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Project management and social competence - a contradiction?

Heinrich Drügemöller
30.03.2023 | 7 min reading time

project management software

hybrid project management

risk management

Project planning

Our guest author Heinrich Drügemöller, managing director of the project service provider iatrocon GmbH, was recently asked the following provocative question: "Does a project manager need social competence at all?" Apart from a quick "Yes!" he answered with a counter question: "Why is social competence so important for a project manager?" He answers it himself - in this guest post.


Project environment

In order to give a complete answer, I would like to briefly recall the definition of a project: 

A project is an individual, one-time, complex as well as temporally, factually and spatially limited undertaking with a specific personnel organization as well as clearly defined responsibility. The task includes a realistic definition of goals and results

Allow me to make an initial comment here: As sober as the definition of projects may sound, in the end it is people who implement projects. People with their own motives, characteristics and abilities. They often have different mother tongues and come from different cultural backgrounds. 

In addition, it is common today for the project team to be spatially distributed. This applies within a building as well as to different locations of the company or the partners involved. Working across borders and continents has become normal.

Role of the project management

In this environment, the project management is the link. The project manager is tasked by management to achieve the desired results of the project. The project charter or project order is the basis. The project management ensures clear processes and rules. It sets methodological standards in project management. The definition of rules and processes in the project are their responsibility. The project manager is not the technical expert. 

The project management organizes resources, rooms and means of communication. They are responsible for communication in the project.

Social competence

In my opinion, communication is not possible without social competence if positive aspects are to be achieved. In this context, social competence is a broad field. Here are just a few aspects:

  • Communication skills 
  • Empathy 
  • Tolerance 
  • Ability to work in a team 
  • Ability to deal with conflict 
  • Willingness to compromise 
  • Assertiveness 
  • Intercultural competence

The importance of these aspects becomes clear when looking at the project management methods. All methods have anchored the topic "communication" as an essential element.  

My personal experience is that one of the main tasks of the project manager is communication in the project. He or she must initiate this as well as actively demand and organize it. This has to be fair to the people in the project. The culture, the needs or the personal situation of each individual should be taken into account as far as possible. 

Of course, a lot happens today within a project via chats, mails and project portals in written form. Verbal communication via video conferences, but also telephone calls, are nevertheless essential

Jour fixes in the project, steering boards or workshops are examples in which communication is predominantly verbal. Whereas face to face communication was common in the past, video conferencing has become more common today. In face to face communication, all body language is visible to the participants. In video conferences, this is only partially the case. This makes it all the more important to "weigh every word with the gold scale". 

After the theoretical and general hints, I have prepared an example from practice under the mentioned aspects.

Examples: social competence in a project

Launch phase

As a project manager in a corporate group, I was asked by the technical management and IT management to take over a project. The decision had been made to replace an existing IT application (let's call it WART for simplicity's sake) with standard SAP®. My standard question about the project charter was answered with the fact that it still had to be created. Exact specifications regarding timeframe and budget were not given. I was also told that I knew many of the stakeholders personally from previous projects. 

After first steps like meetings with the known persons I gained the following insights:

  • There was no documentation for the existing WART application, no matter how much I asked the IT managers or the business department to provide it.
  • Initial discussions with the stakeholders I knew in meetings suddenly turned into a tense atmosphere as soon as WART was mentioned. Even deliberately casual chit-chat did not change anything.
  • A query with the responsible managers revealed: Yes, WART was a "hot potato". For this reason, I would also have been given the task. There was no further information about the content.

Required aspects in this launch phase were:

  • Communication skills
  • Empathy
  • Tolerance

Aspects that also became important in the following targeted individual discussions.

Individual meetings and clarification of the issues 

In the one-on-one interviews with stakeholders, the following became clear:

  • The WART application had its own very emotional history. This included a very long development period with different interests, marked by wrong decisions, underpinned by conflicts in management. All of this had led to many personal differences.
  • A very large database, important for operations, had been created in the meantime.
  • WART was used intensively by an important team. An annual project volume of between €50 and €100 million handled with WART was the norm.
  • Key stakeholders were external partners.
  • The cooperation between the stakeholders was basically good. Sometimes they even went out for a beer together - but they did not want to talk to each other about WART.
  • The participation in a project was questioned by the majority.

