Social competence – a must-have for project managers?

If we read current job offers for project managers, we find mainly requirements for competences which are described with characteristics such as the ability to work in a team, assertiveness, communication skills or the ability to reflect. In other words, a conglomerate of skills that primarily describes how to deal with oneself and others. Sloppily summarized: Social competence! Pure technical and methodological knowledge is apparently taken for granted. Many people talk about „social competence“ without being aware of what it actually means. Each person will answer the question of what is hidden behind it differently.

Definition: Social competence

The definition of „social competence“ is difficult to put into a few simple words. The description according to Wikipedia gives a good introduction to the topic: „Social competence, often referred to as soft skills, is the totality of personal abilities and attitudes that help to link individual action goals with the attitudes and values of a group and in this sense also influence the behavior and attitudes of fellow human beings. Social competence includes skills that are useful or necessary for social interaction“.

Project management without social competence?

As a project manager you have to solve a complex task and coordinate many participants. With this task you are almost always in the eye of the typhoon. All around, it is turbulent to stormy and you rarely have the power of a line manager to assert yourself through the hierarchy. In order to meet this challenge and to successfully implement your project assignment, it is of course important to have project management knowledge of methods and processes. This is sometimes enough for small projects. But the larger and more complex a project is, the more important it is to have sufficient social competence. If you want to push through a large project with standard project plans and e-mail communication as the most important tools, you will soon realize that you won’t get far with that. It is also a fact that today it is possible to be certified as a project manager according to a wide range of international standards – but the focus is always on the technical and methodological aspects of project management. With the certification in your pocket you know which project plans are necessary, how to set up a project start in theory and that you have to regularly check the current status. Whether one also has the necessary social skills to exercise the profession of project manager is not checked. Let’s compare this with the car driving license most of us have. After successful examination you have the right to drive a motor vehicle in public traffic. How well you do that and whether you are a gifted driver is not judged. You know where the brake and gas pedal are, how to change gears, where to fill up the fuel, etc. You can operate the vehicle technically and comply with the applicable laws of the road traffic regulations. But that is it. Likewise also certifying to the project manager is only the starting signal, in order to learn by practical experience, how project management functions in the reality. But are the required and needed social skills quantifiable and assessable at all? Rather difficult – otherwise there would certainly already be a certification for them.

Composition of social competence

Social competence is extremely complex and difficult to define because it is made up of several components. We have listed the most important ones from our point of view below. Social competence begins with the ability to communicate. Good communication also includes the ability to listen. Only if you listen to your interlocutor attentively and appreciatively, you will be receptive to new information. This always involves building a relationship of trust with your dialogue partner. Of course, communication also includes comprehensibility of content and language and the ability to start and maintain conversations, to influence the course of a conversation and to end a conversation. To make it not quite so easy: communication always takes place on a verbal and non-verbal level! Observe carefully the verbal and non-verbal reactions of your environment and prepare yourself for them!
Social competence means: to adapt one’s own behavior to the situation and flexibly to the behavior of the people around him.

Team Competence

Team competence means the ability to cooperate with members of a team according to the situation, and to design and control team processes. This naturally includes the mutual exchange of information, integrating oneself and others into the team, agreeing and coordinating tasks within the team and, of course, presenting the results of teamwork as a joint achievement. Since projects are always handled in teams, this factor is an absolutely necessary criterion for project success.


Those who have the gift of putting themselves in other people’s shoes have a considerable advantage in dealing and working with their fellow human beings. Empathy or empathy means to understand others, to see and accept their views and to react accordingly. If we feel understood, working together becomes much more pleasant!

Problem solving ability

To have empathy also means an improvement of the ability to solve problems, because conflicts are seen from different perspectives and can therefore be solved more constructively and faster.
„Never judge another until you have walked one moon long in his moccasins“ – a popular Native American saying

Conflict ability

The ability to deal with conflict means having the courage to actively address conflicts, not to run away from them and not to immediately agree with everyone. To represent one’s own opinion without devaluating the other person is evidence of social competence. To perceive conflicts early, to assess them and to address them quickly and to solve or de-escalate them.


Perception and reflection ability means to perceive situations sensitively and appropriately, to recognize important signals and to be able to interpret the situation appropriately. Those who are capable of reflection know and recognize their own sore points and are also able to critically question their own position. Reflective individuals usually obtain regular feedback on their behavior in their private and professional environment and thus improve the perception of their own personality.

