What do you actually do all day at work? I suspect it’s not quite how you describe your job to friends and family. And I don’t mean to suggest that you are deceiving them, but we do a lot less technical work than we think we do. The vast majority of our time is not spent accessing our expensive education, or drawing on our vast technical experience. We spend our time employing skills that no one thought to train us in – soft skills.
Soft skills – at the heart of education
It shouldn’t be a surprise. The old-fashioned mantra of educationalists was the three R’s – “Reading, Writing and Arithmetic” – in other words twice as much time spent on communication skills as spent on technical skills. It is logical.
The greatest idea in the world is useless, unless you can communicate it to another person. So, a great inventor needs to be able to have empathy, to influence, to persuade, to accept feedback, to think critically, to solve problems…
It’s clear that your technical knowledge is crucial. Angelina Jolie is a great actor and an amazing communicator, but when I have toothache, I’ll go to a qualified dentist.
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However, think back to how you got your job in the first place. You probably had to submit a Curriculum Vitae (CV) and covering letter and then attend an interview. It is only once you have the job, that your technical skills are really tested – the skills that make the difference are how you communicate your expertise. Your CV and interview demonstrate your soft skills.
Obviously, there is an assumption that your CV is more or less truthful. If Angelina Jolie were to apply for a job as a dentist, the recruiter would notice her lack of a qualification, regardless of how well she communicates. However, assuming you are qualified, what makes you stand out from the crowd is the way you communicate.
Soft skills are your reputation
A clear, concise, well-written report is much more likely to create a positive impression.
The same is true for career advancement. We now know that you are technically qualified; and more than that, you have a certain gift for your technical area of expertise. What will bring you to the attention of the senior leadership? Your presence, how you interact with your colleagues, how you deal with challenging situations.
Many decision makers may only know of you through your written reports. If you write dense, complicated reports that require an advanced degree in text analysis to understand, people may assume that you are not a “people person” or that you are a bit boring. A clear, concise, well-written report is much more likely to create a positive impression.
Future-proofing your soft skills profile
The current working generation has probably undergone the most dramatic change in working practices ever – and certainly the quickest pace of transformation. With email and web conferencing software, we are now expected to respond immediately.
We can access all kinds of data without asking someone else to get it for us; we consider options, decide and implement in the time it took previous generations to find a typist available to type up a memo asking for suggestions to solve the immediate crisis.
The contents of an email must account for the competition for attention and memory space in the reader’s head, rather than trying to give too much information, in too much detail, using too many words.
Virtual communication skills are the most overlooked and underrated skills of the 21st century. There was a fashion in the early 2000’s promoting “netiquette” classes, but few people have taken the step of changing their thought processes to incorporate email and web conferencing effectively. It is much more than knowing when to use smileys or emojis!
Chairing or participating in a virtual meeting is not the same as a face to face meeting in the same way that writing an email is not the same as writing a formal letter. Yet, we try to replicate the same processes for both situations.
Consider your inbox. Don’t look at the number of emails, or even the number of unread notifications. Just looking at the subject line, can you remember the contents and your actions for every one of them? If you can, you are among a very rare breed. Writing a subject line is not the same as writing the “Re” line in a letter.
In the days of letter writing, you had the luxury of including as much information as possible. The author, knowing a reply would take at least a week, had to include more information, knowing the reader would most likely take the time to read the whole thing.
That’s not the way we read any more. We have information overload. The contents of an email must account for the competition for attention and memory space in the reader’s head, rather than trying to give too much information, in too much detail, using too many words.
As a guideline, consider that most people read emails on their mobile devices. The key message and actions required should be obvious from the first two or three lines. Use a subject line that acts as a memory aid.
Soft skills – The key to success
Sheldon Cooper, of the TV program The Big Bang Theory, is a genius. His character is positioned as one of the world’s leading physicists. But his exaggerated lack of soft skills means that he never quite gets the respect and admiration he feels he deserves.
In reality, poor soft skills not only reduce your ability to perform to your potential, but they cause dissatisfaction and unhappiness at work. Humans are social animals and we need to be able to communicate, trust and empathize with each other – we are instinctively apprehensive around people who lack interpersonal skills.
The greatest advantage of having excellent soft skills is that it gives you more time to spend doing the parts of the job you love.
Google recently found that their highest performing employees were not those with the best degrees in mathematics, engineering, science or technology. They were those who demonstrated the highest competencies in interpersonal skills. The Carnegie Foundation and Harvard University conducted research showing that 85% of job success comes from soft skills and only 15% from technical skills.
The greatest advantage of having excellent soft skills is that it gives you more time to spend doing the parts of the job you love. A meeting that is well led is quicker than a meeting that is badly led; miscommunication takes longer than effective communication. And as your productivity goes up, you are raising your profile and developing your career. In fact, it’s a win-win – your organization will benefit too.
Soft skills are not the soft option any more, nor are they a “nice to have.” In fact, soft skills are not soft – they are hard! They are the crucial skills you need to function in a human organization.
Make sure you are not missing out on fulfilling your potential, and invest in developing the critical soft skills – often called interpersonal skills – you need to succeed at work and in life.