13 May, 2024

Vital Power Skills for Project Managers: How to Develop Leadership


Interpersonal Skills have always been vital for Project Managers. And PMI’s introduction of the term ‘Power Skills’ has only increased our focus on this key area. The trick is to find frameworks that help us assess our abilities and understand how to develop them further.

Our Guest Author: Donnie MacNicol

Vital Power Skills for Project Managers - How to Develop Leadership

In this article, Donnie MacNicol introduces us to power skills for Project Managers. Donnie is one of the UK’s leading experts in developing project leadership capability. He uses the latest cultural, organizational, and behavioral thinking in his work. In this article, he discusses:

The Importance of Power Skills  for Project Managers 

Interpersonal skills are important in any line of work. And the delivery of projects is no different. Project leaders, whatever your role or level, are often at the sharp end. People expect you to deliver – even when you face multiple technical challenges and strained relationships with your team or stakeholders. I am sure you have experienced situations like this. If you haven’t: you will.

Project leaders must find ways to:

  • Work with a broad and diverse range of people
  • Build relationships
  • Influence them in ways that will support the delivery of the project.

…and you must do it fast.

As a project leader, you will be accountable for the delivery of your project, but you may have little or no authority. So this puts even more onus on your interpersonal skills. It’s no easy task when the people you need to engage with have other priorities. And besides, they may face a negative impact from the project or already be over-committed with other work.

Project Leaders are accountable… but without formal authority. Click To Tweet

If, despite all this, you can get the job done, you’ve earned your pay, And that’s why PMI has chosen to call interpersonal skills Power Skills.

Developing Power Skills

Developing power skills often seems to be an afterthought. Organizations often support the development of interpersonal skills only after you have mastered key technical skills. This is folly.

You should start developing your interpersonal skills right from the start of your career. This will give you time to increase your understanding and test different approaches. And, inevitably, you’ll learn from failure. It’s the best way. But hopefully, only from small failures!

Let’s look at how you can start developing your critical interpersonal skills.

Understanding Your Own Interpersonal Skills and Style

The starting point for any development is gaining a better understanding of yourself.

  • Your own style and approach
  • How you react in certain circumstances
  • The impact you have on the feelings of others.

In a more and more collaborative world, this is critical.

Interpersonal Skills Profiling Tools

There are many widely-used profiling tools that can help. These enable individuals and teams to understand the range of personal styles. And, from that, you explore the approaches other people may take.

These tools will help you understand two things:

  1. Distinctions in interpersonal styles
  2. The impact they have

This is key, whatever way you do it. Some of the most popular tools that provide such insights include:

  • The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
  • Thomas International’s range of tools
  • Highlands Ability Battery
  • StrengthsFinder
  • 4-D System
  • Strengths Deployment Inventory (SDI)
  • Belbin Team Roles
  • DiSC.

Some people think these profiling tools ‘pigeon-hole’ them into a particular ‘type’. But that is not what these tools are designed to do. Their purpose is to highlight your preferences for some behaviors over others.

The reality is that, as individuals, we have a range of responses to situations.  Indeed, we can work across a spectrum of choices, often depending on the context.

Interpersonal Skills for Project Leaders

Two crucial requirements for Project Leaders are to:

  1. Understand your own behavioral preferences and then…
  2. Flex your approach as the situation and context requires

Also important is having a common language and structure that you can use to discuss these differences with other people.

Gain an Insight into Your own Interpersonal Style with The iMA™ Diagnostic

We use the iMA™ Diagnostic as it gives a simple way to distinguish between four behavioral styles. These use colors to identify your preferences for engagement and communication. The iMA™ initials indicate its use:

  • identify your own or another person’s color style
  • Modify your approach and style to suit the context
  • Adapt as necessary to the response you receive

Identifying your iMA™ Color Style

We use a simple 10-question online diagnostic to identify your color style. The figure below illustrates these four stles.

iMA Colour Styles for Interpersonal Skills
iMA Colour Styles for Interpersonal Skills

Everyone is a mixture of all four but iMA™ aims to identify your preferred or ‘High’ color styles. Each style has its own typical characteristics, behaviors, and preferences. People can also often relate to a secondary style, their ‘secondary preference’.

Get Your iMA Profile

You can get your color style at any time at www.ima-pm.co.uk. After you have completed the diagnostic, ask yourself what your secondary style is.

We like the simplicity of iMA™. It means we can easily apply it in coaching, and team and leadership development. This speed lets us address issues quickly. Let’s look at some specific applications.

Applications of the iMA Colour Styles to Power Skills

Power Skill: Modifying Your Approach to Suit Your Stakeholders

Strong relationships with stakeholders are often a defining characteristic of successful projects. Your interpersonal skills are at the heart of this priority. As a project leader, you must understand your stakeholder’s motivations and style. This is affected by the stakeholder’s role in the project, and the culture of the organization they work in.

But the different interpersonal styles of you and your stakeholders are also a factor. Here’s an example.

Let’s say the project leader is a High Red and the project sponsor a High Blue.

In this case, the project leader should understand that they can come across as pushy and insensitive to the sponsor. This is especially so if the delivery of outcomes is all the PM focuses on, during their conversations.

What about when you need to deal with a High Green? Other colors often feel that they cannot provide High Greens with enough information. Without a lot of structured data, it’s hard to influence their opinion or secure a decision.

Questions to Ask

When you encounter a new stakeholder, here are some questions you should ask yourself. These will help you engage with them more effectively, and gain a positive outcome.

