Tips and Tools7 minute read

3 Essential Project Manager Skills and How to Hone Them

Managing projects is largely about managing people. These three soft skills can help project managers build a strong team, gain trust, and create a positive culture.
Share
Managing projects is largely about managing people. These three soft skills can help project managers build a strong team, gain trust, and create a positive culture.

Kata Török-Pál

Kata is a project management expert who has consulted for Fortune 500 companies, including Disney and Mercedes-Benz, and Global 500 telecommunications company Telefónica. She has been a servant-leader for international and cross-functional teams, and is an advocate for mentorship and continuous improvement.

In most professional spheres, hard skills take precedence. They are evaluated during recruitment, proven via academic degrees and certifications, and generally regarded highly by employers and clients. As a result, soft skills are often pushed out of the limelight. But soft skills are vital to achieving workplace success and can drastically increase the impact an individual has on their team and organization. Abilities such as building connections and giving engaging presentations have become even more valuable now that many teams are working remotely.

An infographic titled “The Importance of Soft Skills” displays survey data collected by LinkedIn's 2019 Global Talent Trends report. There are three circles. In the first, 80% of respondents say soft skills are increasingly important to company success; in the second, 92% of respondents say soft skills matter as much or more than hard skills; in the third, 89% of respondents say bad hires typically lack soft skills.
In a survey of more than 5,000 talent professionals, LinkedIn found that the value placed on soft skills is increasing.

Soft skills encompass a wide range of problem-solving, creative, adaptable, time-management, and interpersonal competencies, all of which are integral in project management. Let’s home in on three specific skills that are easily overlooked but that can separate a good project manager from an exceptional one. During my 15 years in project management, cultivating these particular attributes has helped me overcome numerous challenges.

1. Assertive Communication

For a project manager, communication is everything, but assertive communication can be hugely valuable in getting things done. Running complex projects involves managing a diverse group of stakeholders from differing organizations, cultures, locations, and levels.

It is important not to confuse assertiveness with arrogance or aggressiveness. A good way to avoid this is to lead with your own perspective. For example, instead of saying, “You are hindering the team because they are constantly confused about the status of your tasks,” you could assertively say, “I find it difficult to know where we stand with the project if we don’t keep our Jira tickets current. I would appreciate your support in updating the tickets more frequently so that we can improve transparency.”

Giving feedback is key in driving high-quality output, but doing so constructively and without judgment will allow you to develop and maintain positive relationships and achieve mutually satisfying solutions to conflict—the building blocks for a strong and open culture. Similarly, authority alone is not enough to make individuals complete tasks competently and on deadline—you need to tap into intrinsic motivations like wanting to support the team. This is far more effective than telling people what to do.

Assertive communication is not easy and demands emotional agility: Don’t let your emotions control your attitude in uncomfortable situations. Rather, approach these situations in a mindful and productive way, always being cognizant of the higher purpose. Your message should be communicated from a place of compassion, even if your conversational partner is not able to meet you there.

This comparison table can help you understand the differences among passive, assertive, and aggressive tones when communicating with others:

Passive

Assertive

Aggressive

My needs are not important.

My needs are as important as everyone else’s.

My needs are more important.

I’m not being heard.

I can talk and listen with ease.

I talk over others.

You’re OK; I’m not OK.

I’m OK; you’re OK.

I’m OK; you’re not OK.

I tend to give in.

I tend to compromise.

I tend to take over.

I allow myself to be bullied.

I stand up for myself.

I tend to bully others.

I am reluctant to share my true thoughts.

I find it easy to express my true thoughts.

When I express my true thoughts, I shout or become aggressive.

I try to keep the peace.

I try to make things fair.

I try to look after myself.

Source: Psychotherapy Central

By communicating assertively, I have been able to work effectively with diverse groups of stakeholders in high-pressure situations, manage tensions, and successfully launch projects on time. Examine your own communication style and most commonly used phrases to identify areas for improvement, then practice rephrasing your passive or aggressive language. This is initially easier to do in writing, as you have more time to articulate thoughts; eventually, this style of communication will flow into your speech. There are a number of helpful online courses on this topic if you want further instruction. Personal development books, such as How to Be Assertive in Any Situation, can also be great resources.

