When will we stop giving short shrift to “soft” skills? We’ve all seen it.
We attend conferences, and load up with sessions on technical, subject-matter-specific “hard” skills with a few “soft” skill sessions sprinkled in — usually on leadership, or occasionally, communication. There’s a reason why conference planners schedule time this way. Employees know they can get approval to attend the conference to learn about hard skills, rather than soft skills. When organization budgets get cut, it usually hits soft skill training programs. In many organizations, it’s a rare honor for a manager to be offered leadership or communication training, as though only managers need to communicate effectively. Repeatedly, decision-makers choose to invest money and time for hard skills, but I believe it’s time to re-examine that decision.
Hard skills are easier to teach and measure. You can learn to write code, to use social media, to design a bridge or even to use Windows 10 (on second thought, I’m not so sure about that last one). Soft skills, on the other hand, need to be patiently nurtured over time and with consistent effort.
Here are three categories of soft skills and the internal work which I believe makes them so hard.
- Self-awareness is hard because it requires courage. Self-awareness is an essential attribute of an effective leader. Self-awareness requires owning personal behavior and accepting responsibility for your role in situations. The self-aware leader is skilled at pausing to ask themselves “What is my role in the miscommunication?” or “What is my role is creating anxiety in the office?” or “What was my role in the unfortunate decision we just made?” Have the courage to ask the question; and have the courage to hear the answer and to learn from it.
- Social awareness is hard because it requires respect and humility. The ability to read and relate to people is another essential skill. An effective manager works with and through people to achieve success in an organization. The skilled manager has the humility to understand the limits of their perspective. An effective manager has respect and attentiveness with the employees. A good manager listens to the input of others and melds it before arriving at a decision. These leaders ask, “What’s their perspective? Have I heard and considered it?” They challenge themselves, “Are you listening to those different from you? Are you seeking input from those you know disagree?”
- Communication skills are hard because they require time. Effective communications take 200% effort: 100% effort to listen to others first, and another 100% effort to respond with awareness. We cannot catch the subtleties and richness of others’ ideas if we are in a hurry — and we’re always in a hurry. Communicating requires the discipline to slow the pace and listen. Rushing brushes over the opportunity to learn. The wise manager asks, “Am I slowing down enough to listen and understand another perspective?” “Am I allowing time to let information sink in, or do I rush to the next meeting without listening to myself?” Neuroscience now tells us that the brain continues to work on problems when we are not actively thinking about it. In fact, it more effectively combines information from all our experiences and the input of others during and sleep.
OK, so it’s hard. Each of these soft skills is complex, nuanced, and artful. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Imagine a workplace if everyone communicated effectively, respectfully and with self-awareness. Go ahead — try to imagine that. Imagine how much faster decisions can be reached. Imagine having input from all those who can make a difference. A team I worked with for a year estimated 15% higher productivity from enhanced communications. A process that took three weeks was reduced to one because of improved soft skills.
It’s time that we face it. “Soft” skills can’t be learned in a once-a-year breakout session. They deserve attention, investment, energy, and focus repeatedly and over time.
Let’s get started! You can learn Windows 10 another day.
Shelley Row, P.E., is a leadership decision-making expert and a recovering over-thinker. A sought-after speaker and consultant, Shelley helps managers and leaders skillfully trust their infotuition. Her Infotuition Cognition-Intuition Balance Model represents the intersection of business pragmatics and gut feeling. For complex decisions, data alone is not enough, and infotuition is essential. She founded Shelley Row Associates LLC; prior to that, she was a 30-year transportation engineer and senior executive with the federal government.