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The Real Impact of Emotional Intelligence on Project Management

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The Real Impact of Emotional Intelligence in Project Management

Emotional intelligence, or EQ as it is also known, has become something of a bellwether for effective leadership. Various studies have highlighted a link between understanding emotions and leadership and team performance and success.

When EQ first entered popular mainstream, sceptics dismissed it as pop psychology; a fad that would slide out of fashion like other fads before it. However, from the publication in 1995 of Daniel Goleman’s book, “Emotional Intelligence,” EQ has increased its credibility as a key leadership skill in the business world.

TalentSmart, a provider of emotional intelligence tests, training, and consulting, recently tested EQ alongside 33 other important workplace skills, and found it to be the strongest predictor of performance, explaining a full 58 percent of success in all types of jobs.

Top Project Managers Focus on EQ

Consultant and business coach Patrick Mayfield’s research found that most project managers spend between 8 and 12 percent of their time on people-focused activities.

However, the so-called “alphas,” the top 10 percent of PMs, spend 60 to 80 percent of their time on this type of activity.

In assessing the skills relating to the success of project managers, Gerald J. Mount, a professor of strategy and organisational behaviour found that 69 percent of skills related to emotional competencies, with the remaining 31 percent related to business expertise.

The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence

But is there another side to EQ that emotionally intelligent PMs can turn to their advantage? According to Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, there is evidence to show that people who sharpen their emotional skills become better at manipulating those around them.

And if you are good at controlling your own emotions, you can disguise your true feelings.

John Salovey and Jack Mayer, the leading researchers on emotional intelligence, define EQ as “the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”

As such, EQ is morally neutral and can be used for bad as well as good, as Karlene Agard, Senior Risk and Value Management Consultant at ARAVUN, which works with project management teams, explains.

She says: “Project leaders who have a vested interest in a project going ahead may use their emotional intelligence to mislead those with decision making authority on the project, including sponsors, executives or even government.

They could downplay the realistic duration or cost of the project, either directly or by manipulating those that should provide an independent perspective, in order to get approvals that would be declined if they were fully informed.”

Emotionally intelligent people would have the insight to present the project in the best way possible. Programme management decisions could therefore favour the emotionally intelligent PM’s project if other, less eloquent PMs fail to make the case for their more deserving projects as effectively.

Hiding bad news is something that unfortunately does occur within projects and the emotionally intelligent PM is likely to be more successful at doing this than most.

“This could delay effective resolution and increase the severity of the ultimate outcome,” adds Agard. “In both these situations, higher emotional intelligence could be used to present a more favourable view of the project than is warranted, compromising the integrity and reputation of the team and, potentially, depending on the significance of the project, the wider organisation.”

In spite of its potential to influence and even undermine a project, many in the project management profession insist that EQ is critical to effective project management.

“After all, as project managers we are managing people, and people are emotional,” says Erhan Korhaliller, former project manager at creative advertising agency AKQA, and founder and CEO of EAK Digital.

He goes so far as to say that managing people without that emotional intelligence is the surest way of losing the team. “When your back is to the wall, you have a 9 a.m. client deadline, it is 8 p.m., and your team stays until the early hours to complete the task; that’s when you have your emotional intelligence to thank,” he says.

Knowing how different people on your project team will react to certain situations or outcomes, client feedback for example, is also hugely important. The ability to identify behaviours among team members is critical for a PM when deciding who they should bring with them to a face-to-face client meeting.

“They need the emotional intelligence to know who is dependable and can take constructive criticism whilst maintaining professionalism, as well as who can’t,” adds Korhaliller.

EQ: A Critical Skill in the Tech-Enabled World

While many psychology and management fads and trends have been nothing more than flavour of the month before fading into obscurity, there is reason to believe that EQ will continue to play a role in project management and the wider world of business and industry for some time to come.

A 2016 report from the World Economic Forum on the future of jobs found that skills that were high on the must-have lists today will be less needed or disappear by 2020. Skills that have moved up the list include complex problem solving; creativity; people management; and emotional intelligence – the latter isn’t even included in the top 10 today.

As a core skill for project team leaders, EI’s finest hour may be yet to come. As new technologies such as AI, machine learning, automation and virtual reality establish a greater presence in the project management toolkit, the art of understanding what motivates and drives people in a tech-enabled world, could become even more critical to project success in the future.


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