2. Knowledge Sharing

The central task of a project manager is to build a team where everyone has the necessary skills to move the project forward. You may not have the resources to recruit the most experienced people nor the capacity for hand-holding, so being able to transfer knowledge is key. This could mean educating junior team members on how to build their skills, training stakeholders in Agile to make collaboration smoother, or improving decision-makers’ technical knowledge so they can make more informed choices.

It’s highly unlikely you will have the bandwidth to hold formal training sessions, but acting as a mentor can be an efficient way to share knowledge continuously and empower team members while keeping up with your day-to-day project work.

To be a good mentor, facilitate a safe learning space where people can ask questions and be open about their weaknesses without fear of criticism. Show genuine interest in team members: Get to know them and understand their goals. You don’t have to adhere to a formal framework, but if an individual needs more learning support—and if time allows—schedule regular one-on-one meetings where you can deepen their understanding of certain areas in a more targeted way.

If you’re unsure how to begin mentoring or you want to grow in your mentorship role, check out your company’s L&D resources, read expert advice, or find your own mentor. You can ask your manager to fulfill this role, but don’t be afraid to reach out to other people in your organization or connections in your professional network.

Mentoring has enabled me to be more efficient and to better manage distributed and inexperienced team members by encouraging greater autonomy, solidifying their foundation of project management knowledge, and improving their confidence.

3. Authenticity

Authenticity can be a challenge in the workplace, but trust is vital if a project is to run smoothly. We instinctively look for sincerity in our peers—it’s a hardwired survival tool. Our brains are constantly scanning for inconsistencies in others’ behavior and will alert us if something doesn’t feel right.

Your team members need to know that they can rely on you to lead them in the right direction and should feel able to approach you with problems before they snowball into more severe issues. Depending on the nature of your projects, you may frequently work with new team members, so being able to establish trust and build rapport quickly through authenticity is a huge benefit.

Authentic doesn’t mean “perfect.” You may not always make the correct decision—but owning your mistakes and showing vulnerability are important leadership characteristics. Authentic doesn’t mean unprofessional, either. You can share details of your personal life and be yourself while also being respectful of boundaries.

Like the two previous soft skills, you can acquire and hone authenticity. Practice honesty and transparency, follow through on your promises, listen actively to your team members, articulate your own challenges, and recognize both good and bad work.

By showing up as myself and being open about my own vulnerabilities, I’ve been able to create safe and trusting relationships with colleagues. They feel able to come to me with problems, and we work together to find solutions.

Project Manager Soft Skills Require Continuous Commitment

Proficiency in budgeting, scheduling, planning and forecasting, and operational software is critical to project management success. Your role is as much about managing people as it is about managing projects, so having soft skills in your professional toolkit is also vital. By communicating assertively, sharing knowledge, and being authentic, you can develop a strong team, build trust, gain support, and create an environment in which others not only can but want to do their best work. Like any skill, these require commitment to master, so set aside some professional development time to improve and strengthen them.

Further Reading on the Toptal Product Blog:

Understanding the basics

  • What makes a good project manager?

    The goal of a project manager is to deliver outcomes on time and on budget, which requires a combination of technical abilities and soft skills. This includes planning and forecasting, budgeting, problem-solving, time management, risk management, software proficiencies, creativity, and interpersonal competencies.

  • What soft skills do project managers need?

    To really succeed in their role, project managers should be able to communicate assertively, share knowledge efficiently, and be authentic with their colleagues.

  • Is being a project manager tough?

    Being a project manager can be challenging. It involves overseeing multiple projects at once, all with strict time and financial constraints, and coordinating with numerous stakeholders. When problems arise, they must be dealt with quickly so they don’t derail the schedule or budget.

Freelancer? Find your next job.
Enterprise Project Management Consultant Jobs
Kata Török-Pál

Located in Budapest, Hungary

Member since July 4, 2021

About the author

Kata is a project management expert who has consulted for Fortune 500 companies, including Disney and Mercedes-Benz, and Global 500 telecommunications company Telefónica. She has been a servant-leader for international and cross-functional teams, and is an advocate for mentorship and continuous improvement.

Toptalauthors are vetted experts in their fields and write on topics in which they have demonstrated experience. All of our content is peer reviewed and validated by Toptal experts in the same field.

World-class articles, delivered weekly.

Subscription implies consent to our privacy policy

World-class articles, delivered weekly.

Subscription implies consent to our privacy policy

Join the Toptal® community.