“The soft stuff is always harder than the hard stuff,” says Roger Enrico, former Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo (Roger Enrico Quotes, n.d.). The most effective project teams report that interpersonal abilities or soft skills are essential when managing projects and people, and often make the biggest difference in retaining key talent, growing the business, or losing one project after another. At the same time, we often spend the majority of our personal or organizational training efforts on the technical side of project management—the hard skills. This paper explores the key areas where focused people development makes the biggest difference for project managers to drive ultimate success for their stakeholders and their teams.
“I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.” —Gandhi
You have heard the debate before: Which is more important: hard skills (also known as technical skills) or soft skills (also known as people skills)? The pendulum appears to be tipping toward recognizing a greater need for soft skills as a key driver to project success. After all, stakeholders have individual attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that protect their own interests—people make up the project team to drive the ultimate outcomes; people comprise the end-users who assess the value of the outcomes; and people finance and invest in all our projects for the purpose of some clear expected return.
Clearly, successful project management requires more than the mastery of technical skills related to process, frameworks, and discipline; it also requires a special set of skills to marshal all resources toward a common goal. Managing people requires a keen understanding and application of leadership, management, and interpersonal skills to ensure the team performs the needed tasks in a timely manner at the highest level of quality.
With the ever changing expectations of stakeholders, people skills are more important today than ever before. Stakeholders are not only more knowledgeable about what they want but also about when they want it and how to assess the trade-offs of their choices. Today, being able to anticipate the people-dynamics and optimize each interaction is a critical skill required to build team confidence and team focus to ensure projects end on budget and on time while delivering exceptional outcomes.
One cannot ignore or devalue the importance of the hard skills. It's the hard skills that allow us to become known for certain technical competencies in our chosen profession. In fact, technical competencies are a key ingredient in every project. Hard skills are those in which we are trained to address the technical requirements of a task or project, for example, our proficiency programming skills or a language, experience with architecting systems, or competency with project management.
Historically, managers select interviewees primarily based on their stated or demonstrated technical abilities. In fact, proof of technical proficiencies, training or certifications, and scope of experience are the most common basis for being hired. A quick review of a current résumé will demonstrate this bias toward documented proficiencies and technical competencies, often with quantifiable results using these skills.
At the same time, the soft skills allow us to best apply our technical understanding within the context of a particular situation. Soft skills elevate our hard skills beyond the constraints of our training, learned disciplines, and personal beliefs ultimately leading to innovation and creativity—the key ingredients of excellence and adaptability highly valued in today's fast-pace environment.
Soft skills, although often secondary to the hard skills when hiring, represent the skills required to have successful interactions with others. Wikipedia contains one of the most straight forward and concise definitions for soft skills.
Soft Skills are behavioral competencies. Also known as Interpersonal Skills, or people skills, they include proficiencies such as communication skills, conflict resolution and negotiation, personal effectiveness, creative problem solving, strategic thinking, team building, influencing skills and selling skills, to name a few. (Soft Skills, n.d.)
Soft skills are sometimes associated with the idea of emotional intelligence quotient (EQ), or “the ability to identify, assess, and control the emotions of oneself, of others, and of groups” (Emotional Intelligence, n.d.). Clearly, soft skills are harder to “touch” or put your finger on, yet we all seem to know when someone uses soft skills with great proficiency. And project managers with high EQ are highly valued by stakeholders.
Focused people development—strengthening the internal capacity of teams to meet client needs and exceed expectations—involves five key components outlined in Exhibit 1 and elaborated in this paper. This virtuous circle —trust, loyalty, performance, new opportunities, and growth/motivation—is a cycle our organization has witnessed in countless client assignments over the years. Although intuitively logical, the real power of this concept comes alive when you apply certain techniques and ideas discussed herein on “how” to strengthen each of these components as you apply the ideas to achieve your own organizational and personal success.
