Interpersonal Skills (of a Project Manager)

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What are Interpersonal skills?

Interpersonal skills, or people skills, are something we already have. After all, we’ve been learning how to get along with others since the day we were born! These are skills we use every day when we communicate and interact with other people, both individually and in groups.

My two pence: it’s one’s ability to get along with others while getting the job done.

In project management, appropriate use of interpersonal skills assists the project manager in effectively managing the project. Project managers accomplish work through the project team and other stakeholders. Effective project managers require a balance of ethical, interpersonal, and conceptual skills that help them analyse situations and interact appropriately. Below I describe important interpersonal skills in project management, such as:

  • Leadership
  • Team Building
  • Motivation
  • Communication
  • Influencing
  • Decision Making
  • Political and Cultural Awareness
  • Negotiation
  • Trust Building
  • Conflict Management
  • Coaching



Leadership involves focusing the efforts of a group of people toward a common goal and enabling them to work as a team. In general terms, leadership is the ability to get things done through others. Respect and trust, rather than fear and submission, are the key elements of effective leadership. Although important throughout all project phases, effective leadership is critical during the beginning phases of a project when the emphasis is on communicating the vision and motivating and inspiring project participants to achieve high performance. Throughout the project, the project team leaders are responsible for establishing and maintaining the vision, strategy, and communications; fostering trust and team building; influencing, mentoring, and monitoring; and evaluating the performance of the team and the project.

Team Building


Team building is the process of helping a group of individuals, bound by a common purpose, to work with each other, the leader, external stakeholders, and the organisation. The result of good leadership and good team building is teamwork.
Team-building activities consist of tasks (establish goals, define, and negotiate roles, responsibilities, and procedures) and processes (interpersonal behaviour with emphasis on communication, conflict management, motivation, and leadership). Developing a team environment involves handling project team problems and discussing these as team issues without placing blame on individuals. Team building can be further enhanced by obtaining top management support; encouraging team member commitment; introducing appropriate rewards, recognition, and ethics; creating a team identity; managing conflicts effectively; promoting trust and open communication among team members; and providing leadership. While team building is essential during the front end of a project, it is an ongoing process. Changes in a project environment are inevitable. To manage these changes effectively, a continued or renewed team-building effort is required. Outcomes of team building include mutual trust, high quality of information exchange, better decision making, and effective project management.



Project teams are comprised of team members with diverse backgrounds, expectations, and individual objectives. The overall success of the project depends upon the project team’s commitment, which is directly related to their level of motivation. Motivating in a project environment involves creating an environment to meet project objectives while providing maximum satisfaction related to what people value most. These values may include job satisfaction, challenging work, a sense of accomplishment, achievement and growth, sufficient financial compensation, and other rewards and recognition the individual considers necessary and important.



Communication has been identified as one of the single biggest reasons for project success or failure. Effective communication within the project team and between the project manager, team members, and all external stakeholders is essential. Openness in communication is a gateway to teamwork and high performance. It improves relationships among project team members and creates mutual trust. To communicate effectively, the project manager should be aware of the communication styles of other parties, cultural nuances/norms, relationships, personalities, and the overall context of the situation. Awareness of these factors leads to mutual understanding and thus to effective communication. Project managers should identify various communication channels, understand what information they need to provide, what information they need to receive, and which interpersonal skills will help them communicate effectively with various project stakeholders. Carrying out team-building activities to determine team member communications styles (i.e. directive, collaborative, logical, explorer, etc.), allows managers to plan their communications with appropriate sensitivity to relationships and cultural differences. Listening is an important part of communication. Listening techniques, both active and passive give the user insight to problem areas, negotiation and conflict management strategies, decision making, and problem resolution.



Influencing is a strategy of sharing power and relying on interpersonal skills to get others to cooperate towards common goals. Using the following guidelines can influence team members:
• Lead by example, and follow through with commitments.
• Clarify how a decision will be made.
• Use a flexible interpersonal style and adjust the style to the audience.
Apply your power skillfully and cautiously. Think of long-term collaboration.

Decision Making


There are four basic decision styles normally used by project managers: command, consultation, consensus, and coin flip (random). There are four major factors that affect the decision style: time constraints, trust, quality, and acceptance. Project managers may make decisions individually, or they may involve the project team in the decision-making process. Project managers and project teams use a decision-making model or process such as the six-phase model shown below.
• Problem Definition. Fully explore, clarify, and define the problem.
• Problem Solution Generation. Prolong the new idea-generating process by brainstorming multiple solutions and discouraging premature decisions.
• Ideas to Action. Define evaluation criteria, rate pros and cons of alternatives, select best solution.
• Solution Action Planning. Involve key participants to gain acceptance and commitment to making the solution work.
• Solution Evaluation Planning. Perform post-implementation analysis, evaluation, and lessons learned.
• Evaluation of the Outcome and Process. Evaluate how well the problem was solved or project goals were achieved (extension of previous phase).

