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Stephen Walker

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Why soft skills are vital for business success


Stephen Walker reviews what soft skills can do for an organisation and how to develop them.

Soft skills may not be something our grandparents might recognise but Generation X demand them in their work environment. The performance enhancing effect of soft skill management is widely established and equally disputed.

There is a world of difference between managing soft skills or not: managing with emotion or emotional intelligence. Expressing your emotions as the manager is not likely to make things better overall. At best the target of your emotion will avoid that in the future, sadly closing down avenues for voluntary effort. You shout people into being careful and risk-averse. Conversely an emotionally intelligent manager will communicate what is good and bad about the situation to create a more appropriate action in the future.

Soft skills need to be deliberately acquired as they need a calm environment to develop naturally. What better use for a management development workshop could there be?

You would think that soft skills, the ability to understand other people, would be something we all had developed in our life. It is a skill that may be innate - or at least is learned early in life. A baby is fully capable of making a roomful of mothers pay attention with a few squawks. If it is your child demanding your attention you have little choice but to give it. Few are able to resist their child’s call for attention. There is a good reason why supermarkets put sweets at the checkout. Children’s pester power grows with them.

As we grow we are told not be childish and demand what we want: we learn to take our turn, subjugate our wants and to behave like an adult. Somewhere in that childhood training we bury our ability to sense what people around us are wanting, how they react to us and how to give them what they want. There is a lot of research into the superiority of the female manager with her empathetic approach. To defend the men, empathy is not solely a female skill, skills vary widely across gender.

Unfortunately females in authority are often urged to adopt male management skills, losing their empathy in the process. The turmoil set up by ignoring the communication received from their soft skills to achieve a masculine 'my way or the highway' management style is painful to see. The worst example was a partner in an accounting firm who was unable to use 'people' for the employees. She referred to them as staff to make them non-human so she could ease her conscience at ignoring the screams she heard through her soft skills.

"Somewhere in childhood training we bury our ability to sense what people around us are wanting, how they react to us and how to give them what they want."

Hierarchical authority became the standard during the Industrial Revolution. It was necessary to make large numbers of processes and people keep in step. That phase is long past even in the most routine industrial processes, be that making cat food or websites. Today people work in loose coalitions bringing together the skills needed to get a job done. There is a huge increase in sole traders, taking their skills outside of the corporate environment, providing their skills to whosoever needs them. Even in the corporate world, the rigid hierarchy is dying and people are moved to serve on project teams to get something done.

Success in today’s world is more a case of who you know, not what you know. You have to be able to create a project team, a coalition of advisers or tap into a deep technical niche expertise as you need it. For you to succeed in this world you must be able to create a willingness to help you, and a desire for your project’s success, achieve your ends. This requires soft skills.

What are soft skills?

Soft skills are the fundamental building blocks of human relationships. I appreciate some people love their cars but I don’t know anyone who thinks that love is returned! Management is the management of people; administration is the management of things. Managing people requires ability to communicate with them on a personal level and not just administering them by swapping money for their time.

Listening is a key soft skill. There are so many quotes about us having two ears and one mouth and we should use them in that ratio. By listening I mean listening to all communication, verbal and non-verbal. That deep listening is called empathy – the ability to put yourself in that person’s shoes and accept communication from their point of view. To listen in that way requires respect for the individual. In our management development we stress the importance of recognising the divine spark in every human being, in fact in every living thing. This is not a religious argument but rather requires you to recognise that it is not appropriate to call the person who just wiped your customer database a #*@%!

When it comes to your communications you have to be clear, of course. You also have to communicate honesty or you won’t be believed. If you can put all these things together you will find the mysterious quality of charisma emerging. Charisma is defined as the ability to inspire enthusiasm, interest, or affection in others by means of personal charm or influence.

What do soft skills enable?

Trust is an essential part of any employer-employee relationship. I know many of you do not understand or believe that as it is outside your experience. But trust me on this and I will expand. Trust in a business setting is about fulfilling contractual obligations with good will. For example, it is the employer holding appraisal meetings to develop the employee: it is about the employee doing what is necessary, but unseen, to deliver the result. This does not mean there is a binding together for life, employment is not a marriage contract, but it does mean accepting a responsibility to put in best effort to achieve a good result.

Effective communication is missing from many business environments. People are scared to digress from the instructions passed down for fear of sticking out. What sticks out gets hammered flat. Going back a few years I seem to recall laying in bed thinking '...if mum doesn’t wake me soon I will be late for school'. How many employees wonder if 'they' will notice and respond to the danger that is obvious? Full, bi-directional and effective communication is the best remedy for risk avoidance and opportunity grasping. This communication hugely elevates the environmental information gathering capability of the business. If you want to know what your customers think of you ask your receptionist or delivery driver.

The feeling of involvement all this engenders creates willingness to volunteer effort. If you feel your boss is looking out for you, why wouldn’t you help as best you can? This is how delegation works. You don’t delegate tasks, you delegate outcomes. The environmental information quantity reduces as you go up the hierarchy. You can delegate authority to use the voluntary effort to make decisions on that information. Now you can delegate outcomes with confidence you suddenly have more time yourself. Now you can do all these things for your boss, reduce his or her workload and improve performance.

Stephen is a co-founder of Motivation Matters, set up in 2004 to develop organisation behaviour to drive greater performance. He has worked for notable organisations such as Corning, De La Rue and Buhler and has been hired to help Philips, Lloyds TSB and a raft of others. A published author of articles and Conference speaker, Stephen delivers workshops across the country. It is all about “making people more effective by appropriate managerial behaviour” he says. You can follow Stephen on LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube and Blog


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