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Reflecting on your own experiences and observations, see if these ideas ring true for you in showing how important these skills can be to achieving successful outcomes:
- Can you generally tell when someone has mastered soft skills and when someone has not because of the way others react to their requests? Which skills do you see that are most effective in getting others to action without resistance or resentment?
- Do you think stressful situations require more finesse (that is a high degree of empathy and EQ)? Why is finesse the most difficult to muster under stress? Do you think there are techniques that help you find the finesse when needed? Who do you know who consistently shows finesse under pressure and what specifically do they do?
- On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the highest, what is the overall confidence score that you would place on your own team regarding your ability to deliver on time and on budget from the perspective of the stakeholders who own the ultimate budget? What's the score you would give each of the senior members of this team?
Why Does It Matter?
“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” —Maya Angelou
Most agree that it takes more than a technical solution to deliver on agreed expectations, manage unanticipated obstacles, and to overcome end-user objections as they become knowledgeable consumers of our output. In fact, the value of soft skills seems implicitly understood. There exists, however, a disconnect between that understanding and the allocation of resources to support project managers and team members to develop the necessary soft skills required to manage the team effectively. The ability to maneuver through unexpected changes that affect outcomes with respect and finesse, and ensure success within highly complex and ever evolving project environments is an enormous growth and profitability driver. One regularly encounters two very distinct approaches to this success driver: The “some folks have it, some folks don't” approach versus a strategic sustained investment to nurture and develop this engine of growth.
How Did We Get Here?
Emphasis on hard skills is a by-product of our attitudinal biases and management habits that have evolved over many years of ingrained “command and control” management methods so necessary at one time in manufacturing and blue-collar organizations. One of the most logical observations on how we got here comes from Franklin Ramsoomair and Ross Howey (2004):
Soft skills are ignored because of an obsession with tactics at the expense of strategy. Pressed with immediate needs, firms put their emphasis on individuals who excel at primary or core skills. While they may grudgingly admit to some belief in the value of soft skills, it is falsely felt that these non-core skills are a priority that can be deferred. However, once caught in the deadly embrace of over-reliance on short term priorities in goal delivery, the cycle of hard skill emphasis becomes internalized. The full potential of strategy is consequently never reached, primarily because of a workforce that is either not fully equipped to do the job, or is discouraged to do so because their ‘other' qualities are not valued adequately. (p. 1)
The obsession with hard skills over soft skills could be viewed as a habit stemming from a need to be tactical and near-term focused to drive immediate returns and demonstrate immediate progress. In other words, we have developed hiring and management habits of focusing on short-term needs and tangibles (such as programming proficiencies) rather than the intangibles proven to have longer-term benefits that also relieve pressure on projects and accelerate results.
The Loyalty Factor – It's All about Trust
Ask any senior manager or successful CEO the secret to good client and staff relationships and one word consistently tops the list— trust. The strength of stakeholder relationships is a measure of the level of trust developed between individuals or a team of individuals. These bonds form a powerful foundation that shapes overall perceptions, particularly those related to the quality of output as well as the amount of latitude granted in difficult situations.
Have you ever seen the effect of relationships with strong loyalty elements? For clients, a loyal relationship means extending benefit of the doubt in a contentious discussion, working harder to find additional resources on the team's behalf, or being more flexible and forgiving when addressing schedule slips. In other words, the bond of trust leads to loyal relationships with stakeholders of all kinds (e.g., end-users, team members, investors, leadership), and those relationships are consistently rewarded with what projects need the most—gratitude, latitude and support.
Similar to years of dependence on old management practices of short-term focus, we often direct our efforts toward stakeholder satisfaction rather than loyalty. Here's the problem: satisfaction is merely a measure of meeting the agreed upon commitments. Loyal stakeholders become loyal over time because their expectations are exceeded time and time again. This is why they are willing to “go out on a limb.” As such, only loyalty is truly predictive of future stakeholder behavior because satisfaction merely confirms that you met the basic need or commitment. This is the base assumption in any commitment or agreement whether written or verbal! It's the starting point not a destination. Loyalty means they independently reinforce their trust in relationship. To achieve loyalty you must meet your commitments and consistently exceed expectations.
