Business & Transformation

Project culture and the role of emotional intelligence

One of the most significant factors separating good project managers from great ones is their ability to drive a strong, open, collaborative, high performing project culture. The key skill in driving culture is emotional intelligence – the ability of individuals, particularly project leaders and managers, to recognise, understand, and manage their own emotions and the emotions of others. In this article, we explore emotional intelligence as a powerful tool, often sidelined, that when wielded correctly can not simply enable, but drive, project success. 

Project culture is key

Project culture is critical to the success of complex contemporary corporates projects – those featuring technology, process, people and operational change. When project culture is misaligned, several failure modes emerge: poor communication leads to misunderstandings, blockages and misdiretion; a lack of trust undermines collaboration and risks project stagnation; resistance to change stifles adaptation and innovation; and a blame-based environment stifles problem-solving and accountability. Projects often need teams to dig deep, to press on through complex challenges and to continue to stay focused on end goals. Poor culture is a major disabler this mission, and a direct correlation can be made between poor project culture – those with poor leadership, collaboration, openness, and trust – and poor project outcomes.

Exent’s experience in being called in to review, remediate and recover numerous projects has often borne this out: culture is key.

In contrast, a positive project culture characterised by open communication, mutual trust, adaptability, and a focus on solutions considerably increases the likelihood of success. Clear communication ensures that all stakeholders are on the same page, which reduces errors and increases efficiency. Mutual trust creates an environment in which team members may effectively collaborate, sharing information and resources. This teamwork is critical for managing the intricacies and interdependencies of corporate projects.

Adaptability, another key component of a great project culture, enables teams to adjust quickly to changes and difficulties, which are typical in dynamic business environments. Finally, a solution-focused culture promotes new thinking, allowing the project to go through problems rather than becoming bogged down in blame or resistance.

At its best, great project culture transforms risks and issues into opportunities for growth and success, directing team efforts towards common goals and creating an environment in which complicated challenges are tackled with strong, collaborative, and innovative solutions. In Exent’s own framework for project excellence, project culture and team soft skills is given the same first-class importance as executive sponsorship, robust delivery frameworks, and the team’s hard skills.

Emotional Intelligence

The approaches and tools within emotional intelligence – the skill of understanding and managing not just your own emotions, but also those of your project team members – is the core skillset that a successful project manager will employ to drive culture. It’s this ability that keeps team members and stakeholders motivated and aligned, helps drive performance and minimise issues, and helps navigates projects smoothly towards their goals.

Five aspects of emotional intelligence as they apply to projects are:

  • self-awareness: understanding one’s personal behaviours, triggers, motivators and personal style
  • self-regulation: controlling or redirecting one’s disruptive emotions and impulses particularly in moments of project challenge
  • empathy: understand and share the feelings of others, addressing issues and challenges with a perspective that sees things from all sides
  • motivation: a project manager’s ability to stay motivated and persist in the face of obstacles or setbacks, and give that motivation to others
  • social skills: communication, conflict resolution, flexing style to adapt to mirror others, leading change and command skills

Strategies & tactics

Strengthen communication dynamics 

Effective communication is the lifeblood of successful projects. Use emotional intelligence to tailor communication styles to suit the needs of diverse stakeholders, team members, and clients. Actively listen, decode non-verbal cues, and modify messaging to effectively convey ideas and handle conflicts. 

Understanding emotions and perspectives helps cultivate an atmosphere of transparent, open, and constructive communication, leading to improved collaboration and project outcomes. 

In particular, explore more active listening to third party or internal team blocks as opposed to rushing to judgement or shutting down challenges; explore flexing style to mirror that of key stakeholders (as opposed to adopting your same communication tone/pace/style with everyone); and explore the non-verbal signals of resistance including body language, directed attention/inattention, and tone. Picking up on these intelligently allows a project manager to more completely navigate the subtle issues ahead of them becoming more pronounced.

