The time has come to blow the whistle on two words that do well on their own but must never be put side by side: soft skills. When ignored, these two words can derail a career and a life.
What exactly are soft skills? The term refers to competencies such as communication, time management, problem-solving, working with teams, selling, negotiating, and basically learning how to work well with others. A common definition of soft skills is being able “to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.” Sounds pretty good so far, right?
Sadly, the term soft skills has a public relations problem. For instance, what do you think of when you hear the word soft? Its many definitions include “demanding little work or effort.” Is it any wonder why the first thing to be cut from a company’s training budget is the training in soft skills? Who would want to fund programs that teach skills that demand little work or effort?
If you Google the word hard—soft’s evil twin—you’ll see it defined as “requiring a great deal of endurance or effort.” So, it sounds like hard skills are those that you can really sink your teeth into. Hard skills refer to such noble tasks such as typing, writing, math, reading, and the ability to use software programs.
But here’s a simple question: When was the last time you heard of someone losing their job, losing a key client, or being derailed in their life because they couldn’t type well enough, do math in their head accurately enough, or use software efficiently enough? These are rarely the issues that hold us back because if there is a deficiency in any of these areas, there are numerous options to enable you to correct it.
By contrast, soft skills are less tangible and harder to quantify, but they are so much more important. As a matter of fact, the more you study what soft skills are, the better you’ll understand how crucial they are to success. That’s why I believe it should insult any rational person’s intelligence to see soft skills being dismissed when they are critical, sometimes life-altering talents that are clearly undervalued.
When Lacking Soft Skills Leads to Struggle
Most people who struggle in the workplace aren’t struggling because their hard skills failed them. They are struggling because no one ever taught them how to bond fast enough, how to align with the right people well enough, how to be quiet quickly enough, how to connect with clients effectively enough, or, dare I say, how to sell well enough. No one ever taught them the soft skills they needed to be successful because there aren’t enough places that address them.
You don’t find many programs in schools because who would want to even advertise a class in something called soft skills? So, let’s change the name once and for all.
I’ve kicked around a few terms like people skills and survival skills, but for me the winner is performance skills. Those two words add respect and urgency to this vital set of workplace proficiencies.
The term performance skills does justice to one of the most important sets of competencies you will ever acquire. These skills will be pivotal in determining whether you are hired, accepted by others, promoted, admired, respected, and more.
A Three-Step Assessment
So, how can you see where your performance skills stand? Ask a friend or colleague to take a video of you interacting with others in your work environment. Perhaps they record a role play, client call, or a presentation. I want you to see yourself as others do, which is usually vastly different from the way you see yourself. Then follow these three steps:
Step 1: Highlight the positives. Ask yourself to identify two areas in which you felt you did well. It’s natural to be overly critical of our own performance, so get ready for a tussle with yourself. But remember: if you do not focus on a couple of positives, what guarantee do you have that you can repeat those positives? Making yourself consciously aware of your strengths puts those behaviors ahead of the need to be aware of both the good and the bad. The positives default to the forefront.
Step 2: Address the negatives. Ask yourself to identify two areas in which you feel you could improve. Net out these deficiencies and dig deeper for ideas on how you intend to fix them. Sometimes a good way to get started is to ask yourself, “What would I do differently if I performed this task again?”
Your goal is not to just identify areas that need improvement but to strategically address them. When you identify what needs improving, choose solutions that are actually obtainable. That might mean breaking the solution into smaller steps. You can’t, for example, get a college degree overnight, but you can enroll in a night class to help you fill in some gaps in your training.
Step 3: End on a positive note. Finish with an encouraging remark or a pat on the back. This allows you to feel motivated, positive, and upbeat.
What should you have accomplished when this exercise is over? First, by limiting yourself to two positives and two areas for improvement, there is just enough to feel good about and just enough to work on. There are a lot of things you can celebrate as you give yourself that pat on the back—even amid great struggles. How about celebrating the amount of effort you’ve put into something? Why not acknowledge the courage you’ve displayed by putting yourself in uncomfortable situations in your quest to succeed?
Then resolve to keep trying. And keep being positive. Performance skills are something we can all work on.
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