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How a Project Manager’s Soft Skills Can Make or Break Project Success

Your role as a Project Manager (PM) goes beyond the management of scope, budget, and schedule.

Having the knowledge and capability to manage these critical project management tools is essential; however, these skills alone will not keep a project team motivated and engaged. Instead, efficient processes and functional relationships within the team create the opportunity for successful projects. Soft skills serve as a pillar for these desired outcomes, and there are many soft skills that contribute to leadership; being able to delegate and offer constructive criticism, as an example, but your interpersonal or “people” skills are equally as important. Soft skills help you to build positive relationships with the project team and other key stakeholders and can help with effective conflict resolution, both of which are important characteristics of an effective team leader.

At some point, anyone can hit a motivational rock-bottom. A difficult day, week, or month can impact inspiration and drive. That’s why, as an effective PM, one of your many responsibilities is to lead your team members in a way that keeps them motivated and on track. In many projects, there are multiple phases of work, plenty of assumptions and many unknowns. These uncertainties may lead to longer programs, frequent changes in direction, stops and starts, difficult problems, complex teams, and/or high team changeover. Any of which can impact a project team’s morale. As a result, one of the biggest challenges PMs face is the delicate balance of hard project management skills and the soft interpersonal skills required to keep a team engaged and moving in the same direction.

No one comes to work with the intent to do a bad job. We all want to contribute and feel like we are adding value, but too often feeling overwhelmed, facing controversy, uncertainty and/or even corporate hierarchy can get in our way. This can tank motivation! And that’s because motivation is a function of your environment. The following is a series of behaviors that can help a PM become an effective leader that earns the team’s respect and is able to keep them motivated for success.

Be pleasant

First and foremost, engage, communicate, and get to know your team members as both professionals and regular people. Listen to them, then show them that you care by providing praise and offering constructive feedback on their work. Mutual respect at work is an important building block to good teamwork so take the time to create relationships with your team members. Get to know who they are and what motivates them. Show them that you care about their successes, then work to understand what’s important to them and what they need to succeed. This can all affect a team member’s sense of belonging, motivation, engagement level and overall attitude toward the project. Plus, people like to work for people that they enjoy being around.

Demonstrate that you value your team members by acknowledging personal events like birthdays, weddings, births, and promotions. Consider buying a card and circulating it through the team for signatures or bring a batch of cupcakes to a team meeting for big personnel milestones. Remember that your team members are real people with human feelings. Showing that you care when a personnel milestone is met promotes work/life balance, which can make work a happier place.  

Be a good role model

If you really want to motivate your team, then you should strive be a good role model. Be someone that each individual team member can look up to and respect. You don’t have to be perfect, but you should be hard working, reasonable, willing to communicate, and generally a reliable employee that the team looks to as a valuable resource. If you’re not demonstrating the very traits you want your team to embody, then why would or should they follow suit? If you’ve made mistakes, don’t try to cover them up. Instead, own up to them and exemplify how to recover and work towards a solution. Treat your employees with kindness and respect and set a baseline of good behavior. Again, be a good role model!

Include team members in decisions

Employees are typically excited when a new project begins, the team is formed, and the project plan is being formalized. One way to promote early buy-in, collaboration and motivation is to work closely with the team in defining the project strategy and making strategic decisions as the project progresses. In other words, let the team contribute to the strategy. Members of a project team have past experiences and insightful ideas that can make a significant difference. Considering individual ideas promotes ownership in the project, endorses work load acceptance, and results in a team that is motivated to get things done.

Monitor progress and provide feedback

As a PM, you need a way of measuring and tracking performance and communicating with the team about how they are doing. Most obviously, this is critical to comparing progress against the project schedule, budget and scope. How are we doing against the baseline of what we said we were going to do? Are we on track? Are we off track, and if so, how do we get back? Assessing progress is also critical to determining if the project team members are as productive as you need them to be. It provides an opportunity to engage, communicate, improve and ensure alignment. Good workers are going to strive to do their best, but their best may not produce the results you expect. Unless you engage the team, how will you know whether the poor results were caused by a lack of individual effort or whether the failure was a result of the environment or process? Either of these can (and likely will) lead to negatively impacting motivation, which may be salvageable by providing additional training or expertise to handle issues.

If you sense or know that a team member is struggling, provide your advice on how to navigate the issue or point them to someone who can help. Closely monitoring performance and communicating your observations, shows the project team that you are aware of them and care about how they are doing. Talk to your team members regularly, both formally in meetings and informally over lunch or coffee. Provide feedback on their performance. Let them know if the project is (or isn’t) on track. Tell them what challenges are currently being faced because they may be able to contribute helpful suggestions. If you have a concern, tell them and give them the opportunity to correct their behavior. It’s hard to see a downside in constructive communication.

