Soft Skills Fill the Gaps Between Theory and Real Life

Whether you’re operating within a DevOps, Agile, or Waterfall environment, the academic principles of project management are clear, tried, and tested.  What is hard to communicate via a textbook or lecture are the gaps that exist between real world execution and academic theory.  Over the course of a career, project managers develop the soft skills of team leadership that fill these gaps and propel their teams to success.  Beyond creating burn charts and capturing user stories, successful project managers must fill four emotionally supportive roles to ensure their teams deliver peak performance:

  • Confidant
  • Mentor
  • Cheerleader
  • Lighthouse Keeper

These are the 4 critical roles every project manager must own to lead successful teams.

Project Managers – the Wearers of Many Hats

CONFIDANT:  With aggressive timelines and ever increasing expectations, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we are all still just people. Skilled and experienced, but people none the less.  As this fact is inescapable, imperfect and unexpected interactions between people or processes may create frustration.  Having an outlet to express that frustration in a benign way allows team members to expel the emotional baggage associated with a problem and get to potential solutions. These factors are critical components of any high performing team.  In the January-February 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Sigal Barsade and Olivia O’Neill evaluate the emotional culture of teams and businesses at large.  One of the largest take-a-ways from their research is the fact that, while companies are aware of how emotions impact employee performance, the emotional culture - the sum of the emotions of a team or company – isn't managed as directly as cognitive culture.  This lack of attention paid to emotional culture hurts both the individual and the team. By creating relationships of trust, team members become comfortable confiding in you. As a result, you limit the momentum of any negative energy that may hurt your team's emotional culture. You give yourself an opportunity to shape the way the issue is resolved.

By creating relationships of trust, team members become comfortable confiding in you. As a result, you limit the momentum of any negative energy that may hurt your team’s emotional culture. You give yourself an opportunity to shape the way the issue is resolved.
— Dustin Werden

MENTOR: As a project manager, you occupy a leadership role. Those on your team look to you for feedback (both negative and positive) about their performance and contributions.  If you aren’t providing explicit and conscious feedback, you are still providing feedback, just through other less efficient methods.  Occupying a mentorship role for your team is not only good practice, but it can be crucial for your team’s success as well.  Helping others leverage their strengths and encouraging them to recognize and improve upon their weaknesses is key for any mentoring relationship.  The context in which constructive criticism is received must be from a place of trust and sincerity.  As a project manager, you have an opportunity to show those on your team that you are invested in their growth as a person and as a team member by giving them honest input. By providing objective and sincere observations aimed at improving individual contributions, you are inspiring personal growth and optimizing team performance

CHEERLEADER:  A project will have ebbs and flows of productivity.  During those ebb times, it’s easy for team morale to dip. If left unchecked, a dip in morale could result in a downward spiral of productivity that could negatively impact the project as a whole.  It’s critical for project managers to not only recognize the changing mood and morale level of the team but to play the role of cheerleader. By playing the role of cheerleader, as a project manager, you remind your team of the progress and the highlights. Celebrating achievements generates positive momentum for what is to come. Effectively communicating to your team about the next phase and ensuring everyone has a clear understanding of what they’re accountable for keeps their heads in the game even when those expected contributions are days or weeks away.  Setting fun goals and tracking against those goals can keep the momentum going, as well as keeping things light for your team.  Fred Lunenburg lays out a very tangible link between accountable goal setting and performance in his article, “Goal-Setting Theory of Motivation.” The achievement of even silly or fun goals can jump start the positive momentum.

LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER: Without fail, projects have moments where success is not assured, and unforeseeable factors are allowing chaos to reign. These times are like stormy seas for your team members. While they are being thrashed by turbulent waves they need to see a lighthouse through the rain that gives them a sense of hope and reassurance.  As a project manager, you must be the lighthouse keeper - the steady and collected presence when things are not going according to plan.  Steve Blash lays out great tips in his article “Ten Lessons for Leading Through Crisis.”  Steve’s advice addresses preparation for crisis, which is always wise, but I find his thoughts on how to react once the crisis bell has been rung to be valuable.  Once crisis has manifested in your project, you must:

  • Objectively and accurately define the reality of the situation.  If you aren’t honest with yourself and your team about the situation at hand, you can’t formulate a response that will right the ship.
  • Be realistic. While it’s very easy to become pessimistic during a crisis, it’s just as unproductive to become too optimistic. 
  • Own the communication. Define the situation and the impact to all affected stakeholders.  Communicating early and often ensures those affected understand the correct amount of urgency is being applied to the situation.
  • Know Your Limits. As a project manager, it’s tempting to want to take the entire burden of putting things back on track.  Resist this temptation and delegate to your team members such that their areas of expertise are leveraged.
As a project manager, you must be the lighthouse keeper - the steady and collected presence when things are not going according to plan.
— Dustin Werden

And Don’t Forget This Essential Predictor of Success

Many factors drive project success. Some can be taught as you would a mathematical theory while others have to be learned through experience.  The essential ingredients that can’t be taught by attending a class or reading a book are the soft skills that address the emotional components of all teams. They include self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. You must recognize that not all skills needed to manage projects are contained in a process or a book. Applying emotional intelligence to uncover how you can help grow your team can take your project management skills to the next level.  It is the emotional intelligence that moves people into action. So how are you using your emotional intelligence to lead successful teams?

Dustin Werden

Director of Project Management Services | AfidenceIT

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