As a project manager, is your emotional intelligence harming or helping your project?


Research has shown that soft skills are important for project management success. One of the measures of soft skills, used in recent years, is the concept of emotional intelligence. Emotional Intelligence (EI) is the capacity to understand, value and wisely manage emotions in relationship to oneself and others (Goleman, 1998).

Various sophisticated tools, techniques, and procedures exist in order to facilitate the management of projects. Despite this, why do projects still fail? Obviously there is no one simplistic answer, but, according to several studies (White, 2002; Belout, 1998), the so-called soft skills are great contributors to project success or failure.

This paper explores the area of soft skills, with special reference to Emotional Intelligence (EI), as an important attribute for Project Managers and project success. The theory around emotional intelligence as developed by Goleman and others is applied to the very unique field of project management as defined in the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)(PMI,2000).

Finally, research done to determine whether project stakeholders perceive emotional intelligence as an important attribute in project management, is presented. This paper is based on a research project that was completed for a Master's degree in Project Management at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

A brief emotional intelligence checklist, an output of this research, as indicator for project managers is also presented to enable attendees to get a basic indication of their own emotional intelligence as project managers.


As project managers, we have, hopefully, all worked on projects that have been a success. Most of us have, unfortunately, worked on projects that have failed as well. Although we come to conferences of this nature to learn the latest tools, techniques and procedures to make our projects successful, why do projects still fail? Obviously there is no one simplistic answer but according to several studies (White, 2002; Belout, 1998) the so-called soft skills are great contributors to project success or failure.

According to Kippenberger (2000), a survey done by the UK industrial society in the early 1990's showed that:

1)    77% of projects in the UK fail.

2)    83% of projects in the US fail.

3)    3% of IT projects succeed.

According to later research by Sauer (2003) in the IT industry:

1)    The number of projects hitting all their targets remains low at 16%.

2)    Average overrun on budget is 18%.

3)    Average overrun on schedule is 23%.

4)    Average underachievement on scope/functionality is 7%.

Projects are normally structured in such a way that a lot of personal interactions take place. The team members have to get on well with each other, the team needs to get on with the customer, as well as top management to mention a few. The skills needed to get on well with each other are soft skills.

One of the measures of soft skills developed in recent years is emotional intelligence. Emotional Intelligence is the capacity to understand, value and wisely manage emotions in relationship to oneself and others (Bourey 2001)

This paper presents research done to determine whether project participants perceive that emotional intelligence is an important attribute for project managers. This will be discussed as follows::

1)    Firstly, a survey of the literature is presented showing the importance of soft skills.

2)    The concept of emotional intelligence is then defined and discussed.

3)    This is followed by an application of the concepts of emotional intelligence to the project management domain.

4)    Finally the results of the research are presented.

Importance of soft skills in project success

“The meaning of things lies not in the things themselves, but in our attitude towards them”.- Antoine de Saint Exupery

Soft skills refer to a very diverse range of abilities such as self-awareness, analytical thinking, leadership skills, team-building skills, flexibility, ability to communicate effectively, creativity, problem-solving skills, listening skills, diplomacy and change-readiness (Human resources development Canada 2003).

Soft skills are very important in project management. This is acknowledged in the PMBOK® Guide (2000) in that an entire chapter deals with human resource management. But what does the literature say are soft skills important to the success of your projects?

Traditionally project success is measured in terms of the time, cost and performance/quality triangle shown in Exhibit 1.

Project management

Exhibit 1: Project management

According to several studies (Kippenberger 2000; White, et al 2002; Gray, 2001; Belout, 1998; Pettersen, 1991; Belassi, 1996) soft skills are very important for project success.

Most of the literature consulted indicates that the traditional and mechanistic approach of measuring project success is no longer applicable as is. The human factors also need to be taken into account. The following soft skills seem to be required in projects:

1)    Leadership.

2)    Communication skills.

3)    Political awareness.

4)    Ability to influence top management.

5)    Ability to influence client and end user.

6)    Conflict resolution skills.

7)    Ability to deal with change

8)    Team management skills.

We, as project managers, normally steer the project boat and, as such, it is imperative that we possess these skills. Project managers normally come up through the technical ranks, thus, we are not normally taught these skills. The next part of the paper will introduce the concept of emotional intelligence. The good news is that emotional intelligence can be taught and improved.

