Have you ever been involved in a project that has not gone so well despite having good systems, processes and technical expertise? The problem may lie with people, relationships and culture. Complex projects rely on people’s interactions, with all their capacity for both creativity and destruction. McKinsey’s 2017 research discovered that soft skills in major projects are critical to performance.
The soft skills are the ones that can bring out the best in people and mitigate the worst. The simple truth is that every person and every conversation has an impact. The more senior you are, the more influential your behaviour is. Therefore, what you do matters. Every conversation you have matters. How you show up to projects and how you respond to situations matters.
Your soft skills matter -- but which are most important?
I’ve been working with project managers in construction, engineering and manufacturing for many years, and am often asked what are the most important soft skills? So here are my top six, to improve your leadership, communication, engagement and culture, and increase your likelihood of good project performance, as well as some suggestions of how to improve them.
1. Forge strong relationships
Strong relationships are ones that can be stretched and challenged, while still having each other’s backs and being able to work towards the bigger goal. Look at your relationships across different teams and stakeholders. Which ones need some improvement? Invest time to get to know them better, to understand them, to build trust and mutual respect.
2. Build psychologically safe environments
This means creating the environment in your teams in which people can speak up without fear of punishment or humiliation. If people feel like their ideas will be dismissed, their concerns belittled, their mistakes punished, or feel as if they matter less than getting the project done on time, then you’ll miss vital information, engagement and performance. Be aware of how you come across, not just in word but in deed – seek to learn not blame, and show that you care.
3. Engage and empower others
You can’t do it all, know it all or control it all. You need to listen to the voices on the ground and allow others to take ownership and responsibility for their solutions. Learn how to listen more effectively, be present, ask good questions and truly hear the responses. Coach people to solve their own problems. A wise project director once said to me ‘Remain the conductor, get other experts to play the instruments and praise them often!’
4. Develop the habit of taking a step back
Give yourself a pause to reflect and consider the bigger picture, and the wider cause and effect. Look for unhelpful internal or systemic patterns of thinking. Consider different potential responses for the future, or reflect upon what happened in the past and what you might do differently.
5. Stay curious
Usually the presenting issue is not the real problem. Explore what else is going on. What is underlying, what is not being said, where else might this problem emerge, who else is involved? Actively seek people who think differently to you; the diversity may help you find creative solutions.
6. Build your resilience
Seek to understand yourself better to recognise what trips you up, how you deal with setbacks, and how you keep yourself steady. Acknowledging your own emotions is a great habit that also helps you regulate them. Exercise patience, remembering that tough times will pass, and seek supportive people who will coach, challenge and champion you to keep you learning and growing.
Together these skills will help you to choose to have a different kind of conversation when you meet with your team, your stakeholders or even with your family. You can choose how you show up to that conversation and how you respond or react to how it plays out. After all, if every conversation matters and impacts on our culture, you can do something every day to improve it.
Developing your soft skills is not easy; changing ingrained habits never is. The initial effort to do something differently may be tricky, but the results will make your life easier and is likely to make your projects more effective. Just remember that learning soft skills is a lifelong journey.