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A complete overview of the essential interpersonal skills that lead to project success.

We each develop our own interpersonal skill-set as a result of our experiences, environment, and interactions with others. We are shaped by both nature and nurture. As Project Managers, we need to understand how we relate to, and interact with, other people in order to engender trust and respect to get the job done.

A Project, Programme and Portfolio (P3) Manager needs to lead and motivate their management team and delivery teams. This will be through visionary leadership, ensuring people are committed to the objectives of the work, and managerial leadership, delegating work and developing teamwork.

The P3 manager must also lead the stakeholder community, who do not collectively form a team and to whom delegation is rarely appropriate. When dealing with stakeholders, influencing and negotiation are more relevant.

Whether delegating work to a team or influencing stakeholders, conflict will inevitably arise in some form. The P3 Manager will need to have conflict management skills no matter how well honed their other interpersonal skills may be.

Naturally, at the heart of all human interactions is communication.

The fundamental principles of interpersonal skills do not vary across the range of projects, programmes and portfolios. However, the context and organisational structures do change and this leads to different challenges and different emphases in their application.

Here are some must-have skills and tips that will make your team love and respect you.

Leadership

By far the hardest part of leadership for a Project Manager is having to exhibit different styles of leadership for different teams at different phases of the P3 life cycle, most of which will not be their preferred style.

Ultimately, the position of leader is ‘granted’ by followers who make the decision to follow. The leader’s use of an appropriate style of leadership, which takes account of both the situation and the readiness of people to follow, will influence that decision. A team member’s readiness to follow a leader will depend to a degree on their perception of the leader’s ‘power’. The value of willing followers should not be underestimated, particularly in the context of small projects.

The relationship between a leader and their team takes time to develop, so small projects with a small team are a difficult situation for the prospective leader. The Manager of a small, non-complex project has to develop a relationship with the team very quickly. This situation is often compounded by the fact that, in such situations, the project exists in a matrix organisation where the team members have other departmental managers. 

These departmental managers have the default ‘legitimate power’ and most of the ‘reward power’ described by Montana and Charnov. The Project Manager must therefore seek to develop their own legitimate power alongside ‘expert power’ and possibly ‘referent power’. This latter authority to lead comes from having a strong sponsor who is visibly committed to the objectives.

Of course, teams are made up of individuals and different things motivate different individuals. The basic principles of motivation are explained in models such as Maslow and Hertzberg and the P3 Manager needs to understand both the individuals in the team and their collective development.

Teamwork

While leaders require followers, they must also themselves be able to follow. Many projects will be part of a programme or portfolio that also has its leader. A Project Manager will need to be a strong leader but must also be able to be an effective team member in respect of the programme or portfolio.

The temporary nature of a project means that a P3 Manager needs to build a project team as quickly as possible and maintain its performance against the backdrop of impending demobilisation. It helps considerably if the individuals who make up the team are comfortable with, or actively enjoy, the dynamic environment of projects, programmes and portfolios, but the P3 Manager rarely has the luxury of being able to select their ideal team.

Once assembled, teams do not become high-performing simply because they have been given a common objective. They typically go through a series of development stages. P3 Managers must be aware of where a team is in the development cycle and adjust their leadership style to suit. Once established, a P3 Manager is responsible for the continued cohesion of the team. They should strive to keep individuals motivated and support them in their personal and career development aspirations.

As projects become more complex and develop into programmes, the P3 Manager will delegate portions of the work to team managers or sub-project managers. By implication, the P3 Manager is delegating responsibility for team development as well as delivery, but must retain an overview of performance.

Delegation

The principles of delegation are at the heart of any project, programme or portfolio method. The transfer of the work will clearly require the P3 Manager to specify what needs to be done, but it is not only the production work that is being delegated. Some degree of responsibility and authority is also being transferred, so the P3 Manager must explain the role as well as the outputs. Careful consideration must be given to what can and cannot be delegated.

Delegation is primarily a means of distributing work around the various P3 contributors, but it is also a means of motivating teams and individuals to realise their full potential. Delegation underpins a style of management that encourages project team members to use and develop their skills and knowledge. Models that illustrate the relationship between leadership and teamwork often make reference to delegation in the context of skilled leaders and high-performing teams. Once the work is underway, the P3 Manager should exercise a suitable degree of supervision and provide support as required.

A competent P3 Manager will need to develop skills to overcome numerous potential personal and organisational obstacles in the path of effective delegation, including:

  • complex lines of authority in a matrix organisation;
  • the ability of the P3 Manager to select the members of their teams;
  • a blame culture where there is intolerance of mistakes making people reluctant to accept responsibility;
  • reluctance to delegate (‘By the time I’ve explained it, I could have done it myself’).

