The role of soft skills in project management

Published on: 1 Feb 2024

In project management, technical expertise lays the groundwork, but soft skills act as the catalysts for transformative change. Being a great project professional goes beyond understanding the technical skills required to deliver projects with success. PMI's (2023) findings highlight that 75% of project managers say soft skills are more important than technical skills for achieving success. This revelation is a testament to the transformative power of soft skills. In fact, Standish Group's research (2023) unveils a staggering reality that 59% of project failures are due to soft skill deficiencies. This serves as a wake-up call, emphasising the critical need to fortify soft, interpersonal skills and competencies.

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What soft skills do project professionals need to succeed?

Soft skills play a pivotal role in project management, influencing leadership, communication, team dynamics and project value in profound ways. While technical skills are essential for understanding the project's intricacies, it's the soft skills that determine the success of a project manager in delivering those project’s objectives. These transferable skills aren’t tied to specific technical knowledge or expertise but can be applied and adapted to various roles.

The soft skills that are essential for successful project management are varied and can be picked up through work experience in diverse, project and non-project management roles. These are just a few of the important soft skills you need in project management, where chaotic timelines, unsettled stakeholders and unseen challenges can suddenly crop up:

  • problem solving
  • adaptability
  • negotiation
  • time management
  • resilience
  • critical thinking
  • creativity
  • decision making

The APM Competence Framework also highlights the key competencies and skills project professionals need, which includes technical and soft skills. This emphasises how essential diverse skills and thinking are; project managers must have technical knowledge alongside soft skills to be a champion of change. Here are some of the soft skills highlighted by the Competence Framework that you’ll need to be successful as a project professional:

  1. Leadership: Effective leadership is about more than just giving orders and ‘getting things done on time’. It involves inspiring, motivating, guiding and empowering the team to achieve collective goals. As a project leader you’ll need to navigate challenges while keeping the team engaged and focused so people can do their best work.
  2. Communication: The cornerstone of effective project management lies in clear and concise communication. Project professionals must articulate visions, delegate tasks, listen actively and ensure that information flows seamlessly among team members and stakeholders. And this isn’t limited to in-person meetings or one-to-one conversations, but emails, presentations, and instant messaging too.
  3. Conflict resolution: Conflicts are inevitable in any project and any environment. When they arise, your skills as a project manager requires you to navigate issues diplomatically, mediate disputes carefully and foster resolutions fairly that maintains harmony within the team.
  4. Teamwork and collaboration: Project success hinges on the combined effort of a team. Project professionals need to be able to foster and develop an environment where talents converge, collaborate and complement each other's strengths. Getting to know your team and finding ways to encourage working together is vital for project success.
  5. Professionalism. Projects are dynamic; they evolve, face challenges, and demand professionalism and respect across the entire life cycle. Maintain your status as a trusted professional by cultivating an environment of respect within the workspace; encouraging safe space for growth and innovation.

Remember, these skills encompass a wide spectrum of abilities; they are transferable skills. So if you’re worried that you’ve never formally worked on projects, don’t be. Think about your school or work experience where you’ve needed to use some of these skills; have you ever successfully lead, communicated or negotiated with your team, peers, colleagues or clients?

Soft skills are highly sought after by employers as they contribute to your overall effectiveness in the workplace and can be valuable in various professional contexts. According to CareerBuilder (2023), 89% of employers equate the significance of soft skills with hard skills when hiring new talent. This underscores the pivotal role soft skills play in shaping project professionals that deliver success.

How to improve your soft skills:

Developing soft skills is a journey that requires continuous self-reflection, learning and adaptation. Mastering soft skills demands patience, practice and a willingness to evolve:

  1. Be honest with yourself. Think about what you like and dislike as a leader; the ability to look beyond surface-level issues is a hallmark of effective project managers. Uncover the skills you should improve on and look for opportunities where you can grow by considering what gaps you may have in your CPD.
  2. Build resilience. Understand your own triggers, acknowledge your emotions, and cultivate resilience to navigate tough times. Practice mindfulness, build a support network and focus on maintaining a positive approach during challenging periods. Never forget to take time when you need it, part of being successful is knowing when to take your foot off the accelerator so you don’t have to slam the brakes!
  3. Take a step back. Reflect on what’s going on amidst the hustle and after a challenging period. Consider the wider cause and effect, identify unhelpful patterns and think about different ways to approach various situations in the future.
  4. Improve your empathy. Understanding team members' emotions, motivations and perspectives is crucial. Empathy fosters a supportive environment, improves morale and enhances collaboration.

The technical tools for project management may be universal, but it's the application of soft skills that truly sets a project manager apart. Developing soft skills takes time and patience, so embrace this journey as a lifelong pursuit, continuously seeking opportunities for growth and improvement. As you navigate your career, continually honing your soft skills will not only contribute to personal growth but also elevate your project management expertise in any environment.

The future belongs to project managers who understand the intricate interplay between technical proficiency and the power of soft skills, so don’t underestimate either. As the industry progresses, the value of these interpersonal attributes will continue to soar, reshaping the narrative of what it truly means to be an effective project manager.