Trends in the business, management and learning and development world are cyclical, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that a number of respected organizations including the Wall Street Journal and others have fired up a classic argument as if it's front page news. The topic: "Can Soft Skills Help You Get Ahead?". Really? We're having that discussion again?
I used to get annoyed, now I think of it like insect life cycles. Seriously, it keeps me sane.
Every 17 years, cicadas resurface to cover the earth in a buzzing, creeping, cringe-inducing but essentially harmless infestation. If you've ever lived through one of those cycles (sorry, East Coast of the US, it's your turn) you know how annoying (and icky) it can be. At least it's only every other decade. This silly discussion of soft skills seems to come around every five years or so, each generation believing it's asking the question for the first time.
"Soft Skills" are usually defined as "The character traits and interpersonal skills that characterize a person's relationships with other people". In the workplace, soft skills are considered a complement to hard skills, which refer to a person's knowledge and occupational skills".
In other words; does the way you communicate and interact with co-workers, bosses and customers have a bearing on your long-term career goals? That's not a new question. We've been discussing that since Eve used her influencing skills on Adam (I'm guessing that the purely data-driven approach didn't work on him). The answer, of course, is "yes it does, how many times do we have to go through this?"
There's an entire industry built on helping develop those skills in people. I know. I've been part of it for 20 years or so. Training departments are full of the dessicated remains of those who've tried to get budget to help train people in those competencies.
To be fair, the way we work today does mean the conversation has to change slightly. When we think of soft skills like effective listening, influencing and collaboration, we think of face to face interaction. The fact is, that for more and more of us, those discussions happen over technology. Working remotely can create barriers to building the relationships we need to do our jobs and clog communication channels. Webinars, conference calls, virtual meetings and video chat are designed to help us overcome those barriers, but how's that working for you?
There is an imperfect balance to be struck. Yes, the soft skills are critical, and it's our job to identify people with those capabilities and develop them where we can. But if someone is unfamiliar with the dynamics of working remotely, not confident in the ability of these tools to help them bridge the gaps, and completely freaked out about their ability to use them to good effect, it won't matter.
Webmeetings, for example, can be a very rich, effective way of communicating. Mostly, they're not. Why? Because it's hard enough to have the people skills to cajole, lead, facilitate and listen without worrying which button to push, or if the WebEx will crash on you. Microsoft's LYNC is a good tool, but most people use fewer than a quarter of its features.
Put simply, if good soft skills are in short supply already, technology makes the problem worse by complicating what's already an imperfect situation. I can't really listen effectively if I'm sweating which button to push.
Today's leaders need the soft skills they've always needed. They also need to understand the dynamics of working remotely, the tools available to overcome the challenges and get work done, and the ability to use those tools effectively and competently enough that they don't pose big challenges. Soft skills still matter, but there may be some hard (technology) skills training involved to help them use those skills to their fullest.
If people don't get that help, any barriers to using those communication skills become excuses not to bother. It's hard enough to have that tough coaching conversation with poor performers. It's so easy not to do it well if you have to mediate that conversation through a webcam. Why get up in front of a group when you can just dash off an email or a broadcast webinar?
Having a web platform available isn't the same as using it well. Ask anyone who's ever cleaned out their inbox while sitting in on a webinar with the phone on mute.
So just as the cicada cycle creates all kinds of drama for a few weeks then dies down, so too we have this discussion about soft skills. The difference is that your company and people aren't impacted when the bugs burrow underground for the next two decades. The people challenges don't go away as simply.
So how are you helping your people, teams and organizations use technology in conjunction with their traditional people skills?