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The role of emotional intelligence in leading projects

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Someone picking up a textbook for the first time could be forgiven for thinking career success as a project manager rests on the obtainment of professional qualifications and technical knowledge alone. What I've increasingly learned since I began my project management career 16 years ago is the necessity to possess emotional intelligence, which I believe to be the driving force behind an individual’s unique approach to leading a project.

The principles of project management on the surface can seem almost rudimentary, within our personal lives alone we are frequently “project managing” in respect of identifying a requirement, developing a plan of essential activities and subsequently carrying out those activities in conjunction with managing associated risks to achieve the desired output. Delivering successful outcomes however is predicated on an ability to lead and manage a team displaying demonstrable emotional intelligence.

What many organisations fail to recognise is the reality that failure to develop soft skills significantly outweighs the costs of inadequate technical skills. Projects which are delivered outside of time, cost and/or quality parameters will naturally have a corporate impact, however, leaders devoid of emotional intelligence will directly impact an organisation’s Employee Value Proposition (attraction and retention), corporate performance, and outputs, each entailing extensive financial and reputational implications.

Owing to the inherent complexities in leading projects, there is widespread crossover with the necessity for emotional intelligence:

1. Relationship Management

Arguably the most important and frequently challenging aspect of project management is the ability to build and nurture effective relationships. Establishing good relationships predicated on effective and personable communication helps to build confidence and mutual trust. Project managers who engage proactively with stakeholders rather than reactively typically enjoy greater levels of receptiveness and support, as well as reduced resistance when issues and/or deviations do arise.

2. Motivation

The ability to establish and maintain a motivated project team with established high standards is an essential component in delivering successful projects. As well as demanding working lives, each member of the project team will be managing personal commitments and unexpected occurrences. Establishing an optimal culture and developing a team who strive to support one another, particularly during the challenging periods is crucial. Leading by example with demonstrable motivation cascading from the top-down enhances resilience within the team as well pushing continual improvement.

The ability to manage conflict is paramount, as is an appreciation of the fact conflict is often not a negative occurrence, but one often borne owing to managing a passionate and enthused team which must be managed accordingly.

3. Self-awareness

Projects are seldom delivered on an even keel, the vast majority are subject to demanding periods of turbulence and uncertainty, often resulting in conflict and stress within the team. It is imperative leaders remain cognisant of their emotions and manage them accordingly to mitigate the potential of rash and/or ill-informed decision making as well as creating a high-pressure working environment.

Project managers are routinely tested in a myriad of ways, the ability to maintain self-confidence as well as a pre-determined knowledge of our own strengths and weaknesses enables the appropriate tailoring of behaviours. It’s during testing times, our values, morals and behaviours are most in jeopardy, maintaining a healthy physical and mental balance helps develop the resilience required to adapt to changing environments. Self-awareness also relates to the ability to reflect on our actions and behaviours, taking corrective action when required.

The body language and demeanour we use can be difficult to mask, self-awareness is required to ensure appropriate communication is conveyed including verbally, electronically and via body language.

4. Social Skills & Awareness

Throughout the course of delivering a project, leaders are required to display a plethora of skills, knowing when to push, support, comfort, recognise, reward, develop or empathise etc is essential. Understanding the complex personal needs and concerns of the team is crucial in maintaining a motivated and resilient team. In addition to understanding our own strengths and weaknesses, we also need to recognise and utilise them across the team. Emotional intelligence relates to the ability to not only recognise emotions in others, but the ability to react and respond accordingly, emotional indicators include body language, behaviours and physical actions.

Personal Reflection

Having held various project/programme management, strategy and HR roles, it was the role of Programme and HR Business Manager which afforded me the insight and opportunity to manage and develop a broad range of project managers. What very quickly became apparent was the essential need for emotional intelligence to be afforded the same consideration and investment within mandatory learning and professional development as that of technical skills and qualifications. Accountable for workforce capability management and subsequent corporate learning offerings, I implemented an emotional intelligence strand of learning as both an accompaniment and enabler to technical skills and qualifications, incorporating offerings in relation to: psychological safety, leadership, stakeholder management, personable communication, empathy, conflict management, delegation, wellbeing and stress management. The ensuing results were overwhelmingly positive, not only in respect of project benefits and deliverables but from a corporate perspective including: retention, succession planning (upskilling future leaders), cultural, economic and SQEP.

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