courses, and attend classes to prepare ourselves. But, we tend to forget that starting a career also has a lot to do with finding its compatibility with our personal traits. On the journey to work in project management, the best-case scenario is to have (or want to develop) important soft skills for project managers that can match the job’s attributes.
If you’re not familiar with the concept yet, soft skills are a set of traits and qualities that relate to how you work and how you interact with other people while working. In this article, you will not only get familiarized with a list of abilities that will launch you into a successful career in project management, but also with tips and resources that can help you develop them.
But, before we take a closer look here’s a sneak preview of the upcoming soft skills for project managers:
- Planning and organization
- Leadership and influence
- Conflict management
- Critical thinking
Planning and organization
One of the most notorious soft skills for project managers is the ability to plan and organize all relevant details of a project. This skill represents, pretty much, the power of bringing order to chaos and staying on top of everything. Here’s how it’s applied: after the project proposal, the PM comes into the scene to map resources, delegate and manage tasks, document everything for easy access and future reference, set out benchmarks, and schedule delivery dates. This preparation aims to ensure that processes are running smoothly and in line with common goals.
Poor planning and organizing are absolutely detrimental to a team’s motivation, morale, and productivity. Without a clear roadmap to follow or easy access to relevant information, team members tend to get lost and spend unnecessary extra time completing their assignments. A clear strategy to plan and organize projects can reduce stress and guide the team to a smooth journey. Remember: there’s no place for confusion amongst the soft skills for project managers.
How to develop this soft skill?
The majority of project management courses have modules that will teach you the essential components that have to be planned and organized within a project. But, if you’re not used to the process of planning and organizing, all that information you’ve acquired through courses can get discarded. That’s why you need to start small, building new habits with easier and simpler tasks and data while using a system that works for you.
There are whole communities dedicated to different planning and organizational strategies. They suggest methods like using a planner to program every event or task, having notebooks to write down essential information, downloading applications to create “to do” lists and track progress or even begin journaling to document noteworthy occasions. You can choose whatever feels more practical and realistic to you. Do you like taking notes? Use a notebook or a journal. Always on the phone? Choose a mobile app. Prefer computers? Choose the perfect software to manage and track everything you want to include in your plan.
The first steps are planning simple aspects of your day: create a quick task list, program your next appointments, write down your thoughts, register your expenses and set a reminder to check on your progress every day or every week. When you least expect it, you’ll realize that your routine and actions are directly connected to what you had planned for yourself, and with that comes the routine of keeping track of your accomplishments and planning out your next steps. Then, when you feel ready and invested in this routine, you can move on to bigger projects, always linking the execution of tasks to a previous plan created by you.
Another example of soft skills for project managers has everything to do with the expression“communication is key”. You must develop the ability to understand and be understood by people from varying backgrounds. The effectiveness of a PM’s communication skills impacts not only the project team but the client and stakeholders as well.
As a project manager, you are the person responsible for connecting everybody involved. You need to express yourself in a way that people understand your message, become aware of their roles and responsibilities, and also feel confident to get on board with your vision. For this, you must know how to choose the best channels and the most efficient ways to communicate any particular piece of information, ideas, or instructions.
How to develop this soft skill?
The world would be a much better place if effective communication was something easy to accomplish, but, it requires putting in the time and effort to get to know other people. One has to develop the ability to listen, to be clear while expressing thoughts, and ensure they’re understood. Remember: every conversation you have is going to teach you something about effective communication.
To master this ability, courses on subjects like oratory/public speaking are a great starting point. You can also practice your presentations skills and train to speak with eloquence and confidence with people you’re already familiar with. Then, slowly reach out to unfamiliar people: ask their opinions, impressions, and concerns, make sure that you’re effectively responding to them. Repeat this process until you notice that people are coming to you voluntarily to have conversations. This means getting out of your comfort zone, so be open to attending events, approaching people, and networking enthusiastically.
This will help you become a clear communicator, who can effortlessly and effectively express thoughts and instructions. The knowledge you’ve acquired can also help you adapt your strategy, tone, and choice of words from project to project, to accommodate the variety of team members. Last, but not least, always keep in mind one important detail: you have to identify the right person, perfect time, and ideal channel to deliver the message. Don’t risk yourself too much, but trust your feeling!
