How to Improve Interpersonal Project Management Skills

Think of the project managers you admire most. Often, these are individuals who possess more than the technical skills such as developing project schedules and performing risk analysis. These project managers have strong interpersonal project management skills. So, what are interpersonal skills? Why are they important? And, how can we improve these critical skills?

picture of project manager communicating to a team

Project Manager Facilitating a Project Meeting

What are Interpersonal Project Management Skills

Interpersonal skills are relational and communication skills. They are soft skills, but that does not mean they are not important. Seth Godin argues that these should be called real skills -- these skills are critical to our success.

Imagine a project team with strong-willed individuals who battled one another over a buy vs. build decision. Sally, a long-time employee and senior developer, made a case for leveraging the tools and experience of the company to build a solution. John, an operational manager said, "We don't have time to develop a solution; our competition is already ahead of us. Let's buy and implement a commercial solution as soon as possible." How would you have handled the relational and communication aspects of this conflict?

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Interpersonal skills come in many forms such as:

  • Leadership
  • Decision making
  • Communication
  • Team building
  • Trust building
  • Problem-solving
  • Conflict management
  • Collaboration
  • Negotiation
  • Planning
  • Facilitation
  • Influencing

The Importance of Interpersonal Project Management Skills

Project managers face a lot of challenging situations each week. These interactions involve people and circumstances. Sometimes things are outside of our control. Our interpersonal skills can be a great help.

  • A team member constantly treated other team members with disrespect.
  • Your team was in trouble, but your sponsor was unavailable to help.
  • Your client was troubled because their expectations were not being met.
  • Meetings, meeting, and more meetings but little progress.
  • A senior leader was undermining your efforts.
  • A problem team member continually failed to complete their activities causing adverse impacts to the project schedule.
  • Management wanted your project completed in four months, an unrealistic deadline.
  • Decisions were made, but few of them stuck.
  • You've been asked to take on a troubled project where team members are at odds with one another.

How we handle these events either help and advance our projects (and our career) or cause harm. Are you aware of your emotions and your relational skills? Well, let's discuss ways to improve our project interpersonal skills.

The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people. --Theodore Roosevelt

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The Purpose Driven Project Manager

Your ability to influence and manage these individuals is essential to your success. In my book—The Purpose Driven Project Manager—I share tips to 10 common problems project managers encounter and how to develop and use your interpersonal skills for greater success.

How to Improve Interpersonal Project Management Skills

Ready to work on your interpersonal skills? Allow me to offer some practical steps.

We must first identify our weaknesses? Look at the list of interpersonal skills above. You may want to force rank the list. Start your list with your greatest weakness and then add your next greatest weakness. Continue the process until you've listed all of the skills in descending order. Add others where necessary.

Second, pick one or two of the skills you wish to work on in a particular project. Furthermore, you can identify specific things within a category. For communication, a project manager could work on active listening. Another person might work to learn and incorporate new decision models to improve their decision making.

It's one thing to identify a skill to improve, but it's an entirely different thing to change our behavior. An experienced coach can be helpful in the following ways:

  • Discuss current habits and desired future habits
  • Identify resources such as classes and books
  • Specify ways to improve
  • Determine how to measure your progress
  • Provide feedback, encouragement, and accountability

Third, confirm your progress through before-and-after evaluations. Identify other ways to make further improvements.

Lastly, capture your results and implement the new habits across all of your projects. One way to do this is to keep a project journal which is great for personal reflection and helping you to see your progress over time.

Of course, this process can be iterative. Loop back to the planning and start again if necessary.

Interpersonal Skill Books

Covey Steven. 2006. The Speed of Trust. Free Press.

Dow William & Taylor Bruce. 2015. Project Management Communication Tools. Dow Publishing LLC.

Hall Harry. 2017. The Purpose Driven Project Manager. CreateSpace.

Kouzes James & Posner Barry. 2008. The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations. Hoboken, NJ, US: Jossey-Bass.

Kouzes James & Posner Barry. 2010. The Truth about Leadership: The No-fads, Heart-of-the-Matter Facts You Need to Know. Hoboken, NJ, US: Jossey-Bass.

Maxwell John. 2005. Developing the Leader Within You. Thomas Nelson.