The essential soft skills needed by project managers

Project management is a profession that is experiencing significant demand and growth.

The Project Management Institute Job Growth and Talent Gap 2017-27 reports reveal a widening gap between employers’ need for skilled project management workers and the availability of professionals to fill these roles across the globe.

This gap, which was first highlighted by the Project Management Institute in 2008, has grown, and even outpaces the projections in its second analysis completed in 2012.

The report suggests that the gap is being driven by:

  • A dramatic increase in the number of jobs requiring project-oriented skills.
  • Attrition rates, including professions retiring from the workforce.
  • A significant uplift in demand for project management, especially in rapidly developing economies in countries such as China and India.

The report points out that the global economy has become more project-orientated, as the practice of project management expands within industries that were traditionally less project-orientated, such as healthcare, publishing and professional services.

There’s also a need to encourage more talent into the industry to narrow the talent gap, the report points out. This is the sweet spot for existing project managers and newcomers to the industry, with more opportunities to enter and move around within the sector than ever before.

How to be the tall poppy

However, project managers need more than just the skills taught to them at university to do the job. The soft skills they bring to the job will set them apart from the pack and make them more appealing to potential employers. After all, the different managerial styles are what will determine team structure and inform team function. Soft skills help a project manager cast a vision for the project. It’s the key aspect of the leadership that every project manager must have to inspire their team.

Even with a great university score, you’re going to need plenty of non-technical abilities to successfully navigate the challenges that are inherent in project management, from scope creep and delays to conflicts among young team members.

Soft skills are all about the human factor and the experience of a skilled project manager. This is crucial to providing the glue for the entire team to work and perform together in harmony. An understanding of project risk management is also important.

Some estimates suggest that soft skills account for up to 85 per cent of a project’s success. Leaders able to develop the soft skills essential for leading teams will achieve greater project success.

After all, even with the best tools and systems in place, it’s the people who manage the workload and ensure a project is completed. It’s these soft skills that will ensure you can successfully execute a plan to get results and sometimes even manage a crisis. 

According to a white paper on soft skills published by the Project Management Institute, project managers need seven key soft skills to increase their chances of success in this industry.

These include:

  • Communication skills
  • Negotiation skills
  • Leading teams
  • Coaching
  • Motivating
  • Decision-making and influencing
  • Time management  

After all, even with the best tools and systems in place, it’s the people who manage the workload and ensure a project is completed. It’s these soft skills that will ensure you can successfully execute a plan to get results and sometimes even manage a crisis.

Let's break it down:

1. Communication 

Communication skills include body language, which you can control, and can influence on purpose such as gesture, standing up or sitting down, according to the Project Management Institute white paper.

In order to become an expert in these aspects, observe others when having a conversation. Look for behaviours that could have an impact on the outcome of the conversation, both positive and negative.

Communication also includes making sure you use the right jargon for your specific industry sector, and making sure your questioning reflects this, the white paper points out.

Then there are listening skills, which are equally important, while clear and concise communication is also essential. The timing of communication should also be respected.

With a multitude of new media becoming available and many new channels popping up in addition to the classic paper and email channels, deciding which platform is the best one for delivering different types of messages within the team and external stakeholders is also important.

2. Negotiation 

Successful negotiation is an attempt by two parties to achieve a mutually acceptable solution, and should not result in a winner and a loser, according to the white paper.

The art of negotiation is based on attempting to reconcile what constitutes a good result for both parties. To do this well, you need the ability to explore a range of options and to prepare well. You should also be able to listen and question other parties and prioritise clearly.

3. Leading teams 

A true team is a living, constantly changing dynamic force that discusses their objectives, assesses ideas, makes decisions and works together towards their targets. A team recognises the strengths and capabilities of every team member.

4. Coaching and mentoring 

Coaching and mentoring use the same skills and approach, but coaching is short-term task-based while mentoring is usually classified as a longer-term relationship.

5. Motivation 

Motivation can’t be taught. You’ve either got it, or you haven’t. This will to act is paramount, and learning how to motivate others has become an essential skill for managers.

The key is understanding what the needs of your staff are and assisting them in obtaining them. Project managers also need to keep an eye open for signs of demotivation, which can usually be spotted easily.

6. Decision-making and influencing 

Decision-makers are those responsible for making a judgement between two or more alternatives. Whether these are routine decisions, strategic, operational or need to be made in an emergency, you will need to have different sets of criteria to judge your decision, or the ways of analysing your options may vary.

7. Time management 

Managing your time is a critical skill that can’t be taught in a classroom. Some get distracted by a fly buzzing around, whereas others can achieve a high level of concentration in a crowded coffee shop. Knowing what helps you concentrate and focus is paramount for project managers.

If the idea of project management excites you, learn more about our online Graduate Diploma in Project Management or call 1300 701 171 to speak with an Enrolment Advisor. We also offer a graduate certificate in project management.