Emotional Intelligence

“The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don't know what to do.” - John Holt.

Definition of Emotional Intelligence

Goleman (1998) defines emotional intelligence as “a capacity for recognising our own and others” feelings, for motivating ourselves, and for managing our emotions, both within ourselves and in our relationships.’

According to Goleman (2001b) it is not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but mainly as “threshold capabilities”; that is, they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions.

Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” - Helen Keller

In the organizational context, research shows that emotions, properly managed can drive trust, loyalty, and commitment. Emotions properly managed also drive many of the greatest productivity gains, innovations and accomplishments of individuals and teams (Cooper, 1997).

Several researchers have been doing research on emotional intelligence and the competitive advantage that is obtained by improving it. There are several methods for defining emotional intelligence. For purposes of this paper, the current version of the EI framework as developed by Goleman (2001) and shown in Exhibit 2 will be used for discussions on EI.

Current version of the EI framework (Goleman, 2001)

Exhibit 2: Current version of the EI framework (Goleman, 2001)

Applicability of Emotional Intelligence to Project Management

“You can complain because roses have thorns, or you can rejoice because thorns have roses.” - ZIGGY

The clusters of emotional intelligence build on each other; an emotionally intelligent project manager will, thus, need to possess some elements of all of the clusters. The paragraphs below examine the importance of each cluster for a project manager.

Self Awareness

“A happy person is not a person in a certain set of circumstances, but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes.” - Hugh Downs

The self-awareness cluster of Emotional Intelligence consists of (Goleman, 2001): emotional self-awareness, accurate self-assessment and self-confidence.

Emotional self-awareness is the ability to recognize one's own feelings and how these feelings affect one's performance. We have all worked with people who “throw their toys” over the slightest matter. A project manager deals with so many interpersonal interactions that it is detrimental to the project if he/she is not aware of why he/she reacts in certain ways.

A project manager must be able to understand why, for example, a team member rubs him up the wrong way or why he/she becomes defensive when dealing with a certain client.

Accurate self-assessment is the ability to accurately assess one's own abilities, seek out feedback, learn from mistakes, know where to improve and know when to work with others with complementary strengths. A project manager must be able to take the feedback obtained, for example, from performance evaluations or project closeout meetings, and, without taking it personally, improve his or her performance. A project manager must also be able to ask team members, in less formal ways, what they think of his/her performance.

When selecting a project team, the project manager must do so in a way that complements his/her own skills, personality and competencies. A project manager who cannot accurately assess him/herself will not know how to do this.

Self-confidence is defined as confidence in oneself and in one's powers and abilities. For the duration of a project, the project manager is in charge of making decisions that will affect the final outcome of the project. A project manager must have confidence in his/her own ability to make these decisions and not constantly need his/her boss to make these decisions. A project manager needs self confidence to deal with non-performers on the projects. A project manager also needs self-confidence in order to give presentations on the project to the numerous project stakeholders.

Self management

“Control your emotion or it will control you.” - Samurai maxim

The self-management cluster of emotional intelligence consists of (Goleman, 2001): emotional self-control, trustworthiness, conscientiousness, adaptability, achievement drive and initiative.

Emotional self-control is the ability to remain unfazed in a stressful situation and the ability to deal with a hostile person without lashing out in return. A project usually needs to be delivered in a certain time, at a certain cost, and with certain deliverables. A project normally does not execute according to plan and, thus, managing projects is normally stressful. A project manager that possesses emotional self-control will, thus, not become stressed when things go wrong. Due to the stressful nature of projects, tempers often run high and project stakeholders can often be at each other's throats. A project manager should remain emotionally in control and deal with irate stakeholders in a calm manner in order to stop tempers from flaring.

Trustworthiness is the ability to let others know one's values and principles, intentions and feelings and acting in ways that are consistent with them. The project stakeholders must know where they stand with the project manager from the outset. The conduct of the project manager must be consistent and trustworthy towards all stakeholders.

Conscientiousness is being careful, scrupulous and self-disciplined in attending to responsibilities. The project manager must set the example in this regard. If the project manager is not conscientious in ensuring that his/her work is up to date and correct, neither will the team members be.

Adaptability is the ability to let go of old assumptions and adapt the way in which one operates. According to the survey done by White et al (2002) a flexible approach to change is one of the critical success factors for projects. Project managers need to be both change managers and change agents.

