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The new skills you can’t ignore

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The leadership requirements of large projects are changing. There is a growing recognition that, while a traditional command-and-control approach may be satisfactory where there is a clear understanding by all involved as to what needs to be done, a more sophisticated set of skills is needed to guide a team through the maze of uncertainty and ambiguity that is a feature of so many projects today.

So, what are these skills and how can they be developed? Let’s take a look at the concept of social intelligence, and the capabilities that will be required by every project manager who aspires to lead a large project team.

Social intelligence can be described as knowledge and awareness of social situations and processes. It is the ability to get along well with others and get them to cooperate with you.

Whereas emotional intelligence might be seen as the ability to empathise and connect with others on a one–to-one basis, social intelligence has a wider focus on understanding the behaviours of people in groups or teams.

While some people have a stronger sense of how to interact socially than others, everyone is able to learn the processes and routines that build connections between adults.

Illustrations of the types of activity that make up part of social intelligence include:

Systemic thinking
This is a way of looking at issues that moves beyond the instinctive blame reaction to difficult news. It requires the leader to see beyond the symptoms of apparent bad behaviour and seek to understand the context of the situation. Seeking to identify the cultural and organisational factors that may have contributed to a problem significantly improves the chances of addressing the root cause.

Understanding group dynamics
This involves an ability to ‘read the room’ and understand the unspoken messages that are being transmitted between different individuals. It requires the ability to slow down one’s thinking and observe the small signals that provide clues to positive and negative interactions. Professional people learn quickly to hide emotional reactions to others, but body language, facial expressions and vocal changes provide information that reveals patterns of behaviour. Recognising these clues is an important way of gauging what is really happening with the dynamics of the team.

Influential enquiry
One of the most important activities in terms of shaping how a team thinks is asking questions of the group. Rather than giving directions, an influential leader is able to use a line of questioning that focuses the group’s discussion in the direction that the leader wishes to steer it. The process of asking questions, rather than issuing instructions, may feel more time-consuming. Studies consistently show, however, that groups that feel they have contributed to a decision are far more likely to take ownership of its implementation.

Acquiring an understanding of one or two psychometric tests based around motivation or personal preferences can be a very useful investment. Learning to quickly recognise certain behavioural traits, and understand the underlying personal drivers, will help provide context to explain differences in approach among different team members. Being able to map out a team’s psychometric profile can be particularly useful in avoiding miscommunication, as each member learns to adapt their style to ensure the others understand.

Conflict management
When team members start to fall into conflict, the damage to the team culture can be disastrous. Learning to look out for, and take action on, the early signals of conflict is an important habit. Techniques such as the use of precise language, and the mechanisms for developing a blame-free environment, help build the habit of dialogue, rather than argument or disengagement. Developing a series of protocols that deal with the different stages of conflict will save you and your team a great deal of emotional energy.

Reflective learning
A simple yet effective skill is to embed the process of periodically asking the team to pause and reflect on their recent experiences. Being able to facilitate an open discussion about what has happened, why it happened and what to do next time will accelerate the team’s learning and improve performance.

Creating psychological safety for all
Working in an environment where every member of the team feels safe to express their thoughts, without fear of ridicule or rejection, is one of the distinguishing features of highly effective teams. Such environments do not happen by accident, as the default position is for teams to be very guarded until they finally trust all the other members. Learning how to set the behavioural norms that lead to psychological safety will have a significant impact on your team’s ability to build commitment and full engagement.

The above skills can all be learned. But there is no fast-track method of building proficiency. The initial information can be picked up from lectures or books, but the real learning comes from trying out new techniques and asking for feedback as to how they worked.

But persevere and you will eventually develop the socially intelligent leadership mindset that your clients and teams will appreciate.

  • This article originally appeared in the autumn 2018 issue of Project


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  1. Emile Fakhoury
    Emile Fakhoury 21 February 2019, 04:33 PM

    Excellent article! very needed skills indeed for all projects.

  2. Mark Wareing
    Mark Wareing 22 February 2019, 12:04 PM

    Hi Tony, not sure how to contact you but was wondering if you were interested in doing a presentation to one of the local APM branches.