Political and Cultural Awareness


Organisational politics are inevitable in project environments due to the diversity in norms, backgrounds, and expectations of the people involved with a project. The skillful use of politics and power helps the project manager to be successful. Conversely, ignoring or avoiding project politics and inappropriate use of power can lead to difficulty in managing projects. Today project managers operate in a global environment, and many projects exist in an environment of cultural diversity. By understanding and capitalising on cultural differences, the project management team is more likely to create an environment of mutual trust and a win-win atmosphere. Cultural differences can be both individual and corporate in nature and may involve both internal and external stakeholders. An effective way to manage this cultural diversity is through getting to know the various team members and the use of good communication planning as part of the overall project plan. Culture at a behavioural level includes those behaviors and expectations that occur independently of geography, ethnic heritage, or common and disparate languages. Culture can impact the speed of working, the decision-making process, and the impulse to act without appropriate planning. This may lead to conflict and stress in some organisations, thereby affecting the performance of project managers and project teams.



Negotiation is a strategy of conferring with parties of shared or opposed interests with a view toward compromise or reaching an agreement. Negotiation is an integral part of project management and done well, increases the probability of project success. The following skills and behaviours are useful in negotiating successfully:
• Analyse the situation.
• Differentiate between wants and needs, both theirs and yours.
• Focus on interests and issues rather than on positions.
• Ask high and offer low, but be realistic.
• When you make a concession, act as if you are yielding something of value, don’t just give in.
• Both parties should feel as if they have won. This win-win negotiating style is preferred but not always achievable. If possible, don’t let the other party leave feeling as though he or she has been taken advantage of.
• Listen attentively and communicate articulately.

Trust Building


The ability to build trust across the project team and other key stakeholders is a critical component in effective team leadership. Trust is associated with cooperation, information sharing, and effective problem resolution. Without trust it is difficult to establish the positive relationships necessary between the various stakeholders engaged in the project. When trust is compromised, relationships deteriorate, people disengage, and collaboration becomes more difficult, if not impossible. Some actions project managers can take to help build trust:
• Engage in open and direct communications to resolve problems.
• Keep all stakeholders informed, especially when fulfilling commitments is at risk.
• Spend time directly engaged with the team asking non-assumptive questions to gain a better understanding of the situations affecting the team.
• Be direct and explicit about what you need or expect.
• Do not withhold information out of a fear of being wrong but be willing to share information even if you may be wrong.
• Be receptive to innovation and address any issues or concerns in a forthright manner.
• Look beyond your own interests.
• Demonstrate a true concern for others and avoid engaging in pursuits that could be viewed as being detrimental to the interest of others.

Conflict Management


Conflict is inevitable in a project environment. Incompatible requirements, competition for resources, breakdowns in communications, and many other factors could become sources of conflict. Within a project’s environment, conflict may yield dysfunctional outcomes. However, if actively managed, conflicts can actually help the team arrive at a better solution. The project manager must be able to identify the causes for conflict and then actively manage the conflict thus minimising potential negative impacts. The project team is then able to deliver better solutions and increase the probability of project success. Project managers must develop the skills and experience necessary to effectively adapt their personal conflict management style to the situation. Managing conflict in a project environment involves building the trust necessary for all involved parties to be open and honest, and to engage in seeking a positive resolution to the situation creating the conflict. Project managers strive to establish a collaborative approach among the team members involved in order to fully resolve the problems. In situations where a collaborative approach is not possible, the project manager must then revert to other active management styles for handling the conflict; i.e. assertiveness, accommodation, avoidance, or compromise. Managing conflict is one of the biggest challenges a project manager faces. It draws upon all of the other interpersonal skills of a project manager in order to lead the team to a successful resolution of the situation in conflict.



Coaching is a means of developing the project team to higher levels of competency and performance. Coaching is about helping people recognise their potential through empowerment and development. Coaching is used to aid team members in developing or enhancing their skills or to build new skills required to enable project success. Coaching can take many forms and approaches. In some instances, formal or informal training may be developed to increase technical skills or assist team-building efforts and facilitate consistent interpersonal interactions. Coaching is also used to address poor performance and to help team members overcome deficiencies in their skill sets. Coaching is distinct from counselling. Counselling focuses on addressing situations where team members “won’t do” something rather than “can’t do.” If the situation is one where the team member is not performing or meeting expectations due to a lack of skill, knowledge, or experience, coaching can be employed to help the team member to develop this skill and thus turn a “can’t do” situation into one of “can do.” Coaching can be a powerful motivator for teams. As teams develop their skills, abilities, and confidence, their willingness to take on challenging or demanding tasks is increased. This can lead to more effective and productive teams.


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