  • What should you share?
    • What level of detail to prepare?
    • Which aspects of the issue to lead with?
  • When do you engage with them?
    • Should you tell them the issue immediately or wait until you have a greater understanding?
    • Is it best to engage once or multiple times?
    • When is the ideal time to ask for a decision?
  • Where do you engage?
    • Face-to-face, on the telephone, or by email?
    • At their offices, at yours, or on neutral territory?
  • How should you engage them?
    • Formally or informally?
    • Stressing the urgency up front, or start by breaking the ice?
  • Who should engage with them?
    • One person or multiple people?
    • The same person throughout or with different people?

Identify what changes you need to make and test out your modified approach.

Identifying Your Leadership Style

Leadership is certainly a Power Skill. And, it should not surprise us that our natural leadership style is linked to our preferred style of communication. But, more importantly, the style of leadership that will work best, in any situation, is probably one that fits best with the other person’s preferred communication style.

Each color style has a particular favored leadership style, as the illustration shows. This reflects the balance of interpersonal skills you deploy most comfortably.

iMA Project Leadership Styles for Interpersonal Skills
iMA Project Leadership Styles for Interpersonal Skills

How do you lead?

What are your key leadership characteristics? How do they reflect your style and approach? And what about its effect on the different people around you? Consider how appropriate your interpersonal style is to each particular context. Then, consider how you might modify your approach.

For example, how does a fast-paced delivery-focused phase differ from the early stages of a project? The former needs action and decisiveness. The latter needs your team to engage many stakeholders in a thoughtful and relaxed way.

Always ask yourself this. Will a different leadership style work better with this individual or team, in this project situation? If so, what steps will you take to change your approach?

Always ask yourself: 'What #leadership style will work best?' Click To Tweet

Applying Your Power Skills to Teams

iMA™ is particularly helpful with teams. You can use it when you want to understand team dynamics. This comes from the different approaches, strengths, and weaknesses of your team members.

A model like iMA™ gives an objective and impersonal way for team members to discuss the impact of their individual styles on the team. It is helpful in exploring relationships and the effects of the diversity of styles. And this will ultimately affect your team’s performance.

It is also helpful in exploring relationships with each other. These are, in turn, linked to the diversity of styles within your team. Profiling tools like iMA™ help team members discuss their differences. These are crucial because of the impact they have on relationships and project performance.

We often find teams biased towards a particular pairing of styles. For example, above or below the line, or to the left or right. As an extreme, we may find everyone has a single color style. This is not surprising – people tend to like people who are like themselves. Therefore leaders are at risk of showing an unconscious bias in recruiting people like themselves, or favoring team members with similar styles to their own. This impacts the diversity of styles in a team. Thus it affects the quality of problem-solving and the decision-making process – often negatively.

As an example, here is a team profile from a client we worked with recently.

iMA Team Profile for Interpersonal Skills
iMA Team Profile for Interpersonal Skills

With such a high number of High Reds and High Yellows, things got done. But they were not always well planned or considered in advance. So the team’s effort could be wasted. The High Green and High Blue tham members felt  they weren’t listened to. And this caused resentment.

What about your team?

Thinking about the team you work in, what is the profile? You can consider asking people to complete the profile – it only takes 3 minutes. Consider what the implications are and therefore what actions it suggests for you.

Applying this Thinking to Project Processes 

We’ll use the example of project risk management. But we could equally apply this to any project process.

Planning for future eventualities is a core skill for a Project Manager. This includes identifying and managing risk – as either threats or opportunities. There are an infinite number of variations in how people perceive a risk. We each assess impact and probability differently. This affects how we identify appropriate courses of action.

So it is critical that a project leader appreciates these differences in thinking style. You need to create a process that engages the different team members and uses this diversity to your advantage. Here’s an example.

When a High Green person manages risk, they’ll take a structured and carefully thought-out approach. They will aim for rigor in the identification, recording, assessment, and ongoing management of risks. This will be far more so than if another color style had the responsibility. A High Red person, on the other hand, may be tempted to dive into quick action, to make things happen, without thinking through alternative options or the consequences of their choices.

Helpful Questions to Ask

When thinking about each process, we have found the following questions helpful. We recommend that individuals and whole teams reflect on them. The responses are generally different for each iMA color style.

For any possible approach, ask:

  1. Why do it? And what value does it add?
  2. Who should be involved? And should they take part as a one-off or continuously?
  3. How should it be carried out? Should we use formal techniques and processes?
  4. When is it best to identify risks; earlier or later?
  5. What level of detail is appropriate? How should we present it?

Summary of Power Skills and Personal Styles

So, interpersonal skills are critical for project managers. As a result, gaining an insight into your own style can have a positive impact on project performance. And understanding the behavioral preferences of others will help you lead more effectively.

Invest some time to work on this, and we can guarantee that you will reap the rewards in the short and long term.

And finally, let us know what your thoughts are below, and we will respond to every comment.


A Note about the Models, from OnlinePMCourses

Some readers may recognize that the frameworks Donnie provides are comfortingly familiar. The iMA Colour Styles and iMA Leadership Styles are part of a long history of similar tools.

Where you work, for example, you may come across the Merrill-Reid Social Styles, or the Alessandra model. Both of these provide very similar models of interpersonal styles.

And you may be familiar with some of the many Situational Leadership models, like those of the Blanchard Corporation or Paul Hersey’s Center for Leadership Studies. Like Donnie’s description, these suggest different styles of leadership work best in different situations.

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Donnie MacNicol

About the Author...

Donnie MacNicol is an experienced project and program leader who is passionate about developing the leadership capabilities of individuals, teams and organisations in the private and public sector, to deliver success. Widely recognized as contributing to the ‘people and organizational side’ of project management thinking, Donnie is much in demand as a consultant, facilitator, lecturer, speaker, and writer.
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