AMA’s Ask The Experts: Alana Hill on Interpersonal Skills and Project Success

Jul 17, 2020


By AMA Staff

On July 1, AMA’s Ask the Experts Online Project Management series broadcast its second installment, How to Leverage Interpersonal Skills for Project Success. The series is an exploration of project management topics, with a special focus on virtual management. The guest expert, Alana Hill, PMP, author, engineer and consultant, explored the topic with webcast facilitator Dan Goeller, AMA Learning Solutions Manager for Project Management. 

As Mr. Goeller began, he noted that Ms. Hill brings a unique combination of skills to this discussion, since, beyond her project management expertise, she is also an AMA course leader in programs about emotional intelligence, communication, and relationship-building. He commented that such “soft skills” aren’t always, in peoples’ minds, associated with project management.

“Are these interpersonal skills usually highlighted or necessary in project management?” asked Goeller.

“Oh, they’re absolutely essential skills,” Hill responded, “so much so that when the Project Management Institute rolled out the PMI triangle a couple of years ago, they identified leadership as one of the core components of a project manager’s role and core competencies, right up there with technical project management skills and strategic and business management. So it has an incredibly important part to play in the role of a project manager.”

“Talking about the PMI triangle, with leadership as one of its sides, should we think of it as an equilateral triangle or more of an obtuse triangle, where leadership skills, specifically interpersonal skills, don’t quite get the attention they need?” asked Goeller.

“Spoken like a fellow math geek!” replied Hill. “Totally more obtuse. Research shows that project leadership, which we’ve almost identified as its own niche set of skills, is more essential. A project manager spends ninety percent of the job communicating, and that falls right under your core leadership skills. So it’s really essential that project managers are effective and impactful project leaders in order to get people to work together toward a common outcome.”

Goeller identified the three elements they’d be focusing on in this conversation as emotional intelligence, communication, and relationship-building. 

“I guess the ground-level base of those three is probably emotional intelligence. At its core, how can we define emotional intelligence, and how does it look in our practice?” questioned Goeller.

“Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and manage your own emotions, and the emotions of those around you,” answered Hill. “It’s a core skillset that we need in order to effectively lead ourselves and lead others.”

Goeller wondered how emotional intelligence, or EI, comes into play in a virtual setting.

Hill responded, “In a traditional virtual setting, you need emotional intelligence to be able to connect with people through technology, because technology allows us to connect virtually but can also be a detractor from connection. So, you also need emotional intelligence to create connection with people you’re leading, to care about and listen to them. One of the ways to really grow in emotional intelligence is through The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People®, and while the term emotional intelligence isn’t often mentioned in the program, Dr. Covey was actually developing the foundation for emotional intelligence. As he says in Habit 5, “Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood.” Wow! No time more than in a virtual session do you need to listen first, and then leap. And then secondly, in this current virtual environment, you need it additionally because you really want to be connected to, and empathetic to, situations that your teammates are dealing with. I’ve led some virtual sessions where some people actually had toddlers on their laps during the session, and that’s very unusual. We’re in very unusual times. Allow emotional intelligence to drive your leadership.”

“Specifically with project management,” Goeller asked, “can you mention an example when emotional intelligence is really at the forefront when managing projects?”

“Oh, absolutely,” answered Hill. “Projects by their very nature create change. We’re in a situation now where everyone on your team is feeling uncertainty, and they’re processing it very differently. So being aware of your own emotions—and the range of emotions of the people that you’re leading—is incredibly important. They do not all feel the same.”

Goeller continued to the second key point in the discussion: communication. He noted that most people tend to over-value their proficiency in this area. 

 “When we talk about communication specific to project management, how important is it?” he asked.

“It’s incredibly important. You’re communicating with your broader coalition of stakeholders, you’re communicating with executive management, so you’re in a constant communication cycle,” Hill observed. “So it’s important that you are self-aware of your communication style, and your delivery. And in particular with project management, that you don’t suffer from the curse of knowledge, where people not only inflate their communication skills, but sometimes they’ll assume other people know what they’re talking about [technically], so they’re not always communicating as clearly as they should.”

Hill went on to say, “So much of our communication is not verbal. Because we lose that ability to relate physically, we have to compensate for that with the words that we use. Having video on is so important because at least you can see some of the mannerisms and facial expressions. In workplaces, there has been so much overuse of email that being able to effectively communicate verbally [is compromised]. Being able to receive as well as deliver messages—
that’s something leaders have to be intentionally focused on.”

“I’ve heard of good communication, and I’ve heard of effective communication,” Goeller said, “but what’s the difference?”

Hill replied, “Effectiveness is our ability to deliver results, and in project management, we communicate to drive results, solve problems. We want effectiveness to be what leads us. What is it that I want them to feel, know and do?”

Transitioning to the third key element of relationship-building, Goeller stated, “In the context of project management, I think of relationship-building as stakeholder management. Would that be accurate?” 

“It is,” Hill answered, “and it’s certainly within the PMBOK’s context of stakeholder management, but we’ve evolved to stakeholder engagement. We want them to be actively involved in what we’re doing. We see this not only in technical projects, but in projects where we’re changing behaviors. We need people who will come alongside us as project managers and assist in leading the initiative. We need advocates in our organization that lead, and are not neutral. So engagement in that relationship is so key.”

Goeller wondered whether building relationships is a bigger challenge when you’re dealing with power, authority, seniority, different divisions and related dynamics.

“If we’re approaching somebody in senior management,” Hill explained, “we assume a power dynamic because of the hierarchical nature of the roles. But if we’re establishing a relationship, that begins to level the playing field. If we leverage their power, for the benefit of the project, that’s fine, but being fearful of communicating with senior management is detrimental to your project and ultimately your career.”

Goeller noted that building relationship capital can not only help you with projects you’re working on currently, but can also help you with projects down the line.

“At the end of the day,” concluded Hill, “when we accept that not everyone thinks like us, communicates like us, processes like us, and that cognitive diversity is something we can appreciate and leverage, then we become much more effective relationship builders, and we operate with emotional intelligence—and our projects succeed much more often.”

Suggested next steps:

AMA seminars Improving Your Project Management Skills: The Basics for Success as well as Project Team Leadership: Building Commitment Through Superior Communication  

AMA’s Ask the Experts Online Project Management Series is complimentary. Each webcast is available on demand after its initial broadcast for a limited time.