Unlike satisfaction, loyalty can be measured because loyal actions can be identified, tracked, and reported. We consistently find value in how often stakeholders refer you or your team to others, for example, for a new project, as a problem solving team, or as a team someone should join. In other words, because of the trust in a relationship, stakeholders are willing to extend their trust in that relationship with others they trust. It is for this reason that loyalty is a prime component in growing the project or a company—referrals are an engine of growth.
Building relationships that deliver the long-term benefit from loyalty is difficult at best and requires a culturally-driven commitment to consistency, quality and persistence. In Beyond Performance, Scott Keller and Colin Price (2011), describe their findings in a recent McKinsey study that analyzed the typical approaches to measuring success and anticipating organizational performance. This broad study, the results of which are equally relevant to project team dynamics, spanned a decade of work in which they:
- Surveyed 600,000 employees at more than 500 organizations;
- Held panels of more than 6,800 senior executives; and
- Conducted in-depth interviews with 30 CEOS and senior leaders,
They started by looking at recipes for excellence offered by landmark publications like In Search of Excellence (Peters & Waterman, 2004) and Built to Last (Collins & Waterman Jr., 2004). By 2006, well before the financial crisis, 20 percent of these “excellent” companies no longer existed, 46 percent were struggling, and only 33 percent remained high performers (Keller & Price, 2011, p. 23).
But how could that be? Companies that were the epitome of excellence were no longer excellent? Keller and Price (2011) discovered that traditional performance metrics (revenue, turn over, etc.) were only one piece of the puzzle and only useful for retrospective views of progress. They discovered that the primary predictive drivers for performance were dependent upon the organizational culture and the associated staff behavioral choices. Briefly, they found that
- Behaviors particularly key to organizational health include accountability, ownership, and transparent communication.
- A desire to perform flawlessly AND evolve rapidly is critical to success.
- High levels of “organizational health” (e.g., accountability, ownership, transparent communication) lead to sustainable long-term results.
Attitudes Create Opportunity
The Keller and Price (2011) findings can be summarized with this insight: “Take people away and the life-blood of the organization is gone, leaving only the skeleton of infrastructure, buildings, systems, and inventory” (p. 9).
Working with our clients who range from the small to the Fortune 500 has led to our fundamental observation that organizations do not change—people do. The most difficult problem a project manager often deals with is attitudes because attitudes drive both the good as well as the bad behaviors. We find ourselves consistently asking, “What is the best way to retain and grow those valuable members who contribute well beyond their pure technical competencies?” And, “What can be done to change attitudes and behaviors that are placing a drag on their progress?”
A recent Monster study determined that, especially following the Great Recession (defined as 2007–2009), companies will need to continue pulling out all the stops to retain top talent; those are the ones who do have options on when they leave and where they go even in tough times (Monster Intelligence, 2012). Here is what the survey found:
- One out of every 2 workers (50 percent) reported dissatisfaction or indifference at their current job;
- 4 out of 5 workers indicate that they have updated their resumes in the past 6 months; and
- 56%-60% of workers reported that they search for a new job “all the time” or “frequently.”
According to this input, one of the biggest risks to project success is managing team member loyalty. Team member attitudes can and will affect a member's productivity, which can quickly affect performance of the team. (We have all seen toxic team members in practice.) We will describe later tactics to maximize you impact and mitigate your risk.
Growth and Motivation
Trust, loyalty, and team performance clearly lead to new opportunities and financial returns to the company in terms of finding new opportunities, retaining clients, and growing existing contracts. With our clients, we see accelerated results become the norm, not the exception, when team members across all levels of the organization identify the personal connection between their daily contribution and the company's success. They connect their personal return (in terms of new job opportunities, recognition, and financial rewards) to organizational success.