Leadership and influence
There is no good management without influential leadership. Leading a team is one of the soft skills for project managers that not everybody has because it requires a sense of altruism, genuine care for others, motivation, smart decisions, and accountability for the team’s successes and failures. Getting a group of people to work towards a shared goal means being able to build trust, foster cooperation, and encourage the pursuit of great results.
A PM must set a vision to make their team members’ lives better by coaching and inspiring them to believe in the project and give their best to reach completion, not because they fear the repercussions, but because they’re invested in the work and care about the outcome. But, of course, it’s not all fun and games for a leader. There’s also the duty of constantly reinforcing processes, keeping everyone on the team in line, and setting an example, which involves a sense of self-awareness to always watch their own actions.
How to build this soft skill?
The first step to becoming an influential leader is learning how other great names do it. You can go online or reach out to books to find thousands of leadership-oriented workshops,TedEx talks, or stories where leaders share their experiences, strategies and give extremely valid insights that you can apply to your own environment. While you’re online, search for ebooks or articles with case-studies from companies all over the world. Their examples can become practical lessons that you can implement and, later, evaluate the results.
Secondly, always value good feedback. There’s no one better to tell you if you’re doing a good job than your own employees. Ask them what are their thoughts about your performance, what they value, and what they’re not happy about. Ask them if they feel motivated and encouraged and if they have a clear understanding of their role and impact on the company. The more you know about their perception of you, the easier it will be to identify what needs improvement and what needs to be changed.
Once you apply the previous methods, start paying attention to the following signs: did people start to attend your meetings, provide input or feel open to speak up about obstacles or give suggestions? If they’re coming to you for all that, instead of spreading doubt or complaining to others, the chances are that you’re on the right path.
Coaching is a more dynamic form of “teaching”, here the focus is helping someone actually learn something, rather than just retain information. To coach, you must really connect your ideas, experiences, and strategies with the subjects, because the purpose is to redesign people’s view of something, truly improving their perception and motivating them to implement the knowledge. As a PM, this soft skill helps you to simplify complexity by explaining all relevant elements of a project. After all, you’re not only a leader, you’re also a guide and a reference to your employees, they look up to you to learn how they can become great at their jobs.
How to develop this soft skill?
The first step to building your coaching ability is optimizing your communication skills. You can’t teach important concepts if you can’t express ideas clearly. So, if you’re struggling with that part, please refer to the “communication” topic of this guide. Once your communication skill is developed, use it to teach the people that are the closest to you even the simplest of tasks. The more you offer your support, explain your ideas and share tricks or strategies, the more you’ll develop your training and orienting abilities.
Another great method is to work with a mentor or a life/career coach and take notes of what they do and how they do it. Pay attention to their way of teaching you and what seems to work the best. If you find it effective, replicate it when teaching others. If you can’t hire your own coach, consider bringing one into your workplace for a session with your staff or even following professional coaches online to have access to free materials, such as books, videos, or podcasts. And let’s not forget the variety of online courses to form coaches, take advantage of these materials because they offer valid introductory lessons that can get you started.
It’s inevitable: people working together have conflicts, it’s not an exception or an out-of-this-world scenario, it’s natural. People also have competing interests and different views. The problem is when those conflicts or incompatibilities aren’t solved, and guess who’s job it is to solve them? Yes, the Project Manager. A successful conflict manager will know how to keep tempers in check and address problems as they arise so that the team can move forward and keep working toward their goals without hurt feelings or big blow-outs.
Discussions about budgets, resource allocation, timelines, and disputes about roles and responsibilities can become adversarial and counterproductive if not handled tactfully. That’s why conflict management is one of the most important soft skills for project managers you can build.
How to build this soft skill?
Dealing with conflict in project management means bringing together groups of people with different interests to move past disagreements or disputes to accomplish project goals. As a PM, one of your roles is to be almost like a diplomat. You want to influence, negotiate & collaborate in tricky situations between people so that all parties are happy and all inputs are considered.
