Ok, just a heads up. Should you choose to read on, you’re about to hear a bit of a rant from me. This topic has been on my mind and throughout my work for years now, and recently it’s reached a point where I feel something needs to be said (or written).
You still with me? Good…..let’s go.
I’m getting sick of us (leaders, coaches, executives, organizations, publications, etc.) calling leadership and engagement skills like communication, influencing, collaboration, coaching, even asking powerful questions or listening, SOFT SKILLS. I don’t know when that term was officially coined for all the skills noted above. Typically, when I hear leaders reference them, it’s said with a snicker, a sigh, a shrug or some impatience. As if to say “fine, I’ll do this thing for now and then get back to the real work.” While I’ve been aware of this skill-bashing over time, of late it’s been very prevalent. Here’s the way I’m seeing it right now.
IF THEY’RE SOFT (OR WE CALL THEM SOFT, WHICH WE DO), WHY ARE THEY SO DAMN HARD FOR SO MANY LEADERS TO LEARN AND DO WELL??
Very recently ,I’ve been asked to work with two new executives and three levels of leaders (top Exec team and the two teams below them) within a mid-sized financial services organization to help them become more adept at using the aforementioned skills, to be more effective and in one case, repair some quite significantly damaged relationships. The needs for these skills, given what’s at stake, are clear and pressing.
The research shows that for many trainings of this kind, less than 10% of the learning actually sticks a month following the training (see research on the Forgetting Curve). So if SOFT implies easy, or rudimentary, or in some way below the leader’s job or responsibilities, then why are they seen to be important and why do we so ineffectively retain the learning? To quote Deloitte’s 2015 Report of Global Human Capital Trends, “”Softer” areas such as culture and engagement, leadership, and development have become urgent priorities.”
My take? Learning and even mastering these skills is hard because it requires a leader being present, vulnerable and connected to another human being. You can’t practice good coaching, listening, collaboration or engagement skills alone. You just can’t. We practice these skills with others, and in doing so, publicly engage in the process of try-fail-learn-try-succeed-fail-learn over and over again (what Burch called Conscious Incompetence from the Four Stages of Learning). There are no reports or PowerPoint presentations to point at or distract us from the conversation. This vulnerable effort has the work be personal and even intimate (in my experience, the greatest results happen when there’s intimacy). And what makes it so challenging is that we are what’s at stake when we really lay it on the line with these skills.
That’s right. WE are what’s at stake.
Who we are seen to be as a leader and person and our level of effectiveness in the doing of these skills is what’s front and centre. Practicing and effectively using soft skills meaningfully requires connection. And when we go to connect, we risk rejection from others. We risk getting judged and dismissed. To do this requires personal courage.
To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.– Aristotle
It’s hard to be the thing at stake. Rejection of a report, setback in a project, or a metric made wrong is one thing. Embarrassing, yes.
Being rejected personally is a whole different ballgame.
That’s hard, and it’s personal. I get it.
And if we don’t, we stay stuck in the rut of judging, getting some results, not getting others, losing talent because they’re not treated well, feeling judged, under- or over-valued, etc.
So what can we do? Here are 5 steps to assess how you see soft skills, and then take steps towards engaging them more courageously. Oh, and one note. If you still don’t really see them as valuable, I’d suggest we wrap it up right here. As Stephen R. Covey noted in The Speed of Trust, human beings can sniff out when leaders engage in learning and deploying these skills disingenuously. You take greater risks and suffer greater reputational impact when you try to “fake it” (e.g. connecting with others, showing you care, etc.)
Determine and choose your Mindset – Ask yourself:
How am I seeing these skills? What value do I honestly see or sense in them?
What is my personal vision – who am I wanting to become?
What has me want to become this?
How do these skills move me towards this vision? How do I want to impact others?
If your current mindset doesn’t help you see them in a way that moves you and others towards your goals, find a new one. It’s actually as simple as making a new choice.
Identify your Leader Values – Your Leader Values are the qualities, or characteristics, or beliefs you hold about what matters most to you. Examples can be security, results, variety, relationships, fun, etc. These values are always guiding your decisions and actions. This process has them be more conscious. From consciousness, you can choose more deliberately. One way to determine some of your values is to think of a Peak Experience in your work or life. What was present in that experience that had it be so powerful? Dig for the qualities of the circumstances. Values are in there.
For soft skills, look for a value that may be a branch of relationships. This could be collaboration, team, friendship, love, compassion, curiosity, empathy, trust, respect (these are all real examples of values from some recent and current clients). Any or multiples of those can provide a powerful way into seeing these skills and situations in a new light and then exploring different actions that would emerge from there.
Get Allies for your Learning – As you learn new skills, find a coach or partner for feedback who will support you and help you grow. In doing so, you are demonstrating vulnerability and building trust: key ingredients to soft skills. And be an ally to others! Acknowledge success. As Shawn Achor’s research shows, we need 3 positives events to offset one negative experience given our brain’s negativity bias.
Put Structures in place. – Structures are reminders to keep us on track. They can be images, tokens, songs, screen savers, etc. They trigger our brain from default mode or old mindsets (see Step 1) back to the new mindset and behaviours. One could be a sticky note that reminds you to ask a couple of questions about others before you state your opinion. Or a “LiveStrong”-type bracelet that reminds you to share some personal insight into your life that invites others to do the same and creates connection over shared interests.
Pause for Reflection – We are a culture often on the move. Pause to reflect on your progress and acknowledge your success. End-of-workday reflection or gratitude journaling are two popular structures to help you do this. As best-selling author Gay Hendricks encourages in his book The Big Leap, even soak in your success (this helps to engage the brain more creatively). And then target one shift for tomorrow. This locks in your great work in learning these skills and keeps you stepping forward.
The skills of leading, listening, motivating, caring and engaging require both skills and deliberate mindsets. For some they are hard to learn and harder to keep. For what it’s worth, I believe and have seen them have immeasurably positive impact. Regardless of what I think, the jury is in. They matter, not what you call them.
So, what do you find hard? And what skills and mindsets are you ready to embrace?