Understanding how every single team member impacts future potential is critical to firms with aggressive growth plans. Technically trained project managers and team members can often view their role in sales as negligible— “that's what the BD folks are for.” At the same time, they often hold the loyal relationship in the palm of their hand with little understanding of what to do with that relationship to help the company in the way it needs it the most— growth or expansion.
But once members see the connection between what they need and what the company needs, they find the personal motivation to look at their role differently—more consistent with what the organization needs. With proper soft skill development with a strong commitment respecting their beliefs and personal attitudes, they find the confidence to stretch, try, and succeed in redefining their role. For example, an observation from a recent participant of a Pensare Group certification program where the objective was to leverage existing team member relationships to strengthen existing customer relationships for the purpose of growing new lines of business through those existing accounts:
For me, the ‘big idea' I take away [from this program] is that the job of selling doesn't have to conflict with our personal values. I have always thought of the business development and sales aspect of this work as being either hat-in-hand humbly asking for work from people we know, or a bit of sleazy manipulation. But…[after being shown and mastering a] few basic skills, and more importantly understanding the context of the sales process, decision process and how to apply those skills can allow you to be successful in ‘selling' to meet clients' needs in a much more positive way. (Project Manager —name withheld to protect client confidentiality).
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So why does all this matter? Simply put, your success is based on all of these intangible attitudes resulting in tangible behaviors. Project managers need to develop and capture the competitive edge loyal relationships provide to be truly successful personally as well as help their own organizations succeed. The fact is that the “hard to measure” soft skills are highly correlated to employee loyalty resulting in customer (as well as all other stakeholders) loyalty. When employees and customers alike are loyal, they are more forgiving of mistakes, cooperative in finding solutions that benefit all, and willing to refer either other great hires to the team or new customers (affecting revenue). These are the tangible results of soft skills.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Have you ever seen a stakeholder who built up trust with a team over multiple years leave the scene to be replaced by someone who doesn't connect with the team? What is the potential impact to the project (e.g., loss of leadership, loss of funding, pressures to meet accelerated deadlines)? How might focusing on building trust help in this scenario?
- Do you find yourself dealing with employees who really don't seem to want to be there? Do they affect the entire project team? How is trust a factor in this situation? Do you think working on building trust might motivate an employee to be more engaged?
- Do you think team members are feeling more secure or less secure in their jobs today? How might that affect their attitudes and subsequent behaviors? Do you think feelings of insecurity affect the ability to develop trust?
What You Can Do: Maximizing Your Impact
“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” —Albert Einstein
Project managers in today's complex environment need to master the skills that affect the way team members see themselves, their role on the team, and the benefit resulting from their efforts. Chip Conley (2007) developed a model (shown in Exhibit 2—reproduced from Conley personal presentation) based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs that says it all.
This model asserts that meeting monetary needs of employees creates only base motivation—just enough to get the job done (in most cases). To move up the hierarchy, recognizing a member's efforts results in loyalty thereby improving the outcome. However, project managers who can create the inspiration that provides meaning behind someone's efforts can transform the way the individual motivates themselves. In other words, a project manager's ability to inspire someone results in self-motivation and a perpetual stream of energy and commitment to high-quality outcomes (which in turn, benefits the team, client, and ultimately the organization).
Inspiration, however, can be difficult to acquire. It is intensely personal, the process is rarely repeatable from member to member, and we cannot simply force or command someone to be inspired! It either happens or it does not based on alignment of values, attitudes, and choices made over time. Success comes when we are able to recognize and connect outcomes to something the team member values. Interestingly, most managers only focus on the monetary incentives shown at the lowest level of this model. Yet, in the resource constrained work environments we often find ourselves in, it's the personal inspiration that stimulates the imagination and ultimately leads to the creative solutions we so desperately seek.
