Project Management Institute

Perform, lead, win


Successful project managers consider soft skills from the start and plan for smooth, efficient team interaction.


Regardless of experience, project managers face difficulty when assembling a conflict-free team. An intense, results-focused environment often breeds stress and performance pressure.

Unfortunately, there is no all-inclusive independent evaluation system that shows how the individuals on your project team will handle stress—or even if they will be compatible. Personality indicators and psychological tests offer some insight, but they can be expensive, require training to administer and use effectively, and still don't reflect human complexity across the board.

Besides, project managers don't always have the luxury of choice. Team members may be assigned based on their availability or technical skills—not communication and negotiation abilities.

  Lessons Learned

img How to evaluate soft skills through interviewing when building project teams

img How ongoing communication and mentoring keeps teams strong

img When surveys can give objective insight into subjective measures.


If it looks like your project has a lot of people rolling off one that had tight deadlines and long work weeks, you may need to build extra time into your schedule to accommodate low levels of initial productivity.


Soft skills can't be measured as objectively as the hard ones. Unfortunately, too many managers go to the other extreme: They make gut decisions that may result in the promotion of people with great technical ability and inadequate people skills. Successful managers find a middle ground.

How do you ensure personalities won't get in the way of progress? Don't wait until there is a problem to think about personality, says Kathy Mosgrove, PMP, a human resources consultant based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Before your project begins, ask prospective team members who or what contributed to the successes of their earlier projects. Their answers will tell you who is committed to working with others and who may deliver results but at the expense of those around them. “A strong leader and team player will give most of the credit of a successful project to their team and not take all of the credit themselves,” she says. Interviewing is a good test of a candidate's ability to handle conflict, according to Lisa Cunningham, PMP, Director of the Global Program Management Office for Motorola, The Hague, The Netherlands. “There are people who want to avoid confrontation, and you can find that out almost immediately,” she says. “You can put them into role-playing or scenarios to help them see what they are up against.” Every project has some level of conflict, but those who are averse to these high-pressure situations may choose a less contentious project or a more difficult assignment with greater possible benefits.


When talking to the prospective team, ask about experiences with troubled projects. Although all but the most junior employees will have worked on a failed project at some point, some folks bear open wounds from recent disasters. “People carry baggage with them from project to project,” says Vic Arms, PMP, Client Delivery Executive and Support Leader at EDS, Spring Hill, Tenn., USA. “It helps to know upfront who is more likely to be tired or cynical. And, if it looks like your project has a lot of people rolling off one that had tight deadlines and long work weeks, you may need to build extra time into your schedule to accommodate low levels of initial productivity.”

Leaders set the culture and the customer focus, but the teams perform the work and eventually form the leadership. The environment must encourage continuous improvement and measure performance to keep the work balanced. “The best way to see how people will act in the future is to see how they acted in the past,” says Craig Stevens, principal of Westbrook Stevens, a Nashville, Tenn., USA-based consulting firm that specializes in change management and leadership training.“You have to measure the soft skills to get to a higher level.”

When interviewing potential team members, you can gain a sense of how their personalities will mesh with the job at hand. Still, you probably won't find an exact match between project requirements and personnel. Technical skills may be common, but coping skills aren't.

Project leaders often lack the conflict management tools to run teams, says Jenny Flintoft, senior consultant of Kaizen Training, Abbots Langley, Herts, U.K., which specializes in executive emotional intelligence development. “From our research and experience of working with a wide variety of businesses, it is often the executives who have been promoted, through having a high technical and theoretical skill base, that can cause the worst problems,” she says. These people are usually highly educated and credentialed; they just don't have much skill in dealing with the people around them.

You can help people develop their soft side. Cunningham finds that mid-level employees benefit from a mentor relationship with a more senior executive, which ensures project managers understand their roles and responsibilities. In addition, both formal and informal training can refine conflict and management strategies.

Mosgrove strongly believes in mentoring to improve leadership skills. “If you have a good role model, you'll mimic that,” she says. She advises her clients to set these up informally, both to simplify the administration and to reduce personality conflicts. Up-and-coming employees can be given lists of senior managers in their areas who are interested in mentoring; the employee then can talk to these people to find a suitable match. If you know a great programmer who is not skilled at client relations, a mentor outside the project can offer advice.

Arms notes that people may be assigned to a project not for skills they have, but for skills they want or need to learn. Incorporating informal training through a mentor relationship can keep these people on-track to meet both personal and project goals.

In addition, abundant information reduces stress, insecurity, politicking and other negative personality traits that can destroy teams. “A good communicator utilizes all the available tools such as email, meetings, presentations, memos and face-to-face discussions in an effective manner,” Mosgrove says. However, set some ground rules, especially with e-mail: A team under deadline doesn't want to wade through 150 “reply-all” messages saying, “Thanks for the info.”

Project managers must remind team members that soft skills are important and help them develop their skills: It's part of their job descriptions. These responsibilities can be accomplished at project closure and during the performance review process. Cunningham surveys customers and other stakeholders on their satisfaction with the project and the team. This interview gives managers an objective measure they can use in their assessments, and customers’ insights may uncover strengths not readily apparent in the final budget and schedule performance metrics.


When discussing emotion and management, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) or its cousin, the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, inevitably come up. These systems place individuals into one of 16 categories based on their tendencies between extroversion/introversion, sensation/intuition, thinking/feeling and perceiving/judging. These systems have evolved, but they still are misused frequently.

People must understand these systems’ limitations, says Daniel Robinson, director of Graduate Education in the Department of Educational Leadership/Policy Studies at Iowa State University and president of the Association for Psychological Type ( “Part of the ethics of using the MBTI is that it should not be used to exclude,” Robinson says. “It should be used as part of a battery of tests, and the results should belong to the individual.”

Further, people aren't going to answer questions honestly if they believe it will be used against them. Most test-takers can probably figure out which questions measure introversion/extroversion. If someone believes that only extroverts will be promoted, he or she easily can lie to get the desired score. The employee will not gain self-knowledge that could be used to improve performance. “Individuals should be interested in the results and feel that the information will help them,” he says.

In properly administered settings, each test should generate similar outcomes, says Robinson. Nevertheless, some observers have noticed that personality types may change over time, especially for those who undergo a major life event. Robinson says this happens because a numerical score determines each letter in the type indicator. Some people have a great difference in their score, say between thinking and feeling, while others show a very narrow difference. “Where people do change is where the numbers were close in the first place,” he says.


From our research and experience of working with a wide variety of businesses, it is often the executives who have been promoted, through having a high technical and theoretical skill base, that can cause the worst problems.



Surveys also can help quantify emotional factors, says Mark Chism, PMP, project manager with Check Printers Inc., Nashville, Tenn., USA. When a project falls apart, whether due to a failure to meet its deliverables or a natural disaster, managers tend to concentrate only on physical and functional fallout. Surveys of emotional impact, measured on an integrated impact scale ranging from 0 (maximum impact) to 10 (no impact), can determine if people will have the time and energy to commit to restoring the project, according to Chism. Using such survey-generated numerical scores can help managers assess emotional factors during and after a project. PM

Ann C. Logue is a freelance business writer based in Chicago, Ill., USA. She has written for Barron's, Profit and Training & Development.

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