Understand strengths and weaknesses

If there is an important detailed task at hand, is the person assigned to it a detail-oriented person? If they are not, attempt to reassign the task. If this is not possible, provide support so that they don’t get frustrated, embarrassed, or lose their motivation. Consider adding others with complementary skills. It’s important to understand your team’s skills, expertise, idiosyncrasies, personal preferences and shortcomings. We’re all individuals with unique assets; understand what they are and use them to the project’s advantage.

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Create an inviting environment1

If things in the office are tense, impersonal, cold, or unfriendly, then employees won’t be as motivated as they would be if they walk into an inviting office that fosters collaboration and positivity. We all contribute to the office environment, and a good leader can help to set up a positive culture where people feel happier and are more likely to thrive. When you come in, smile and say hello, and keep your eyes open for those times when you can acknowledge a job well done. Everybody appreciates recognition! Always be aware of your attitude. For the sake of the project team, and everyone’s motivation, put on a happy face and portray yourself in a positive way (even if you may not feel like it that day). Remember that positivity breeds positivity. A friendly, casual atmosphere where people feel comfortable promotes job satisfaction, and can naturally help to keep team members performing at their best. Encourage communication in person, instead of over chat or email. Get people walking around and talking to each other. For virtual teams, pick up the phone or use video conferencing like Skype! When people are working remotely, this can do a lot to make them feel part of the team. While some may perceive this as less efficient, the morale boost associated with personal interactions is worth it.

Foster an environment of personal and professional improvement

Without growth, an individual’s job may get stale and boring, which can suck away professional motivation. If you see an educational opportunity such as a seminar or webinar that would be a good fit for a member of the project team, let them know. Provide the project team mentorship and have them work with other members of the team who can help them to grow. Point them to relevant business or leadership books that you may have read or presentations that you may have sat in on. Establish an educational environment by developing project strategies that require cooperation between team members so that they are compelled to work together to achieve that goal. Not only does it provide an opportunity to build relationships but also provides an opportunity for learning. Both of these are important aspects of job satisfaction and motivation. Project success is positively influenced by collaborative efforts and an environment that encourages growth.

Celebrate Successes

This is a big one! Have you ever worked hard on something, your proud of what you did, think it went pretty well, but no one provides feedback? It’s a pretty deflating feeling. On the other hand, being appreciated for good work is motivating. That’s why, as a PM, you need to be aware of and celebrate successes, and not just at the end of the project, but all along the way. Especially when a project may be a long-term engagement, it’s important to celebrate smaller milestones.

Often, we get into the habit of thinking that appreciation is only relevant in extreme or unusual events. There are actually a multitude of actions that can be recognized. When a project team member has the courage to express a different viewpoint to help the team work through something, that deserves recognition; when you see or hear about a team member who has successfully resolved a challenging customer service problem, it should be acknowledged; if an individual steps up and works extra hours to finish an important work package or finds a way to simplify a process to expedite things, it makes a difference and should be recognized. Acknowledge, “Hey, we met that!” Be excited about accomplishments and help the team to look forward to the next accomplishment. Employees value small gestures, and the regular “thank you” or “good job” can go a long way in making the project team feel valued, which can drive them to work harder and stay engaged.  

Use positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is the practice of rewarding desirable employee behavior in order to strengthen that behavior. When you praise a team member for doing a good job, you increase the likelihood of him/her doing that job well again. Positive reinforcement both shapes behavior and enhances an employee’s self-image. Among other things, positive reinforcement defines and communicates expected behaviors and strengthens the connection between high performance and rewards. As possible, formal processes could be developed around the behavior to promote repetition. This can reinforce an employee’s behavior immediately after learning a new technique and promote quick, thorough learning that motivates the team to work hard. Lack of reinforcement can lead to job dissatisfaction, so pay attention and recognize the right behaviors!

Knowing what keeps a project team motivated is vital, not only because it will inspire your team, but also because the wrong behaviors can kill motivation. Here are a few helpful hints. Do not focus only on work when talking with your team members; don’t play favorites and focus your attention only on those people; don’t ignore small victories; don’t overload team members with crushing amounts of work or set unrealistic deadlines; don’t dismiss ideas right off the bat; don’t hold useless meetings; and follow through when you say that you are going to do something. The more you know about what motivates team members and the more interest you have in their happiness and success, the more passionate they will be about their work and contributions. Remember that you are all real people that are part of the same team, working towards the same goal. Communicating regularly with team members and providing feedback on the status of the project and their performance promotes ownership of and motivation in the project. Honesty, integrity, constant communication, and other interpersonal soft skills are key to a happy, valued and high-functioning team.