Have you thought about what might really motivate your team members beyond pay and bonuses? In many environments, the missing element as described by employees is simple appreciation for things big and small. That they feel valued or their work product is valued. The one thing that means the most to many doesn't cost a penny.
Achieving high levels of team engagement is a first priority for all project managers and starts with a consistent culture and behavioral expectations. All must understand these expectations the same way. Engaged team members volunteer solutions, raise issues while they can still be resolved, and support each other regardless of who might be responsible. Team engagement starts with trust that when continually reinforced results in high levels of respect, behavioral predictability, and dependable outcomes.
Gallup Consulting published a study that compared differences in employee engagement (a measure of productivity) and earnings per share growth rate (a measure of profitability) between world-class organizations and average organizations. Summarized in Exhibit 3, this study shows that the ratio of engaged employees to disengaged employees is 5 times higher in world-class organizations. In addition, the earnings per share growth rate is four times greater.
World-class and average organizations not only demonstrate stark differences in productivity and profitability but also in terms of absenteeism, safety incidents and quality to name a few metrics used (Gallup, 2010, p. 3). So, there is a correlation between employee engagement, a soft skill, and profitability.
World-class organizations are measurably better on a wide spectrum of key performance indicators driven by employee engagement. So what can be done to improve attitudes, strengthen the team dynamic and build a culture of engagement? At the end of the day, employees want to feel valued and heard. What do you do to ensure each and every team member feels ownership in the results and engaged the process? Gallup's (2010) study surfaced the following 12 statements as those that best predict employee and workgroup performance (p. 2):
- I know what is expected of me.
- I have the materials and equipment I need.
- I have opportunity to do what I do best every day.
- In the last 7 days, I have received praise for good work.
- My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
- There is someone at work who encourages my development.
- My opinions seem to count.
- The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
- Fellow employees are committed to quality work.
- I have a best friend at work.
- Someone has talked to me about my progress in last 6 months.
- This last year, I have had opportunities to learn and grow.
One technique, very difficult for those who enjoy directing, is to ask open-ended questions as a matter of habit. For example,
- What do you think about that?
- What do you see?
- How would you go about it?
A wealth of high-value information can surface by converting yes or no questions to open-ended questions requiring thoughtful responses. The soft skill challenge addressed here is preparing leaders to use empathic responses and dialog starters to first understand so that the response is aligned with the other persons understanding. Credible empathy starts with listening to hear what is said and structuring a response appropriate by their definition, rather than preparing yourself to be heard.
Another trick is to provide opportunities for open and constructive exchanges around improvements, opportunities, and changes. Many teams suffer from the lack of opportunity to share their ideas. Consider providing creative outlets (at least quarterly) for open dialog about improving project and team outcomes. Good project manager master brainstorming where all the ideas are treated as equal and valid, and the sorting of ideas occurs after so everyone can contribute without “feeling stupid.” (A sure way of stifling ideas is to make one person in the room feel that their contribution was less important than others.)
The Project Manager's Attitude Is Contagious
When new hires lose their jobs, the number one reason can be traced back to attitudes that drive undesirable behaviors. Unfortunately, destructive attitudes affect everyone. Understanding, communicating, and reinforcing the desirable attitudes for a productive team culture can help all team members succeed.
Discussing attitudes as a team norm can drive consistent and more productive behavioral choices. Consider this: Have you ever seen a team member with exceptional proficiency in a technical skill, but also show a terrible attitude about the workload? At some point, their attitude of “I can't get it done” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Then others look at it and say “Well, if he can't do it neither can I!” Now, think of someone who has held an exceptional attitude during a difficult time with good (not necessarily exceptional) technical ability? What was their impact on the team and the willingness of the team to push forward? Most teams rise above their fears and stretch to the challenge.
Productive and positive team attitudes motivate members to step beyond what they believe to be limitations until they stretch to new personal levels. Project managers who believe in the impossible often get the impossible as an outcome, and therefore, are responsible for setting the tempo of attitudinal norms. Project managers cannot expect team members to adhere to norms that they themselves are not willing to display or reinforce.