Cultivate team cohesion and motivation  

Emotional intelligence allows for a deeper understanding of team members’ strengths, weaknesses, and motivators. With this insight, project managers can allocate tasks effectively, foster an environment where individuals feel valued, and encourage a collaborative and supportive team culture.  It is important to understand individual styles and ways of working – when and how people are more productive, what motivates them on task (eg, highly analytical types vs highly interpersonal types), and what reward systems they need to stay motivated.

 Such cohesion and motivation within the team can boost morale, productivity, and ultimately, project success.  

Resolving Conflicts and Enhancing Problem-Solving  

Conflict resolution is a critical skill in project management. High emotional intelligence allows project managers to address conflicts diplomatically, mediate between parties, and facilitate solutions that cater to the benefit of all involved.  

While project managers often adopt the view that projects are top-down command-and-control vehicles, the modern reality is that diplomacy and engagment are needed, and that people’s best outcomes are delivered when they are “heard and understood”. Note that this doesn’t mean “agreed with” – managers still need to make tough calls and often disagree, but conflict is often avoided when there is respect, genuine listening and discussion on merits, and a problem-solution approach that ignore individuals and focuses on facts.

Understanding emotions and managing diverse perspectives ensures smoother conflict resolution, fostering a more cohesive and productive team.  

Adaptability and Resilience in the Face of Challenges  

Projects rarely go exactly as planned. Unexpected changes and setbacks are part of any project. Emotional intelligence empowers project managers to adapt to these changes, manage stress effectively, and maintain a positive outlook even in adversity.  

This adaptability and resilience allow for a more flexible approach in managing unexpected hurdles, keeping the project on track towards successful completion.  

Importantly, project managers often need to create the impression of structured chaos. That while there is a plan, there is also the agility to respond to challenges. This message is important up front and as projects are executed. This is in contrast to more legacy approaches which aimed to scope, forecast and lock in the entire plan before ever embarking on the journey, and which then had to recover when they discovered new facts or issues during execution. Adaptability goes hand in hand with the growth mindset, where team members see change and responsiveness as a capability to be built.

Nurturing Stakeholder Relationships Through Emotional Intelligence  

At the heart of project success is the crucial management of stakeholder expectations. Emotional intelligence plays a key role in nurturing strong relationships with stakeholders by attentively addressing their needs, promoting effective communication, and ensuring a positive and empathetic approach.  

A heightened level of emotional intelligence is crucial in strengthening connections with stakeholders, fostering ongoing satisfaction, and laying the groundwork for potential future collaborations.  

Practical Steps

1. Assess and Enhance Your Own Emotional Intelligence  

The first step is introspection. Reflect on your emotional responses and behaviours in varying work situations. Invite feedback, conduct self-assessments, and identify areas where your EI skills could be improved. Actively develop your self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, and social skills. These attributes will enable you to manage emotions and relationships effectively within the project’s context.  

2. Cultivate a Supportive and Open Work Culture  

Promote a workspace where team members feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, feelings, and concerns openly. Encourage transparent dialogue, creating an atmosphere where individuals can share without fear of judgement. A work environment that welcomes open discussion of emotions and concerns can expedite conflict resolution and foster greater team unity.  

3. Offer Emotional Intelligence Training and Support  

Consider integrating emotional intelligence training sessions or workshops into your project management strategy. Such initiatives equip your team with the necessary tools and skills to understand and manage emotions effectively. Advocate for and support the growth of EI competencies within your team, contributing to improved collaboration and project success.  

Final Thoughts

For project management, leveraging emotional intelligence is crucial for achieving successful project outcomes and creating a project culture that delivers those outcomes.

By recognising, cultivating, and honing these skills, project managers can navigate complex challenges, enhance communication, resolve conflicts, and nurture robust relationships, all leading to project success. 

The integration of emotional intelligence into project management practices is not just beneficial; it’s essential. The impact of emotional intelligence and project culture on project success is profound.

By embracing and actively fostering these competencies, project managers can guide their teams towards more rewarding and successful project outcomes.