Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Soft Skills

Beyond your qualifications for the job, beyond your technical wizardry... lies the realm of soft skills.

How many times have you heard that someone of exemplary brilliance was not hired or promoted because he or she was difficult to get along with, not a team player, too rude for words, or had bad table manners.

A person who is hostile, not conciliatory; who is in your face, not saving face. A person who browbeats colleagues, fails to speak up to defend his or her ideas, cannot make small talk, refuses to negotiate, and is cold, detached, and indifferent to other people.

Such a person lacks soft skills, or better, lacks social skills.

Everyone accepts that we need to develop our soft skills. Yet, I suspect that one reason it is so difficult to persuade people of their importance is that they are called "soft."

Developing your soft skills is hard work. It requires strength of character, courage, fortitude, and perseverance. Do any of these qualities apply to someone who is "soft?"

Normally, businesses seek people who are tough competitors, who are sufficiently confident to work through difficulties, who are courageous enough to take a stand, and who are good teammates.

All of which might apply to a football player or a first lieutenant. The problem is: neither football teams nor armies value softness.

This is not a trivial point. Many of what are called "soft skills" involve rhetoric: the way you word a thought to make it persuasive. Shouldn't the soft skills mavens know better than to label their field with a term that is less likely to motivate people?

Rhetoric may concern the way you word your thoughts to persuade an audience-- say, a jury-- or it may involve persuading your boss or your staff to undertake a new project.

It is one thing to stand up at a meeting and say: We must do things this way. Quite another is say: I recommend the following course of action. With your forbearance I would like to explain why.

It is easy and lazy to say whatever comes to mind, regardless of the occasion. And it is easy and lazy to express your feelings willy-nilly, regardless of who you are, where your are, with whom you are.

It takes discipline to master soft skills, and discipline is the enemy of unbridled expression.

To improve your soft skills, start by thinking before you speak. Start by thinking of five different ways to articulate the same thought or feeling. Then think about which one best reflects who you are, how you want others to see you, whom you are speaking to, and what you are trying to accomplish.

In a business context who you are is your title, your place in the organization, your duties, and your responsibilities. You can speak like you are in charge if you are in charge; otherwise you are going to sound arrogant and pretentious.

You should speak differently to those above you and to those below you. You show more deference to someone who signs your paycheck than to someone who delivers the mail. That does not mean that you should ever disrespect the delivery person. It means that you need not defer to him or her.

You should measure your words if you want your idea to be adopted or to be implemented effectively. Leadership is not about shooting your mouth off and yelling at people who do not obey.

If you draw more attention to yourself than to your ideas you have not worked hard enough on your soft skills.

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