What Exactly Are Soft Skills and Why Do They Matter?

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When I first started talking about the importance of soft skills and presenting on the theme back in 2008, I often received a very negative reaction. They were regarded with derision. They were too warm and fuzzy and too touchy-feely for professionals. They encompassed too much of the “feminine” to have value in the hard world of business. They also were seen to de-professionalise and devalue what professionals held near and dear.

When an issue begins to be discussed, however, in such prestigious places as the Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, we need to take notice. When business schools around the world begin to add programs on this issue to their curriculum, we need to seriously look at it. When, every day, Google churns out blogs, forum Q and As, news items, journal and magazine articles, interviews with prominent leaders and managers and podcasts on this same issue, my conviction was strengthened that Soft Skills is an issue whose time has come. Yet I am still asked by many people: what exactly are soft skills?

Defining “Soft Skills”.

The first thing I want to say is that they are much more than people skills. Most people reduce them down to that – the ability to communicate well with other people, to be liked by other people, good interpersonal skills in other words. If only it was that simple. We could teach people how to do that. It’s the Dale Carnegie approach of “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

In my book – Soft Skills-The Hard Stuff of Success – I give my definition of soft skills. They are “the skills we use to develop, change, re-shape or enhance our personality, behaviour, attitudes and mindset so we can achieve the outcomes we want in our professional (and personal) lives.”

These four aspects of ourselves are what attract people to us or repel people. If they like the way we relate with them, like the way we think, share the same attitudes to life and work as they do and have similar behaviour patterns to us, they will want to be around us. They will want to work with us, have us as part of their professional network and even want to collaborate with us on joint ventures or in partnerships.

On the other hand, if there is little resonance between us and them, if we rub them up the wrong way, if we don’t agree on very much at all, there will be no relationship formed. For example, if we have a conflictual personality, or a laissez-faire attitude to meeting deadlines, a black and white mindset about most issues and behave in an unprofessional way, we will find it difficult to be promoted in most organisations today.

We need to understand our own personality and how we come across to others. Do we have a negative or positive personality? Are we pro-active or reactive? We need to be aware of our behaviour, the way we speak and act, dress and groom ourselves. Is our behaviour appropriate for the situations in which we find ourselves? Is our mindset fixed and rigid, black and white or is it open and flexible? Do we have a famine mindset focused always on deficits and lack, or do we have a growth mindset focused on abundance? What’s most important, however, is that those people who lack well-developed soft skills become aware of their lack otherwise they can do nothing about them.

Recently I heard someone say: “While I’m getting on with doing good work for the organisation (meaning technical work) “Smoocher” is out there sucking up to the boss. He has nowhere near the qualifications I’ve got but he then gets the promotion.” What “Smoocher” is probably doing is managing up, which is a very important soft skill to develop. He is getting to know his boss and his goals and aspirations for the organisation. He knows that if he is going to advance in the organisation he needs to be on the same page as his boss. He needs his boss to know, like and trust him. He is aligning his goals with those of the organisation so he can help implement the vision of the organisation. His boss is probably realising that “Smoocher” is someone he wants on his team because he is aligned. “Sucking up” is a very derisive term and it’s certainly not what “Smoocher” is doing.

Many people like this complainer are bewildered that they are not getting the opportunities and promotions they desire because they have failed to realise that they need to spend as much time developing and enhancing their non-technical skills as they have their technical qualifications. If you are very logical and rational with a strong technical bent this is not easy to do. And this is why soft skills are actually very hard skills. It’s not easy to look at ourselves and acknowledge that we need to change and do something differently and take responsibility for that. Being able to do that is about developing self-awareness.

  • What do I need to change in my personality to get where I want to go? Is there something about the way I relate to people that is preventing me from getting where I want to go? Be courageous enough to ask your manager, or a trusted colleague.
  • Ask the same thing about your behaviour. Am I acting like the leader I want to be? Did I meet and interact well with those people at that function I attended on behalf of the organisation?
  • Have I a “can-do” attitude to my work? Do I put in discretionary effort? Or is my attitude very laissez-faire and cruisey?
  • Do I have a mindset that can embrace these changing times, the uncertainty and unpredictability? Or do I find myself anxious and frightened beneath the surface and attempting to maintain control of everything to the point of micro-managing myself and others?

