The importance of soft skills in project management

Soft skills are certain skills that are more and more required in today's working world. You can develop and expand your soft skills over time. If you use them skilfully, you will benefit from them not only in your private life but also in your professional life. In this article you will learn which soft skills are particularly important as a project manager and how you can develop them.


Soft skills and their importance for project management

Soft skills can include methodological, personal and social skills that enable effective action. They are acquired over time and improve as they are developed. However, much depends on the individual, as all people are naturally different. For example, some people find it easier than others to empathise with others or to take on leadership roles. 
  • Methodological competences enable people to solve tasks and problems or to acquire skills that lead to solutions.
  • Personal competences are those that primarily concern oneself because they contribute to one's own development.
  • Social competences are particularly helpful in dealing with other people, because they promote sympathy and empathy.
Whatever the soft skills are, they are all equally important because they show what potential you have and how you deal with people and the environment. 
The most important soft skills are communication, time management, leadership, teamwork, emotional intelligence and critical thinking, and the problem-solving skills that result from them. 
In contrast to soft skills are the hard skills. These can also be learned, but unlike soft skills, they can also be demonstrated or tested. They include, for example, language skills. This is the most important difference, because soft skills cannot be assessed but are demonstrated through actions, whereas hard skills, such as language skills, are directly recognizable and can be assessed.

Communication: The key to effective project management

When people communicate, they exchange information. In project management, this includes information that is important to the project, such as deadlines, project goals or feedback. It is particularly important to communicate these messages clearly in order to avoid misunderstandings. Misunderstandings can lead to mistakes in the project. This can lead to missed deadlines and delays in the project. 
However, it is not just about how you communicate, but also how the information is received by the recipient. A statement can be misinterpreted, and this can have consequences. That is why it is important to communicate correctly.

According to Paul Watzlawik and colleagues, there are 5 axioms that apply to all communication.
  1. One cannot not communicate: One also communicates through body language, i.e. facial expressions and gestures. This is precisely why it is important to also pay attention to physical expressions during conversations, meetings, etc. Otherwise, misunderstandings can quickly arise. 
  2. Every relationship has a content level and a relationship aspect: The relationship forms the framework for communication. A conversation with a friend is different from a conversation with a work colleague or a stakeholder. A friend knows a lot about the private life and transparency is really important. It is also important with work colleagues since open communication is very important for the project because it moves the project forward. It is a good way to help each other and keep each other informed. However, communication is not as personal as between friends. A stakeholder will only be told what is absolutely necessary about the project. The way of communicating is also partly a question of hierarchy, which is addressed in the fifth axiom. 
  3. Communication is punctuated: There is a constant exchange in which each participant in the conversation subjectively has their own structure. If opinions about cause and effect diverge, this can lead to relational conflicts in which criticism can also be voiced. A clear distinction should be made between constructive and destructive criticism. Only constructive criticism is a meaningful form of communication. It aims to bring meaningful alternatives to a factual level. But even if a statement is meant constructively, misunderstandings can occur. So always listen first and ask what is meant. If there is something that is not understood, ask. Criticism should not be taken personally but should be understood as a constructive suggestion for improvement. Criticism is also sometimes voiced in projects. It should therefore be factual, empathetic and consist of "I" messages. This reduces the potential for confrontation.
  4. Human communication involves both digital and analogic modalities: These are statements. Digital statements leave no room for interpretation, and everyone knows exactly what is meant. Analogue statements are those that leave a lot of room for interpretation. Therefore, in the world of work, care should be taken that statements are made without a framework of interpretation. If this is not the case, then the counterpart must ask in order to leave no room for interpretation. 
  5. Communication is either symmetrical or complementary: Symmetry is communication at eye level, complementarity is communication that is not at eye level. Both have advantages and disadvantages. In symmetrical communication, both sides focus on what they have in common and reflect this in their behaviour. Here, care must be taken that one partner does not override the other, resulting in complementary communication. In Scrum, for example, the developers should meet on a symmetrical basis and help each other. In complementary communication there is a differential, e.g. because someone has a higher level of education, in case it plays a role in this context, or is authorised to give instructions, etc. However, efforts should be made to ensure that communication is not based too much on the power imbalance and that constructive statements are made. Because if a leadership position exploits the power imbalance too much, it can easily go wrong. Although hierarchies exist and the project manager's prioritisation of tasks must be respected, care must be taken to ensure that this is not reflected in the communication, but that it is conducted on an equal footing and with respect. 
In summary, a successful project can only be delivered through good communication. Whether in a jour fixe, Daily Scrums or Sprint Reviews. Information is shared, criticism is expressed, and communication is conveyed through facial expressions and gestures. It is therefore important to be aware of this and to adapt your own communication accordingly. 
This applies to all project participants, but especially to the project manager or people in management positions. 
For this reason, it is also important to have information management and a defined way of communicating. This is usually done using software that allows everything to be shared and immediately available. 
Communication should also be project- and task-specific to avoid misunderstandings.