To learn conflict resolution, mediation, and diplomacy, you can start by reading a few books on the matter. We suggest “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving” In by Roger Fisher and William Ury, “The Power of Tact” by Peter Legge, and “The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict” by The Arbinger Institute. These three titles are classic options with valuable lessons from understanding the causes of conflicts to the paths to achieving effective agreements.
One quick and easy recommendation is the TedxTalk “The Art of Diplomacy” by Tayo Rockson, the CEO of UYD Management, a strategic leadership and consulting firm that helps corporations incorporate diversity, inclusion, and social justice strategies. Another simple recommendation is to integrate groups where you are different from everyone else. This interaction will show you how to deal with different perspectives and how they usually solve differences. But don’t just observe, participate! Try to optimize the group’s communication and express your ideas to reach a common denominator. You’ll notice yourself contributing to the peace of that community.
We know that, in order to become a project manager, you’re working on cultivating planning and organizational habits, but, as Forrest Gump’s mother would say: “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get”. In other words, changes are inevitable and things don’t always go along as planned. A successful PM is someone who’s flexible and agile, stays calm and composed when facing unexpected events, and makes the necessary adjustments to move forward with the project. They must be able to quickly respond to changes in deadlines, project details without compromising the results or delivery date.
How to build this soft skill?
If you want your future projects to be viable, you need to be flexible. Building this ability from scratch is something really tricky because not a lot of courses or training can really teach you how to be more flexible, so the tip is to start small. Try to accommodate small changes in your plans, rather than insisting on following what you predicted. While you’re at it, ask for people’s inputs, and what they would’ve done differently, visualize their contributions with an open mind and try to incorporate them into the project without getting frustrated.
You probably heard the phrase: “That’s the way we’ve always done it”, right? Well, being adaptable is challenging this mentality and embracing change as an opportunity to improve and grow. A Forbes article about being an adaptable person stated that people who are curious and stay current tend to be adaptable. So, stay interested! Study new technologies in your industry sector, go to seminars about maintaining efficiency and quality while making changes and cuts, learn about process improvement, connect with colleagues with this kind of vision and learn from them.
Don’t forget, of course, to take risks, this is a huge part of being adaptable. Discuss risk-taking and risk management as part of team meetings and trust your support system, so that you don’t feel like you’re alone in this. Lastly, encourage others to be open-minded and to continue the cycle.
In Project Management, this skill means the ability to decide the next step when there’s no obvious choice and tackling problems with confidence. Oftentimes, PMs are presented with conflicting data, mismatched ideas/information, changes in the plan, resource exhaustion, or human errors. When this happens, project managers must use critical thinking to break down the facts to decide “what is best” for the current situation.
How To Develop Critical Thinking Skills
Just like any other soft skill, this one comes with building habits. First, determine what exactly do you want from something or someone to meet your objectives. This can go from simple necessities to personal goals, to work targets. Until you know the answer to these questions you’re not going to know what the right decision is and you’ll be more likely to just accept what comes your way, feeling unprepared to take specific actions.
Spread your perceptions: Let’s say you’re having a problem at work. Try to visualize how different people would approach it, your partner, coworker, or your boss, for example. By allowing yourself to consider different perspectives you might find yourself hitting upon solutions you hadn’t previously considered. But, remember, even though you brought different takes to form your decision, it is still yours and, as a PM, you need to consider that every option you choose has consequences for yourself and others involved in the project.
Start being more analytic: question all assumptions, find reason through logic and diversify your thoughts. Don’t take everything that comes your way as absolute truth. A good way to visualize the next possible step is to dress a list of pros and cons. By asking yourself to consider every positive outcome alongside every negative outcome, you can make a much more informed decision. And, don’t forget this last tip: always do your research, after all, knowledge is power. By focusing on learning, you’ll find that over time you will evolve and adapt to overcome new situations and improve your critical thinking.
Being a project manager might seem like a majoritarian technical job, with all the practical obligations involved, but it’s important to know how relevant certain soft skills for project managers are for a truly good performance. We hope that this article sheds a new light on which personality traits and abilities are required when you’re preparing yourself for a career in project management, and we expect that the tips we’ve shared help you develop these skills that are not only important for project managers, but also for great leaders in general. We wish you success in your journey!