Achievement drive is an optimistic striving to continually improve performance. A project manager must strive to improve his/her own as well as the team's performance in order to ensure that the organisation's projects remain competitive.

Initiative is the ability to act before being forced to do so by external events. The project manager should take the initiative on projects to implement tools and techniques learned in order to ensure that the organisation remains ahead of the pack.

Social Awareness

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” - Sir Winston Churchill

The social awareness cluster of Emotional Intelligence consists of (Goleman, 2001): empathy, service orientation and organisational awareness.

Empathy is an astute awareness of the emotions, concerns and needs of others. An emphatic individual can read emotional currents, picking up on nonverbal cues such as tone of voice or facial expression. This sensitivity to others is critical for superior job performance whenever the focus is interactions with people. A project manager must be aware of the emotional currents in the team. He/she must be able to read the non-verbal cues of the client as well as those of the executive.

Service-orientation is the competence to identify the client's often unstated needs and then match them to products or services. It also means taking a long-term perspective, sometimes trading off immediate gains in order to preserve customer relationships. The output of a project is normally a service or a product that must meet the needs of a client. It is thus very important for a project manager to be able to identify the unstated needs of the client and match them to the product or service provided by the project. Although projects are of limited duration, it is important that project managers take a long-term view when executing projects as organisations that perform projects also need to build long-term customer relationships.

Organisational awareness is the ability to read the currents of emotions and political realities in groups, which allows individuals to form networks and wield influence no matter what their professional role. According to White et al (2002) top management support is one of the critical project success criteria. A project manager who is not aware of the political realities in the organisation will not be able to obtain this support.

Relationship Management

“Listen with regard when others talk. Give your time and energy to others; let others have their way; do things for reasons other than furthering your own needs.” - Larry Scherwitz

The relationship management cluster of Emotional Intelligence consists of (Goleman, 2001): developing others, influence, communication, conflict management, visionary leadership, catalyzing change, building bonds, and teamwork and collaboration.

Developing others involves sensing people's developmental needs and bolstering their abilities . Belout (1998) states that one of the criteria of project success should be the personal growth of team members. A project manager normally works very closely with the team. As such the project manager is usually the person that sees the abilities and lack of skills of team members the best.

Influence is the ability to handle and manage emotions effectively in other people and so be persuasive. In most types of organisations, except for projectised organisations, project managers do not have a lot of positional power and must rely on influence to get things done. Project managers need to persuade resources to work on their projects. Influence is thus an important ability for project managers to possess.

Communication is the ability to be effective in the give-and-take of emotional information, to deal with difficult issues in straightforward ways, to listen well and to foster open communication and to stay receptive to good as well as bad news. According to Kippenberger (2000), one of the reasons found for project failure is poor communication. According to White et al (2002), clear communications channels are one of the critical project success factors. Belassi et al (1996) found effective co-ordination and communication to be one of the indicators of project success.

Conflict management is the ability to spot trouble as it is brewing and to take steps to calm those involved. White et al (2002) found conflict resolution to be one of the critical project success factors. As leader of the project team, the project manager must often settle disputes between the team members and between the team and the client. Without skills in conflict management, the project manager becomes very ineffective.

Visionary leadership is the ability to inspire others to work together toward common goals. It is further the ability to articulate and arouse enthusiasm for a shared vision and mission, to guide performance of others while holding them accountable and to lead by example. Kippenberger (2000) found the use of the wrong leader to be one of the reasons for project failure. White et al (2002) found effective leadership to be one of the critical project success factors. She also found setting clear goals and objectives to be important for project success. The project manager has to lead and inspire the project team to reach the goals and objectives of the project.

Catalysing change is the ability to recognise the need for change, to remove barriers, challenge the status quo and enlist others in the pursuit of new initiatives. White et al (2002) found a flexible approach to change to be one of the critical project success factors. The project manager needs to take a big picture view and challenge the project team that often get caught up in the technical detail of the project and to change where appropriate.

Building bonds is the ability to choose people with a particular expertise or resource to be part of a network. As stated before, project managers do not often have positional power within an organisation. Project managers often do not manage to staff their projects with the resources that they would prefer. For this reason, a project manager should have a network of co-workers that he/she can call on to help him/her when aspects of the project start going wrong.