Time management: balancing priorities and deadlines

Time management is primarily about organising and planning tasks and activities so that time can be used productively. This is particularly important because if you are not organised, you can get bogged down and not achieve what you set out to do. This applies not only to individual planning, but also to planning a project. It is about effectiveness and efficiency, doing the right things and doing them right, which promotes productivity.
Where possible, delegate tasks. You don't have to do everything yourself, because too many tasks can lead to time being used inefficiently. To find out what you need to do yourself and what you can delegate, use the Eisenhower Matrix
At work, focus on the goals, not just the activity. People are not always equally efficient but have times when they get a lot done and times when they are less efficient. Time management should take this into account. The most difficult tasks or those that require the most concentration should be done at the best times. To compensate for this, breaks should always be planned in order to be able to work productively again. 
Multitasking should also be avoided so that tasks can be completed well. This means that you should schedule your appointments so that you can complete them one after the other. 
So, if you manage your time well, you have a good chance of being productive and getting a lot done. 
This applies both to project managers, who have to coordinate many appointments in the project, and to Developers during the Sprint.

Leadership qualities: Inspiring teams to succeed

Leadership skills are needed to align the members of a project team towards a common goal. To do this, it is important to be self-organised. This means structuring and organising your own tasks and knowing exactly what to pass on and how to help your team. What tasks need to be done, who has problems where, are there disagreements? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the individual members and how can they be supported to do the tasks properly? Do they need to be motivated, do they need recognition or incentives? You have to know the team well enough to be able to communicate with them. Enough details and contexts have to be communicated so that everyone understands the project goal. 
That's why it's also important for a project manager to constantly train and have their knowledge certified. When someone applies for a new job, the HR department can already see in the application what areas the candidate has experience in and what leadership qualities they might bring.

Ability to work in a team: mastering challenges and changes

When you work in a team, there can be different interactions. You discuss or compete; you cooperate or compromise. However, it is important to work with each other and not against each other, to respect each other and not to be abusive when you disagree. 
Competition is not always a bad thing, as it motivates the team to achieve the goal. The only question is how excessive it is. If this leads to problems in the team, the project manager or someone else responsible for team interaction needs to intervene and try to get members to work together. It is important to work together in any case. No information should be withheld. A good project manager also makes sure that the team members do a good job, without any competitive thinking, so that the team members do not feel that they have to outdo each other. Especially in Scrum, the individual members bring different skills to the table, which may not be comparable at all. Accordingly, the team can also be different. Some find it easier to work in a team because they are team players, others are more loners. It is important to recognize this and, if necessary, take steps to ensure that each individual feels seen and enjoys working in the team. 
This includes putting forward your own ideas without belittling the ideas of others or supporting the ideas of others and accepting criticism of your own ideas without taking it personally.

Emotional Intelligence: Relationship Management and Conflict Resolution

Emotions can run high, especially in situations that cause a lot of stress or where people disagree. These strong emotions are felt in relation to a particular situation. It is important to be aware of this and not to take emotions out of context. But it is also important to learn to recognize emotions. This can be done through statements, gestures, but also through facial expressions. Some people find this easier than others. To encourage this, we should work on self-awareness. If we are able to assess our own emotions and analyse why we acted in a certain way in a certain situation, we can also better understand why someone else acts the way they do.
Once we have identified the emotions we are feeling, we can respond to them with empathy and sensitivity. This can ensure that the other person feels seen and understood, and we can work together to solve the problem. By responding appropriately, conflicts between parties can be avoided. They can also be resolved more easily because it allows people to put themselves in the other person's shoes, to feel that their feelings are legitimate, and to see a way of resolving them. This can also improve the relationship between the parties.

Critical thinking and problem solving: Finding innovative solutions

Critical thinking helps you to ask the right questions at the right time, to look at and analyse a problem from different angles, to reach a conclusion about the right solution to a problem, or to solve problems more easily. The best way to do this is to gather information from different sources or to observe what others do in a similar situation. However, it is also important to be aware of the influencing factors, the relevance of certain data and whether or not all information is available. By keeping an open mind throughout the process, it is possible to arrive at a solution that can be presented and analysed to see if it is sufficient to solve the problem.

Changes due to certain situations

With changing external influences, working from home or even hybrid models, the demands on soft skills are also changing. Creative thinking is in high demand today, especially in an agile environment where people are constantly faced with new challenges and need to find new approaches to solving problems. Creativity does not always have to do with art but is simply a skill that can be used to create new and useful things. In agile projects, the end is not certain, and problems may arise along the way that need to be solved. In such situations, creative thinking is as much in demand as agility and flexibility. The last few years in particular have meant that people have had to adapt to a new way of working from one day to the next, and it is a great advantage to be able to adapt well and quickly to new situations.

Conclusion: Incorporating soft skills into your project management approach

The soft skills mentioned above are beneficial if you want to make it as a project manager. Not only for yourself, but also for the team. By using these skills, you will ensure a better workflow and cooperation within the team. Especially if you are applying for a job, it is definitely an advantage to mention soft skills with examples in your CV.

Soft skills in project management - The IAPM logo
Author: IAPM internal
Keywords: Project management, Soft skills

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For better readability, we usually only use the generic masculine form in our texts. Nevertheless, the expressions refer to members of all genders.