Project Management Institute

A people person


For many, though, people skills don't come as easily as technical ones, and that can lead to project breakdowns. Approximately one-third of business leaders do not succeed because of poor people skills, according to a global 2005–2006 survey of 5,000 leaders and human resource representatives by Development Dimensions International, Bridgeville, Pa., USA. François Chiocchio, Ph.D., PMP, Université de Montréal, Montréal, Québec, Canada, and Neville Turbit of Project Perfect Pty Ltd., Sydney, Australia, weigh in on the debate over people and technical skills.


A project manager cannot live on technical skills alone.

How important are people skills in project management?

Mr. Turbit: Project managers don't always have direct authority over people. They are competing for time and attention against a whole range of other activities. They are trying to get the attention of people and push along a schedule that is not necessarily aligned with what those people see as their schedule. Project managers need to be able to motivate people, get their attention, communicate with them and secure their involvement in the project.

Dr. Chiocchio: People skills are crucial whenever you have teams—and they're even more crucial when it's project management because effective project management uses matrix management. You have people that see the problems from different angles all the time. You need to be sensitive to how they understand the problems and make them sensitive to your own point of view. That takes more than problem-solving skills. It takes people skills to present issues in a respectful way that will be understood by others.

Which are harder to learn: people skills or technical skills?

Mr. Turbit: Technical skills are easier in many cases. It's sort of a logical thing to learn a language or how to write a risk assessment. It's all very mechanical. The softer skills of project management are much harder to teach, because you're really getting to the core of people. You're getting them to look at themselves and understand how they work and how they're motivated.

points of view

François Chiocchio, Ph.D., PMP, is an associate professor at the Université de Montréal, Montréal, Québec, Canada. His work focuses on collaboration and communication in the workplace, and performance assessments of individuals, project teams and organizations.

Neville Turbit has more than 15 years of experience as a project manager. He is the principal of Project Perfect Pty Ltd., a project management software and consulting organization in Sydney, Australia.

Dr. Chiocchio: Project managers should have a “people track” in their project. It can be used as a mechanism to remind them they have people responsibilities. I would strategically make the first milestone super-short and almost not focus on the technical aspect of it, only on how the team has worked together. I may not say it specifically this way. In fact, I usually don't. I keep the focus on the technical stuff. But five minutes later, I'm talking about, “So how did we work together? Was I clear when I gave those directives? How did you speak to each other when you did work on this?” I appear to be really technically focused, but in fact, I'm very much concerned with how the team is building the trust within the team structure. That, for me, is paramount.

Can people skills be taught?

Dr. Chiocchio: Some people might prefer to be social or prefer to be introverts, but certainly people can learn to adapt to specific situations and trigger appropriate behavior—if they know what kind of behavior that is.

Mr. Turbit: I agree with François. A person may not be a particularly good social communicator. Yet they learn that skill and they apply that skill in a professional setting. But put them into a more relaxed environment, and you realize it's very hard work for them.

What are the best methods for teaching people skills?

Mr. Turbit: You need to start by understanding yourself and how you relate to other people. Then, step outside that and see how other people relate to you. Part of getting things done is being able to appreciate that people have different motivations, interests and agendas. You have to put yourself in the other person's shoes. I won't say that skill is easy to learn, but it's certainly something that can be taught, and doesn't seem to be taught that much in the project management arena. Even in a management arena, it's not necessarily always taught.

Dr. Chiocchio: The more self-aware we are, the more we can build on what we learn and modify our behavior. Self-awareness doesn't come naturally, however. It comes as people seek feedback. As a manager, if I see someone who isn't very self-aware or is a little rough around the edges, I tell them to seek feedback—and listen to it.

Overall, are companies doing a good job of training in this area? Is it even their responsibility?

Dr. Chiocchio: Some are doing it. But all in all, the amount of budget invested in technical skills is vastly larger to the amount invested in people skills.

Mr. Turbit: If you wanted to employ a project manager in most organizations, they would be looking at, “Can you put a schedule together? Do you have experience in this technical area? Can you do a risk assessment?” You would be lucky if you had questions relating to motivation and those sorts of things. Project management is still very much seen as a technical area.


The more self-aware we are, the more we can build on what we learn and modify our behavior.

–François Chiocchio, Université de Montréal, Montréal, Québec, Canada

Dr. Chiocchio: That's right. Many project managers see project management as first, a set of tools, then a set of processes, then a set of people skills. But anyone who comes to be a seasoned project manager will recognize the priority should be on the people skills. Then it should be the processes. And third should be the tools. People tend to hide behind the sophisticated tool, when it's a sophisticated people perspective that would get them out of the problem—or even avoid it.

Mr. Turbit: It's like, “We'll put a methodology in place, and consequently, we'll have good project management.” Well, I'm sorry, it doesn't work that way. How many project failures or semi-failures can we attribute to a lack of people skills? Unfortunately, some companies think of a project manager as someone with a whip and a tether.

What disadvantages are there to not having good people skills?

Mr. Turbit: Well, if you don't have the people skills, you're going to rely on the stick, rather than the carrot. You're going to rely on pushing people to do things without being able to motivate them.

Mr. Chiocchio: The correlated question is: What happens when you put forth too many people skills and not enough technical skills? That's a trap, too. We divide performance in two ways: task performance and contextual performance. Task performance relates to the actual job you have to do and the knowledge you've learned in school, for example. Contextual performance is what you do to be a good organizational citizen—to help your teammates over and above what the job requires. That is not related to the actual core business of the unit or company.


If you don't have the people skills, you're going to rely on pushing people to do things without being able to motivate them.

–Neville Turbit, Project Perfect Pty Ltd., Sydney, Australia

If you over-emphasize contextual performance in your work behavior, you will leave a good impression at first. That may stick when you get a performance evaluation, because people are affected by the social aspect of the relationship. But in the long run, people will feel that you're hiding behind the people skills and not actually doing the job you're getting paid for. It's balancing the skills for your job and the people skills by situation. It's a situation-specific approach.

And back to what Mr. Turbit said about managing with the stick and managing with the carrot—sometimes it's all right to use the stick. Sometimes people should be told that what they did was wrong.

Are there people skills that are more important for project managers? Or for executives?

Dr. Chiocchio: The goal of people skills from a project manager's perspective should be to get resources. For someone who is higher up, the people skills need to be focused on listening and providing concrete support. Executives should really be able to demonstrate they can listen. They almost invariably think about communication as expressive skills, but it's also about receptive skills—being able to listen. The combination of a good resources negotiator and a good listener opens the door for effective project management.

Mr. Turbit: There are people skills involved at both levels. In some matters, the project management role is more difficult, because you don't have authority. Consequently, your job is a harder sell than an executive who can say, “Well, I'm telling you to do it, because I'm in charge of this department.” So you do need a slightly different twist on your skills to be able to extract that support.

Are there industries that place a higher value on people skills?

Mr. Turbit: I don't think you can generalize and say there's one industry where they're most valued. You have to look at organizational culture. If you have a very autocratic “get-things-done-don't-worry-about-the-quality” culture, that will flow through to the divisional level and you're likely to have project managers in that area who are not valued for their people skills. They're valued for their ability to meet deadlines. PM

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