Teamwork and collaboration is the ability to work co-operatively with peers. Projects are normally executed in project teams. The size of the team may vary but the necessity for the team to work together remains. According to Ammeter et al (2002) two of the main indicators of project success are team orientation and team communication. Not only must a project manager be able to work well in a team, he/she must also be able to successfully build the team.

Research on the Importance of Emotional Intelligence for the Project Manager

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” - Attributed by Mark Twain to Benjamin Disraeli.

As part of a Masters in Project Management at the University of Pretoria, research was done to determine whether emotional intelligence is an important attribute for project managers. The literature survey, presented in summary above, formed part of the research. A survey was developed using the framework of emotional competencies, as developed by Goleman (2001), as a basis. The data obtained was then statistically analysed.

The final respondents of the survey were selected from a population of 5444, which could be any project stakeholders and were not limited to project managers. The sample groups that the questionnaire was sent out to are shown in Exhibit 3.

Data collection Sample

Exhibit 3: Data collection Sample

The data analysis showed that almost 90% of respondents are of the opinion that emotional intelligence is an important attribute for project managers. The histogram in Exhibit 4 was obtained by determining the percentage of respondents that selected each option, for each question, and plotting the percentage vs. the different options for each question. The sum of the percentages for “Agree” and “Strongly Agree” is also shown. This graph clearly shows that a high percentage of respondents selected “Agree” and “Strongly Agree”.

Options versus percentage respondents selecting option

Exhibit 4: Options versus percentage respondents selecting option

The demographics of the respondents are summarised for the highest indictors shown in Exhibit 5.

Respondent demographics for highest indicator

Exhibit 5: Respondent demographics for highest indicator

Implications for Project Managers

This research shows that emotional intelligence is an important attribute for project managers. According to the literature, emotional intelligence is something that can be learned and improved. Project managers should strive to improve their emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence should be taught to project managers.


1)    It is recommended that the research be performed on a bigger sample in order to confirm the findings.

2)    Development of a tool to measure the emotional intelligence of project manager.

3)    Conducting a study to determine if emotional intelligence is important in project team members.

4)    Development of a tool to measure the emotional intelligence of project team members.

5)    Expanding this study into other countries.

6)    Differentiate between the perceptions in terms of emotional intelligence of men and women.

Checklist for Emotional Intelligence

A checklist for emotional intelligence, based on this research, that can be used as a guide for determining emotional intelligence in project managers will be handed out and discussed during the presentation of the paper.


Ammeter et al . (2002, Dec) Leadership, Team Building, And Team Member Characteristics In High Performance Project Teams. Engineering Management Journal. 14.(4). 3 – 8.

Belassi et al. (1996) A new framework for determining critical success/failure factors in projects. International Journal of Project Management. 14.(3).141-151.

Belout, A. (1998,February) Effects of human resource management on project effectiveness and success: toward a new conceptual framework. International Journal of Project Management. 16.(1). 21-26.

Bourey, J. (2001, October) Do you know what your emotional IQ is?. Athena Miller. PM. Public Management; Washington. 83. (9). Page 378.

Cooper, Robert K. (1997, December). Applying Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace. Training and Development, 51(12) 31-38.

Goleman, D. (2001a) Emotionally Intelligent Workplace: How to Select for, Measure and Improve Emotional Intelligence in Individuals, Groups and Organizations. Hackensack, NJ: Jossey-Bass.

Goleman D. (2001b December) : Emotional Intelligence. Thinkers.

Goleman, D. (Nov/Dec 1998) What Makes a Leader? Harvard Business Review. 76.(6). 93-104.

Gray, R. (2001, February) Organisational climate and project success. International Journal of Project Management. 19.(2).103-109.

Human resource development Canada (2003)

Kippenberger, T. (2000) Management's role in project failure. The Antidote. 5.(4).30-33.

Pettersen, N. (1991, May) What do we know about the effective project manager? International Journal of Project Management. 9. (2) 99-104.

PMI (2000)A guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). Newtown Square, PA: PMI

Sauer, C (2003) The State of IT Project Management in the UK 2000 – 2003.

White et al. (2002, January) Current practice in project management— an empirical study. International Journal of Project Management.20.(1).1-11.

© 2004, Marie-Louise Barry and Yvonne du Plessis
Originally published as part of the 2004 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Europe, Prague



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