Being able to ask and answer these questions is about self-awareness which is an essential soft skill to develop. In fact, it is now being seen as one of the most important soft skills for leaders and aspiring leaders and why the very best MBA courses and post graduate business courses all have interactive programs taking the participants through a process to develop their self-awareness.

You Can’t Develop and Enhance Your Soft Skills Alone.

The first important step to take is becoming aware that we can’t change these aspects of our personality, behaviour, attitudes or mindset alone. We would have done it already if we could. All of us have blind spots that create barriers to our success. We need to get a coach, mentor, a performance partner or join a Mastermind group to take us to the next level.

Get a Coach.

We are all aware of what coaches in sports teams do, or what they do for elite athletes. They enhance their strengths and they help them work on their weaknesses. They build them up, get them physically and mentally fit, motivate and inspire them. Those who are most successful always attribute a large part of their success to their coach. A leadership development coach works much the same way. You set your goals. They help you reach them. They help you enhance them. They usually help you discover talent and potential you never knew you had. BUT, you have to do the work. Most coaches are paid. Some work session to session but most work in packages of a number of sessions and goals set are committed to be met in that time frame. Coaching is very solution-focused.

Get a Mentor.

Mentors are the guide on the side rather than the sage on the stage. They walk the road with you and share their experience so that you don’t have to re-invent the wheel at every turn. A mentor is preferable to a coach when you are feeling fairly focussed, feeling that your soft skills are well-developed but maybe you are being challenged in the position you are in. You are struggling, for example with the uncertainty and unpredictability of the current changing times. You are feeling unsure about yourself but you have clear goals and aspirations. You know where you want to go, just hitting some brick walls at the moment. A good mentor will be able to identify with you and where you are at because they’ve probably been there themselves at some stage in their career. They can motivate and inspire you through this stage. They can be a voice of empowerment. They can re-assure – but again they won’t do the work for you. Mentors can come from either your organisation or another organisation. They are more experienced people you admire for the soft skills they have. Some mentors are paid; some unpaid. Many bigger organisations have mentor programs within. The mentoring relationship is often more informal than the coaching relationship and does not necessarily involve a regular meeting. They are there when you need them.

Get a Performance Partner.

A performance partner is a colleague either within your own organisation or outside it and can even be someone in another industry with whom you meet on a regular basis. It needs to be someone you respect and trust and whose personality, behaviour, attitudes and mindset resonates with yours. The purpose of the relationship is to help one another enhance his/her performance. You share with one another what you want to change. In a sense you mentor one another. You ask good questions that challenge each other to think differently about the way you do things. You share your experience with one another. No fee changes hand here.

Join/Form a Mastermind Group.

This is a high performance group, comprised of people with clear goals and an absolute commitment to give whatever it takes to be the best they can be. They meet on a regular basis for a set period of time, for example, 6-12 months. People in a mastermind group are not waiting for someone else to make it happen for them. They are very prepared to do that but they want some direction. For this reason these groups are usually led by someone with skills in the area in which they want to grow and good facilitation skills. This person is usually paid. Sometimes these groups work very effectively with a revolving leadership model from within the group and therefore involve no fees for an outside facilitator. So if you want to fast-track your career and feel it is your soft skills that are stopping you, reach out and be courageous enough to get the support you need to get there. While it may initially be hard to make the changes, be assured, it becomes a very exciting ride as you grow and change and great things begin to happen for you.

  • You gain enormous self-confidence.
  • You can go into any new situation with minimal, if any, anxiety.
  • In crisis situations you can maintain an authoritative presence, be in control, reassure people and maintain their commitment to collaboratively work towards a solution. In other words you are very resilient and can bounce back from adversity.
  • You become naturally positive and pro-active most of the time. Because of that people like being around you and working with you.
  • You can relate with all kinds of people, even people you’ve never met before, and have them positively respond to you.

All of these qualities make you an ideal person to motivate and inspire others and if you are an aspiring leader your potential for leadership becomes apparent. If you are in leadership already, you become someone who will go much further.