Why Soft Skills Are the Hardest Skills to Acquire
A Guest Post by Kay Sandberg, Christopher Harding, and Will Wilkinson of Luminary Communications
Remember that first time you were asked to step into a leadership or management role, or to manage a client relationship? The experience was probably exciting and unsettling at the same time. Something different was asked of you.
While many of us have succeeded as individual contributors or team members, succeeding as a leader or manager requires a new set of skills we have often not been given the opportunity to acquire. This applies whether we carry an official leadership responsibility or not. In a future article it would be interesting to explore the distinction between “leader” and “manager”.
The Power of Influencing Skills
Leading or managing client relationships often involves influencing rather than directing others. It can also mean deftly dealing with the unpredictable—and at times illogical—aspects of human behavior. People’s choices and reactions rarely fit into easily manageable rows or stay within prescribed boundaries like financial reports, schematics, or formulas do.
In our work as coaches and consultants, we are often tapped by reliability engineering firms and professionals to help them with leadership development, team building, and client relations. Based on our own professional journeys as well as years of having guided numerous others on theirs, here are a few of the foundational elements we have learned.
Left Brain vs. Right Brain Skills
Many of the skills people develop that enable them to contribute well on an individual level utilize their left-brain capacity for problem solving, logic and other linear management abilities. These are clearly important. But the “soft” skills effective engineers so often need—including the ability to create compelling visions, generate rapport, and engage, inspire, and influence people – require well-developed right-brain skills.
Here’s the challenge: Our typical educational environments seldom provide the type of training required to adequately develop the relevant right-brain neural pathways needed to complement those left brain skills, in order to lead or influence others effectively.
The “soft” skills we teach and believe that all professionals must master include effective meeting facilitation, presenting proposals with persuasive communication to influence the design process or navigate process improvements/changes, and leading in any other key situation where flexing the “soft skills” muscle often makes a critical difference and may even be a “deal breaker.”
Levels of Mastery of Any Skill or New Field
The process of acquiring new skills can be frustrating, especially for those who are already exceptionally qualified in other ways. It’s like learning to write with the non-dominant hand. It helps to remind developing leaders of the four basic levels of learning and mastery:
- Unconscious Incompetence (the stage at which we are unaware of areas where we lack competence)
- Conscious Incompetence (the stage where we are aware of our lack of competency but have not yet acquired the requisite skills)
- Conscious Competence (the stage where we have begun to develop a reasonable mastery of the skills needed)
- Unconscious Competence (the stage where we have internalized the required skills so thoroughly that we are able to demonstrate mastery without much conscious thought, i.e. it has become automatic or intuitive).
The challenge for many new (and even veteran) leaders, managers and consultants is that they may have reached the level of Unconscious Competence regarding those particular technical skill sets for which they have gained recognition as an individual contributor. However, when stepping into a leadership role, individual contributors often struggle. They discover that they are incompetent with respect to the new abilities now required of them. This can lead to frustration and stress, which in turn, can sabotage new leaders. Obviously, this affects their performance negatively.
This is why the first strategy we propose is to create an open and safe environment where colleagues feel comfortable providing honest feedback. Effective leaders and influencers always welcome feedback. In fact, it’s acknowledged as a vital ingredient on the road to becoming successful. While more formal tools like 360 feedback instruments are also helpful, giving and receiving person-to-person direct feedback and expressing appreciation can become dramatic game-changers.
Without a healthy level of openness and trust, new leaders often find themselves struggling to deal with the real issues at hand or to fully engage their people, because they are out of their depth and pretending not to be. Another defense reaction for new leaders and reliability engineering consultants could be to fall back on those skills that made them great individually but are proving ineffective or incomplete in their new roles.
The good news: Vision-casting, communication, rapport building, and other essential leadership skills can be learned and mastered. This can make a critical difference in how a new (team) leader’s team functions or in how a reliability engineer effectively consults with clients.
Leadership skills and behaviors are simple but not easy. That is why training with an effective mentor or coach (someone at the unconscious competency stage), combined with regular colleague feedback and ongoing practice, are vital. The mentored journey from incompetence to unconscious competence always turns out to be a sound investment. Just ask any successful leader.
- Create an open, trusting environment with your direct reports and with other leaders.
- Invite feedback to learn what skills you need to gain or improve in your new role.
- Ask for help from a mentor, HR, or others within the organization who have already mastered the skills you need.
- Seek outside help, where needed, in terms of coaching and training.
- Remember, it’s your career and nobody should be more interested and invested in your success than you.
- Leadership and communication skills including giving and receiving behavioral feedback, influencing others (especially when not in a position of authority), and motivating others go a long way toward becoming the kind of leader others are eager to follow.
Call to Action
We welcome your comments on this article and inquiries regarding our prior work with your fellow engineering and science professionals. Let us know what specific skills you would like to fine-tune or learn more about.
[I’m exploring adding more content on topics of engineering soft skills, including: presentations, influencing, facilitating, writing, etc. If this set of topics is of interest to you, please sign up for the Engineering Soft Skills email list using the form below.
Kay, et. al. and other authors may become regular contributors, if there is interest.]