Fulfilling the project mission in this way seemed impossible. On this basis, it was not possible to assemble a team that would work effectively together. Project success did not seem guaranteed. In addition, it became clear that there were significant differences between the management goals and the interests of the stakeholders. 

How do you form a team in such a situation? How do you bring together the interests of the stakeholders? How do you get the management on board?

Solution approach and graphic recording

With this background, I have chosen the approach of moderated workshops documented by Graphic Recording. 

Graphic Recording is a method that visualizes live and thus records. The essence of the dialogues of a meeting or a workshop or an event is documented. Viewers get a quick overview and can dive deep into the topic. In the creative image protocol, content is presented clearly and vividly

For the implementation, the first task was to inform the management about the WART situation and to convince them of the solution approach. In a small circle, the ...

  • complex situation around the topic of WART was explained. 
  • method, which was unknown in the company until then, was presented.

Approval for the procedure and the necessary budget (workshop, moderator, graphic recorder) was obtained

Finally, the management had to be convinced not to accompany these workshops personally, because of strong reservations of other planned participants. 

Required aspects of social competence in this project phase were for me:

  • Communication skills 
  • Empathy 
  • Conflict ability 
  • Assertiveness 
  • Intercultural competence (different company cultures have collided)


 Workshop Preparations

After management approval, the workshop was quickly prepared. Stakeholders were persuaded to participate, sometimes laboriously, through individual discussions. External partners (companies and individuals) had to be convinced to participate. 

Details for the workshops had to be coordinated with the facilitator and the graphic recording staff. This includes premises, work equipment such as projector, graphic tools, time schedule and role behavior between moderator, recorder and project manager. Technical contents and persons involved had to be clarified. The objectives of the workshop had to be agreed upon. 

Due to scheduling restrictions, the planned 3-day workshop had to be reduced to 2 days. 

For me, the following aspects were important in this project phase:

  • Communication skills
  • Empathy
  • Tolerance
  • Ability to work in a team
  • Willingness to compromise
  • Intercultural competence



As expected, the workshop started with personal, conflict-loaded statements from the participants. Technical content was secondary in the initial phase. Personal attacks and insinuations were not lacking either. The moderator had a lot to do to calm the tempers. 

During the workshop, one side of the room was used to show different presentations by the stakeholders via beamer, clarifying their respective positions or views. On another side of the room, the "graphic protocol" was shown as a progressive documentation via a beamer. The recorder with her tablet succeeded excellently in depicting emotions, situations, technical content and people. The great skepticism that had existed towards Graphic Recording at the beginning of the workshop gave way to more and more interest and curiosity

After the focus was on "blowing off steam" at the beginning, the discussion in the workshop became more and more objective in the second half of the first day. The atmosphere relaxed and the first technical aspects were discussed. Individuals were ready at the end of Day 1 to prepare additional technical content for the next day. 

In the day's summary, moderation and the graphic presentation were praised

For me as a project leader, the most important aspect was teamwork. Consciously and also communicated, I had temporarily stepped back from the role of project leader in the workshop. This enabled me to act as a team member. 

This aspect of social competence was also important on the 2nd day of the workshop. The task was tackled objectively and constructively by all participants. At the end, a catalog of goals was developed. Essential tasks were defined. Key persons for further collaboration in the project were identified and their participation secured.  

In the end, it was determined that the management's task definition did not correspond to the factual and technical situation. Other goals were defined. The clarification with the management was assigned to me as project manager.


Yes - a project manager needs social competence! I used the example to show which situations can arise in the project. The project manager should be able to solve them accordingly. The extreme example chosen is not common, but team building is part of every project. Accepting new employees and dismissing employees from the project is daily business. Meetings in various forms, which are moderated by the project management, are also part of the daily business. Social competence is indispensable for a project manager with strong communication skills. A project manager without social competence will ultimately fail.

About the author

Heinrich Drügemöller is a senior project manager and managing director of the project service provider iatrocon GmbH. He has more than 35 years of expertise in projects and over 20 years of experience in corporate management. His industry expertise includes insurance and banking, utilities and energy, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals and transport logistics. He holds the PRINCE2 (Projects in Controlled Environment), PRINCE2 Practitioner as well as PMI (Project Management Institute), PMP (Project Management Professional) certifications. Heinrich Drügemöller is a guest author for Can Do


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