Critical ability

This leads us to the next component of social competence, the ability to criticize, i.e. expressing but also accepting criticism. To have the right empathy, to dose criticism correctly and to express it constructively is an essential success factor in cooperation and in dealing with other people.

Leadership Competence

Leadership competence is the direct and indirect influencing of the behavior of people – mostly employees – to achieve goals. The goals are usually derived from the organization or expectations of important stakeholders. The behavior of employees can be influenced on the one hand by the personal relationship – responding to the different motivations – and on the other hand by structural measures. The motivation of employees is a part of leadership work. The basis for this is the ability to establish, maintain or, if necessary, break off relationships with other people.

Can social competence be learned?

The best school is life

The best school for attaining „social competence“ is life. Although our basic behavioral patterns are mainly shaped in our childhood, of course you can still develop your personality as an adult. However, it is a mistake to believe that it is done by attending one or two seminars. Seminars and trainings can at best point the way and provide a framework to work on one’s own personal behavior and facilitate the (further) development of social competence. There is no guarantee for a specific change in behavior. Here the quotation used in many places applies: „I can only show you the way, you have to go it yourself!

Self-perception and perception of others

In order to get ahead, it is important to achieve a congruence of self-perception and the perception of others. This is most likely to be supported by a long-term training process, whereby for optimal effectiveness, supplementary individual counselling or coaching is also helpful. Whoever has socially competent family members or a superior who is good at dealing with people, acquires a piece of social competence quasi automatically through the role model effect.

Lifelong learning

The development of social competence belongs to the category of „lifelong learning“. As soon as you get to know new people, move in new working environments or privately move into „unknown“ social classes or build up new circles of friends, the further development of social competence is required. With some this works quite naturally and naturally, others need a little more time or „tutoring“ to find their way socially in new environments. Here it is also important to have the courage to approach others and not to exclude yourself. Those who never open their mouths in meetings or who only shyly stand in the corner at social events do not contribute much to their further development. Social competence must therefore always be promoted and developed by the individual. The best way to enhance your own social competence is to go through life with open eyes, to try out methods and behaviors in dealing with others, and to learn from the experiences thus gained. The well-known but extremely correct proverb is a good guide: „Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you! Or formulated the other way round: „What you want someone to do to you, do to others first!


A project manager who only has project management methodology knowledge and little social competence will find it more difficult and perhaps even fail the more complex his project is and the more people are involved. Vice versa: A project manager who has excellent social skills and little knowledge of project management methods will usually lead the project to success with common sense and charisma. In any case, he can acquire the necessary project management methodology relatively quickly, whereas many years are needed to develop social skills. In any case, the project duration is too short for this.
Project management methodology knowledge can be learned in a very short time, but it takes years to develop social competence.

To come back to the introductory question „Project management without social competence? Let us review what we have just read. Two components of social competence can be defined as an indispensable basis for projects: communication skills and the ability to work in a team, both of which are closely linked anyway. All the other skills mentioned are important and are quasi „the lubricant“ in the project in order to let the numerous project wheels mesh smoothly. Without this oil, it may well work, but it would definitely crack and squeak and the danger of rusting, breaking and subsequent downtime is many times greater if there is too little or no lubricant. This means: Project management without social competence is not possible! When staffing the project management of a complex project, you should, in case of doubt, choose the project manager with the most pronounced social skills. If necessary, you can put a project management expert at his side to support him. However, the opposite approach will not work!

Test: do I have social competence?

The more questions you can answer with YES, the more pronounced your social competence will be:
  • I communicate in an adapted way with different people.
  • I can present my points of view clearly and understandably.
  • I communicate openly, honestly and directly, even in the case of unpleasant messages.
  • I listen actively.
  • I can win others over for myself and my concerns and create trust.
  • I can convey my own feelings in a credible way without overburdening my counterpart.
  • I allow emotions and can deal appropriately with the feelings of other people.
  • I can empathize with others.
  • I recognize everyday conflicts in time and take appropriate measures.
  • I deal constructively with criticism and remain fair in disputes.
  • I am also willing to compromise and look for win-win solutions.
  • I use my knowledge and skills for the benefit of the team, subordinating self-interest to the interests of the team.
  • I am willing to take up ideas from other team members and to learn from others.
  • I take the concerns of others seriously and show appreciation for them.