An important element of delegation in the P3 environment is the effect of changes to objectives and delivery plans. While a task may be defined and delegated it is inter-related to many other tasks within a project, programme or portfolio, and therefore subject to change. Change should be expected, and uncontrolled change will counter the beneficial effects of delegation. The delegator must keep the delegatee informed. That means explaining the reasons for change in the delegated work as well as the changes to the work itself.

Conflict Management

Bringing people together on a temporary basis, in new and changing situations, in order to work together to produce a set of objectives, is almost designed to create conflict.

It takes people to cause conflict, and when they do, it creates uncertainty, affects morale and undermines the effectiveness of a team. Conflict can result in a delay, or even failure, to deliver the objectives.

The P3 Manager should anticipate conflict but not necessarily seek to avoid all of it. Some degree of conflict is seen as a necessary part of building a high-performing team as illustrated by the ‘storming’ stage of team development in Tuckman’s model. Facilitating healthy disagreement can help develop the individuals and provide learning experiences, but this must be carefully managed to prevent it becoming counter-productive.

When attempting to resolve conflict it is useful to distinguish its different components. As Furlong points out, a resolution is easier to find if conflict resolution focuses on factors such as data and structure rather than values and relationships.

For some forms of conflict, a mediator may be useful. They must have the ability to listen actively and facilitate negotiation towards a resolution. Again, mediation must focus on the issues rather than the personalities.

Negotiation

Addressing conflict often involves emotional and cultural issues. Collaborative negotiation seeks to create a scenario where all parties involved get part or all of what they were looking for from the negotiation. This approach tends to produce longer-term solutions and minimise the opportunity for future conflict. Whatever the context, there are common factors that exemplify a good negotiator:

  • the ability to describe common goals and boundaries;
  • emotional control and equal treatment of all parties;
  • good listening and communication skills;
  • thorough knowledge of bargaining tactics;
  • an ability to close a negotiation in a way that secures the outcome.

Negotiation is easy to get wrong. The cardinal sin is to enter into negotiations unprepared. Pressure to conclude negotiations and get on with the project or programme can result in rushed discussions that produce difficult to implement outcomes. It is important to stay calm and know when to take a break. Whenever it takes place, the result of a negotiation will have repercussions throughout the remainder of the life cycle, so it is worth the investment to get it right (or as right as reasonably possible) before moving on.

Influencing

In a high-performing team the P3 Manager is not so much telling the team members what to do as influencing them to do the right thing. When a P3 Manager cannot exercise direct authority, they must seek to affect the behaviours and actions of others through influence.

In order to influence, a P3 Manager must understand those they wish to influence, what is required of them and what can be done for them in return. ‘Give and take’ is a powerful human motivator. We don’t like being in debt to others and generally treat others as they treat us. Someone is more likely to give you something you want if you have given them something they want.

A P3 Manager’s ability to influence is often based on different sources of power as described by Montana and Charnov. They must understand their sources and levels of power so that they can be used constructively and certainly not abused.

Influencing can take many forms. It can be deliberate or accidental, overt or discrete, focused or widespread. The P3 Manager must be aware of all these aspects both beneficial and detrimental, and habitually consider the consequences of their actions. Actions to positively influence one person may negatively influence another; effort in influencing a delivery team may create enthusiasm that positively influences others.

While an individual’s ability to influence will be based largely on their personality and behaviour, it is also dependent on their position in the organisation. Sometimes even the most skilled P3 Manager will need support from their sponsor simply because the influencing skills need to be backed up by the kind of authority or credibility that is linked to seniority in the organisation.

Communication

P3 Managers share knowledge and facilitate connections between people and tasks to get projects done. They communicate. The basic principles of communication are exactly the same regardless of the complexity of the project. In its basic form, communication involves the person who originates a message; a channel for communicating that message and a person who receives the message. The obvious primary forms of communication are: written, verbal and body language but these are modified by many other factors, such as whether they are formal or informal; active or passive; conscious or unconscious.

The way someone creates a message and the way someone else receives that message depends on numerous factors, such as their personal values, vested interests, frame of mind and even their personal ‘learning style’. A good P3 Manager should be able to transform information into something compelling and readable.

The range of available channels of communication is increasing all the time. Traditional channels such as paper, telephone and face-to-face are being supplemented and often replaced by email, social media and tele-conferencing. Every new channel brings its own opportunities and challenges for communication. This modern twist doesn’t change the fact that the ability of the receiver to correctly understand the message will depend upon choosing the right channel.

About Emma Jones

Emma Jones is the Praxis Framework™ Chief Examiner and was previously a PRINCE2 Chief Examiner for five years.

She established one of the initial Training Organisations specialising in PRINCE2 and has now worked with APMG International developing courses and qualifications for 16 years.

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