Why project managers should value soft skills

Lynda Bourne
June 3, 2015

The project management community and the wider business community are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of soft skills. Being aware of their importance and investing in developing improved capabilities are different, however. Before most organisations (and individuals) will invest in developing improved soft-skill capabilities, their value needs to be demonstrated.

A recent report prepared for McDonald’s UK provides a solid foundation for understanding the importance of soft skills to the UK economy as a whole, and is likely to be indicative of the situation in the Australian economy.

Soft skills fall into six interlinked sets of competencies:

1. Communication skills

  • Effective listening
  • Accurate and concise communication
  • Effective oral communication
  • Communicates pleasantly and professionally
  • Effective written communication
  • Asks good questions
  • Communicates appropriately using social media

2. Decision-making/problem-solving skills

  • Identifies and analyses problems
  • Takes effective and appropriate action
  • Realises the effect of decisions
  • Creative and innovative solutions
  • Transfers knowledge between situations
  • Engages in lifelong learning
  • Thinks abstractly about problems

3. Self-management skills

  • Efficient work habits
  • Self-starting
  • Well developed ethics and sense of loyalty
  • Sense of urgency to address and complete tasks
  • Works well under pressure
  • Adapts and applies appropriate technology
  • Dedication to continuing professional development

4. Teamwork skills

  • Productive as a team member
  • Positive and encouraging attitude
  • Punctual, meets deadlines
  • Maintains accountability to the team
  • Works with multiple approaches
  • Aware of and sensitive to diversity
  • Shares ideas to multiple audiences

5. Professionalism skills

  • Effective relationships with customers, businesses and the public
  • Accepts critique and direction in the workplace
  • Trustworthy with sensitive information
  • Understands role and has realistic career expectations
  • Deals effectively with ambiguity
  • Maintains appropriate decorum and demeanour
  • Selects appropriate mentors and sources of advice

6. Leadership skills

  • Sees the ‘big picture’ and thinks strategically
  • Recognises when to lead and when to follow
  • Respects and acknowledges contributions from others
  • Recognises and deals effectively with conflict
  • Builds professional relationships
  • Motivates and leads others
  • Recognises when change is needed, and contributes to the change effort

To evaluate these skills within the overall economy required some extensive analysis; as a starting point, the overall productivity in the economy was disaggregated into the five drivers of productivity (as defined by HM Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills):

  1. Investment
  2. Skills
  3. Innovation
  4. Entrepreneurship
  5. Competition

The skills driver was then further disaggregated into the following component parts: technical skills, technology skills, literacy, numeracy and soft skills, where soft skills covered the range of capabilities outlined above.

Based on this analysis, soft skills were found to underpin around 6.5% of the economy as a whole, and this contribution was expected to grow strongly over the next five years.

The research highlighted that employers ranked soft skills above academic qualifications and ahead of or equal to other competencies, with 97% believing that soft skills are important to current business success. Worryingly, 75% of employers say there is a soft skills deficit within the workforce, but many job applicants don’t list soft skills in their résumés.

Employee results supported this concern as it was revealed that 54% of employees said that they have never included soft skills on their CV and one in five felt that they would be uncomfortable discussing their soft skills with an employer.

The research found that deficiencies in the UK’s current stock of soft skills were imposing severe penalties on the economy, causing major problems for business and resulting in diminished productivity, competitiveness and profitability. Over half a million UK workers will be significantly held back by soft skills deficits by 2020.

Observation of project managers in Australia, the USA and South America suggests to me that the UK findings are likely to be repeated in most similar economies. Helping to change this lack of focus on the linked capabilities of effective stakeholder engagement and communication was one of the reasons for writing Making Projects Work: Effective Stakeholder and Communication Management; it really does not matter how good the technology is, if people don’t understand it and don’t want to use it, your project will fail!

In summary, soft skills matter and contribute significantly to productivity, but there is a measurable, and widening, skills gap and soft skills are underrepresented in skills development initiatives. Changing this is a major challenge for organisations, business and people seeking career development.

How do you think your soft skills can be developed?

Author avatar
Lynda Bourne
Dr Lynda Bourne PMP, FAIM, is an international authority on stakeholder engagement and the Stakeholder Circle visualisation tool. She is the author of 'Making Projects Work' (2015), 'Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders' (2011), and 'Stakeholder Relationship Management' (2009) and a contributor to many others.
Read more