Team norms cannot be over communicated. Here are some ideas of where agreement and reinforcement of team norms can really improve team engagement and individual motivation:
- Work ethic: What is a “standard work week”? What is the expectation during “crunch times”? Are there limitations on scheduling vacations?
- Politeness: The habitual use of “please,” “thank you,” and “how may I help you?” in dialog regardless of whether dealing with end-users, supervisors, or colleagues can set a tone of respect and address the need to feel valued. This also includes tone of voice, vocabulary, body language, and tone of terms used regularly.
- Communication: The standards of speaking, reading, and writing in a businesslike way. Most have the hard skills of knowing what usage is correct and what is incorrect. Many lack the soft skills of knowing when to use forms that are more formal and the tone to use (for example, standards in email communications).
- Teamwork: The receptiveness to get ideas from others, share responsibilities, take criticism, help others succeed, seek assistance, or step in to help resolve an issue.
- Accountability: Self-discipline and self-confidence to deliver on your commitments based on what you say you will deliver, when you say it will be delivered and at the quality expected. Also, to keep others informed with enough time that corrective measures can be put into place.
- Failure: Failures occur every day, particularly for teams that stretch limits. Handling of failure as a learning experience encourages trying new things, where handling of failure through retribution stifles creativity and innovation.
- Attitudes: Team cultures that reinforce the “can do” attitude over the “can't do” attitude tend to celebrate success and learn from failures. As they say, “A rising tide raises all boats,” and so it is also true that a shrinking tide will ground boats.
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When assessing engagement on your teams, it helps to ask yourself some key questions:
- What does healthy conflict look like? Where do we see well-reasoned differences of opinion? What do we do when we do not see them? (Absence of conflict is an indicator of low engagement.)
- How do members hold their peers accountable? Are the attitudes you see related to accountability productive or destructive to team members?
- How does the team regularly innovate and evaluate creative ideas as a team? Is time set aside to wrestle issues as a team? Do members have fun exploring new ideas or are they seen as an inconvenient change?
- Does the decision-making process reflect the bigger picture—that is optimize against “the right answer” rather than what is best for individuals or sub-teams?
- What is your role in demonstrating proficiency and mastery of soft skills? What soft skills do you think add the most value to your team to drive results?
The bottom line is simply this—it starts with you. By understanding the role of soft skills and mastering useful soft skill techniques (e.g., asking open-ended questions, listening, regular show of appreciation, creating opportunity to brainstorm as a team and share), you can drive hard-core outcomes related to improved profitability, less absenteeism, and improved relationships with stakeholders that drives new opportunity.
By setting the standards, communicating and ensuring everyone has the same understanding while also demonstrating those same standards, you create an environment where “everyone knows how to get an ‘A,'” which can be quite rewarding and motivating for those with a passion for success. And, that personal motivation is priceless when working in complex, heavily resource constrained environments.
Now, considering your environment, what changes will you commit to that will help you leverage your soft skills to improve outcomes on your team(s)?
- What are the top three people-related outcomes that you would like to achieve? What soft skills will you improve to drive these outcomes?
- What about your team? What three people-related outcomes would you like to see changed? How might you engage the team in coming up with an action plan? How will they hold themselves accountable?
- What one idea from this paper might you use that will drive time savings related to people wasting time, for example in re-work, arguing, meetings without productivity? How might you engage your team in discussing new group norms that can be successfully measured and improve time management?
Be patient and be consistent. Change takes time and is hard for everyone. Change requires an individual to become uncomfortable (which they resist), learn and apply new skills (which can be risky, particularly for those who like control), and reframe their understanding (let go of something they know). It helps to celebrate your successes often and learn as a team what's not optimal. Evolving soft skills as a team challenge is far more rewarding than simply working one individual at time. That way, soft skills take on a higher value in the team, get reinforced more often, and become a permanent part of the culture.