They are among the hardest skills to develop while being the most crucial for sustainable success.
We are in Sean’s office while he laments about his team. In addition to expressions of uncertainty, frustration and disappointment he comments, “My team keeps missing deadlines. Despite my telling them what they need to do, the end product never works right. If they are having problems getting it done the way I tell them to, why don’t they just ask for help?”
Later on, I spoke with a few members of his team. Some of the comments I heard include:
- “Are you kidding? Sean never worked in this area before and doesn’t understand how our work product fits into the rest of the system.”
- “Despite knowing less than we do, he expects us to do things his way.”
- “The last person who tried to explain why it needed to be done differently was shown the door.”
- “When we tried it Sean’s way and it didn’t work we had to go back and do it the way we suggested in the first place, yet he complains we are delivering late.”
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone
Sean and his team are not alone. One study showed that 75% of work teams are dysfunctional1 just like this one. This is a huge problem considering 31% of respondents reported that working in teams made up all or most of their work2 and that percentage is growing3. If working in teams is so important, why don’t organizations prioritize teamwork skills in their hiring process? They are trying. According to Indeed, Linkedin, and Forbes, Teamwork is a highly sought after “soft” skill yet most teams are still dysfunctional. Something is not working.
And this problem is not limited to Teamwork. Organizations have a tough time identifying and developing “soft” skills in general. So many organizations fail to live up to their potential despite having the brightest people on the payroll because they do not have the “soft” skills to put their technical skills to the best use.
Maybe they are not really a priority after all. In just about any job description, way down underneath the section entitled “Necessary requirements” listing the “hard” technical skills required for the job, you will find a section entitled “Additional desired skills…” that lists a bunch of “soft” skills. It looks as if they were put there simply because someone read in an article somewhere that they were important. After all, when you search “soft skills” online you get 609 million results saying how important they are.
Why does it feel like “soft” skills are only on the job description to pay them lip service? We tend to overlook these critical skills for two main reasons.
Reason 1 – They are hard to define and harder to measure
In business people overwhelmingly think they are purely data driven. “Show me the data!” is perhaps the number one mantra I hear over and over again. In business, if you clearly define it and measure it, it becomes a key performance indicator (KPI) and attracts attention. A great example of a hard skill that can be defined and measured is programming in Python. You can easily track how many agile stories a developer coded within a given period of time and how many bugs were found. Attaching financials to that activity is a pretty simple thing to do.
If a skill is hard to define or measure, many leaders treat them as a distraction. “Soft” skills fall into this category. Consider teamwork mentioned above? If you try to quantify in dollars how much the behaviors of the team members contributed to revenue, the task becomes complicated. If you ask a group of people to define Teamwork, you will get many different answers. Sean defined himself as a team player. His definition may have been the same as the person who hired him. However, his teammates have a different definition.
“Soft” skills almost never become KPI’s. As such, they are virtually guaranteed to remain relegated to the back seat no matter how much we talk about them these days.
Reason 2 – We really dislike feeling vulnerable at Work
Even though the enduring notion of the rational, heroic individual who lets nothing get in the way of their goals is slowly eroding, it still remains strong. We know:
- This idea is a fallacy given the increasing complexity organizations face and;
- “Soft” skills are the key to thriving in such a world, and;
- The pandemic has made it clear that people bring their whole selves to work.
Nevertheless, the inertia of the idea of the rational hero is a powerful force against what we intellectually know to be true, that behavior matters. The ability to rely on others and genuinely receive feedback, for example, means we openly acknowledge that we are vulnerable. We shy away from talking about our behaviors because they are so deeply personal and we are not accustomed to it in that environment. Saying someone is not very good at programming in Python could be taken as constructive criticism whereas saying someone is not a good leader or a team player is a punch in the gut.
Additionally, taking the time to understand a person’s motivations or emotions in the face of tight deadlines often seems like an unnecessary distraction when the rational hero is whispering in your ear. Organizations need to do the difficult work of encouraging their members to get comfortable talking about behavior if they are going to thrive in a complex world.
Let’s do the Hard thing by taking the Five steps to Prioritize “Soft” Skills
- Let’s create practical definitions of the soft skills that we need to succeed. Instead of teamwork, for example, consider:
- Seeks input before making a decision
- Offers time and other resources to help others succeed
- Has more questions than statements in meetings
- Provides useful feedback to coworkers
- Praises successes
- Learn to observe and measure these behaviors.
- Stop rewarding the Heroic Leader. Even if they achieve some short term goals, they will cost organizations in the long run.
- Praise what you want employees to repeat and develop out the behaviors you want to extinguish.
- Make hiring for soft skills an equal priority to the hard skills. Using an assessment like Psybil.io makes this significantly easier.
Curious about how we have elevated soft skills and seen profits follow, reach out to us at [email protected]