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Emotional Intelligence for Start up Project Managers

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Written by: Alasdair Hutchinson

Managing start-ups feels like spinning hundreds of plates at once. When you have to make every single minute of work, every penny spent, and every resource utilised count, founders, and indeed project managers, can’t be blamed for making every decision based on what a crunchy spreadsheet and cold logic can account for. Indeed, this is the way countless organisations have been managed for hundreds of years.

However, in 1998, an American Psychologist named Daniel Goleman presented an alternative view which challenged how we understand individual and organisational success - that of Emotional Intelligence or ‘EQ’ (Emotional Quotient), providing a framework for principles coined by Salovey and Mayer in the early 90’s. Goleman suggested that appreciating the nuances of both your own and others’ emotions is one of the most fundamental contributors to high performance - arguably more so than cognitive intelligence (IQ).

Being an effective and holistic project manager in the modern start-up world requires more than just organising workflows and setting deadlines. It is about supporting your team, handling problems with grace, and operating with a holistic outlook. Let’s dive into the different personal and interpersonal tenets of EQ as defined by Goleman and how they are important for PMs in helping keep those plates spinning.

Self Awareness

Being conscious of your own emotions and the impact they have upon you is foundational to emotional intelligence. Project managers with a strong understanding of their own values, strengths and weaknesses will be able to articulate confident and considered decisions.

A big part of self-awareness is being aware of your own assumptions. As project managers in a start-up environment frequently leverage the knowledge of expert resources, learning to challenge your assumptions - both positive and negative - about the way certain things should or shouldn’t be done will allow for increased efficiency and more effective problem solving.

Self Regulation

Self regulation could be described as the ‘active’ element of self awareness. It involves keeping yourself in line and thinking before you act. This of course sounds obvious, but actually requires a lot of discipline and humility to develop. In a project environment, managing your own feelings and regulating your response to challenging situations unlocks the ability to navigate roadblocks.

The road to start-up success is almost always rocky. Being able to meet incidents of frustration such as changes in scope, budgetary constraints, or delays in delivery with a high degree of self regulation allows you to reappraise the situation, identify paths forward, and maintain project velocity. Moreover, being mindful and having strategies for self regulation as a project manager also facilitates rapid pivoting and allows you to make conscientious change even while under duress.



You can have all the knowledge in the world, a schedule which sets out the entire project, and a budget which Scrooge McDuck would blush at, but if you don’t have the drive, you won’t succeed. The tenacity to see things through is almost a prerequisite of being a project manager and it fuels progress. It similarly also helps you and your team overcome frustrations and keep that all important momentum.

Understanding sources of motivation both within yourself and within your team helps you meet deadlines and produce high quality work. It requires a very perceptive PM to grasp the nuances of all the ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ which may motivate and demotivate within the context of their project, but the ability to foster a motivational environment helps create synergy; uniting individuals towards the common vision and goal of start-up success.


Empathetic project management means being receptive to, appreciating, and facilitating solutions to the problems faced by your team - and the best PMs can do this before problems even occur. This helps you create an equitable team environment, allowing you to discover new and flexible ways of working to facilitate different team members and their unique wants and limitations.

But empathy as a PM can extend beyond having empathy for members of your team. It can involve connecting deeply with the project, client, goal or target market to provide holistic understanding and contextualise what you are working towards.

Social Skills

Strong interpersonal ‘soft skills’ are an oft mentioned, but rarely interrogated quality possessed by great project managers. When working with the unique challenges of start-ups, these qualities can often make the difference between good and great. Communication across multifunctional teams is an absolute necessity in a start-up environment, and those project managers with an efficient, articulate and considered approach to dialogue will find facilitating change and resolving conflict a smoother process. Similarly, engendering and nurturing trust and camaraderie amongst your team will help every individual work to the best of their ability.

So what?

To say that EQ is the panacea to all your PM problems would be misleading, and indeed some start-ups will still live - and die - by the numbers. However I hope that it is clear that honing your emotional intelligence in small ways can reap incredible rewards, especially in the unique, exciting and often challenging world of start-ups.

Whether it is the self awareness to challenge your assumptions about a project, the ability to self regulate and meet challenges with grace, drive your team’s momentum with strong motivation, getting a holistic understanding of your project through empathy, or facilitating great communication with powerful social skills; it is easier to keep all your plates spinning when you have plenty of sticks in your toolbox.