1Branchaud, T. (1993). The importance of respect in the workplace. Retrieved June 2018, from

2Author unknown. Practical management skills intuition. Retrieved June 2018, from

3Lucas, S (updated 2018). Why soft skills are a manager’s most significant skills. Retrieved June 2018, from

4Doyle, A (updated 2018). Motivational skills list and examples. Retrieved June 2018, from

5Martin, P. K. & Tate, K. (2001). Boost your team’s energy. PM Network, 15(11), 20.


Author Bios:

Gretchen Stup (1st Author): Ms. Stup brings over seventeen years of experience in the management of government contracts and over twenty total years of experience working in a scientific contracting environment. Much of her experience lies in total project lifecycle management, including project planning, execution, monitoring, controlling, and closure, with a focus on managing and integrating the activities of numerous functional areas. As a Sr. Consultant for the Latham BioPharm Group (LBG), Ms. Stup is fluent in maintaining the Scope of Work (SOW), monitoring the program budget and timeline, coordinating communications, preparing reports, and presenting project status to all project stakeholders. Prior to joining LBG, Ms. Stup served first as a Risk Manager and next as a Sr. Project Manager for DynPort Vaccine Company. In her later role, she successfully managed multiple government contracts, including Plague and Tularemia vaccine development projects with values of $350M and $35M, respectively. She supported the development of Vaccinia Immune Globulin (VIGIV), which was one of the first FDA-licensed biodefense products. As a result, she is very familiar with and has proven her ability to navigate and satisfy the complex government reporting requirements. Besides her in-depth experience in the management of government contracts, she has been involved in the management and oversight of various subcontracting organizations, ranging from small R&D facilities to large, complex CMOs and CROs. Ms. Stup has experience with the Animal Rule and has supported FDA filings and negotiations through product licensure. Ms. Stup has a Bachelor of Science degree from Shepherd University and is a Project Management Professional (PMP) as certified by the Project Management Institute. 

Cassidy Cantin (2nd Author):  Cassidy Cantin has worked within the Life Sciences industry for the better part of a decade providing Program Management and Product Leadership with specific experience on vaccine and biosimilar development, as well as Business Development and Marketing expertise. As a Consultant for Latham BioPharm Group (LBG), Ms. Cantin utilizes her knowledge of program management to help clients manage the successful planning and delivery of their government and commercial programs. Her extensive skills in primary and secondary market research and competitive intelligence analysis will assist clients in making strategic decisions and developing their corporate strategy. Prior to LBG, Ms. Cantin was the Senior Manager of Business Development and Marketing at Pfenex Inc., a biologics company focused on biosimilar development. In addition to her business development and marketing responsibilities there, she managed government sponsored programs totaling over $30M and supported a number of successful government proposal efforts.  Ms. Cantin holds an MBA from San Diego State University with an emphasis in entrepreneurship and market research. She did her undergraduate work at University of California, San Diego where she earned a B.A. double major in Economics and Public Health. Ms. Cantin is also active at the national level for Women In Bio (WIB) where she served as WIB’s 2018 President.  

Michael McGinnis (3rd Author): Michael McGinnis has more than twenty years of international business development, strategic planning, marketing, program management and general management experience in the Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology industries. At that Latham BioPharm Group (LBG), Mr. McGinnis is a partner in the firm and has been primarily been responsible for leading the Government Service Offering and supporting the successful acquisition and execution of new opportunities.  He also serves as a strategic consultant to clients in a variety of capacities and provides general management support and leadership to LBG.  Prior to LBG, as Director of New Business for DynPort Vaccine Company, Mr. McGinnis was responsible for leading the company’s new business activities and functions in the US Government sector. He was actively engaged with various HHS and DoD agencies, and relevant industry collaborators, i.e. Pharma/Biotech, CROs, and CMOs. As part of this role, Mr. McGinnis was responsible for all aspects of new business, including providing strategic oversight of both technical and budgetary aspects of proposals in response to US Government medical countermeasure advanced development program solicitations. Prior to joining DVC, he worked at ICON Clinical Research, as Executive Director of Sales, and at MedTrials, Inc. as the Associate Director of Business Development & Marketing, and held various leadership roles with global business development and marketing responsibilities for the CROs in the Biopharmaceutical, Pharma and Medical Device industries. His previous experience also includes working at Aerotek, a multi-billion-dollar staffing company out of Baltimore, MD, where he provided strategic marketing support and leadership to multiple divisions of the company.   Mr. McGinnis earned a B.S. in Business Administration from Towson University, an M.B.A. from Loyola University Maryland, and an M.S. in Biotechnology from Johns Hopkins University. 

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