It’s common to hear business leaders talk about their skills as a collection of tools that are kept in a toolbox. The idea is that for any job or task, there is a tool or skill that can be used to fix the problem. As high-impact leaders we want to have all the latest tools. We need to be flexible, versatile, up for any challenge, and we want to stay relevant.
Leadership skills typically fall into two buckets: hard and soft. Hard skills are specific abilities that can be defined and measured. Examples of hard skills include: using an Excel spreadsheet, creating a Profit and Loss statement, researching a competitive product. These skills tend to be tangible, repeatable, measurable, and for most people, transferable through education and training.
Soft skills are something different. They are less concrete and more esoteric. Soft skills include: communication, listening, negotiation, conflict resolution, team building, influencing and problem solving. Soft skills are personal attributes that enhance your ability to interact effectively with others. These skills are behavioral competencies and they are hard to quantify. They are also known as interpersonal skills, or people skills.
The development and study of soft skills is fairly recent. Prior to 1980’s, management was predominantly top down, rules based, and autocratic. This changed as companies realized that distributed power led to more creative thinking, increased productivity, and more content employees. In the 1980s, team-based, values-driven organizations appeared. Companies were no longer driven by rules, but by systems and teams. Suddenly, there was a need for leaders who could master soft skills.
Today, many feel soft skills are more important to business leaders than hard skills. Noted psychologist Daniel Coleman states that, “An individual’s ability to manage their relationships with others is twice as important as their intelligence quotient.” Clearly if we look at today’s workplace environment and see the changes due to technology, customer-driven markets, information-based economies and globalization, there is an increased reliance on, and demand for, soft skills. For these reasons, soft skills are increasingly sought out by employers in addition to standard qualifications.
If soft skills are so important why can’t we just find a way to standardize them so they can be mastered by all? Why do we still see people in the workplace who struggle with interpersonal or people related matters? Why are soft skills so damn hard?
First, as noted above, soft skills are not tangible. They are difficult to quantify and measure. Without a baseline to measure, it’s hard to determine what works and why. This makes it a struggle to build learning and training exercises that traditionally look at measurable best practices.
Second, most of us were educated in systems that only taught hard skills – math, science, history, language. Traditional education did not focus on teaching soft skills. So most soft skills are learned on the job by trial and error. Essentially, we’ve had to learn them the hard way.
Finally, everyone is unique. We have different histories, personalities, mores, ethnic backgrounds, motivation, and values. Because of this diversity there are no one-size-fits-all solutions or models to be utilized when conflict and interpersonal issues arise. Each situation is different; the key is flexibility to judge each situation on its own merits, and offer a creative solution.
So, soft skills are hard to master. But, below are a few suggestions that can help you move forward.
- Know your personality strengths and weaknesses. There is some science that theorizes that how humans interact with others is driven by their personality type. There are many tools to measure personality such as the Myers Briggs Personality Indicator. A good on-line place to start is HumanMetrics, which offers a free Jung Typology Test. Understanding your personality type can help narrow the focus to areas you can leverage or improve.
- Watch and listen to others. Find others in your organization who you think have good soft skills. Watch and listen to see how they interact with others. Find out what they are they doing that is successful. Do not be afraid to copy what you feel is working.
- Ask for feedback from your team. Those around you often have excellent insight into your interpersonal skills. Do not be afraid to ask for input on your actions. This will often win respect from others as it shows you value their opinions and want to improve.
- Find a coach. Getting honest, productive feedback can be hard. Often it is best to find someone outside your normal channels who can help you identify the areas where you need to focus. Look around at the networking organizations that you belong to – there are usually qualified people willing to coach for little to no cost. PMI offers a free coaching service to its members. Send me an e-mail and I will be happy to provide you with coaching options.
- Don’t think that soft skills are for weaklings. As high-powered, strong leaders, we often think of soft skills as wimpy. You need to get over this – soft skills are a requirement in today’s organizational environment. They will define your levels of professional success in the future. Spend time understanding and improving your soft skills, or risk becoming a dinosaur.
Employers today highly regard soft skills, because they understand that to get things done, to achieve the company goals, they have to have the right employees in their organization. People with good personal attributes and excellent interpersonal skills are necessary and invaluable to business. Soft skills play a vital role for professional success; they help you to excel in the workplace and their importance cannot be denied in this age of information and knowledge.
Go ahead and open up your leadership toolbox. Do you have the interpersonal skills needed to be a leader in today’s business environment? If not, now is the time for action – now is the time for change!