Thursday, February 24, 2011

People Skills Are Hard Skills - More Than You Know

It is still common for most managers to refer to people skills as “soft skills,” because they aren’t specifically about the business of the organization. They aren’t about computers, vehicles, machines and other “hard” equipment. The perception is that getting along with people is nice, but “nice-to-have” — secondary to the operation of the business.

Nothing is further from the truth. People skills are “hard” skills because in almost every job, they’re crucial to workplace performance. They’re at the core of every job in which contact with people is the main issue. If you don’t work well with others, if you can’t get things done through others, if you have trouble satisfying customers, all the education and business know-how in the world isn’t going to make you effective.

For another thing, people skills are “hard skills” because they’re hard to improve. People already have deeply ingrained behavioral patterns for most of the people skills. The problem is, they learned them “on the street.” In most cases, the way they behave now causes problems. They need to learn new patterns. This turns out to be harder than learning a brand new skill. When you try to improve the way a person performs a people skill, the new pattern has to compete with the old, comfortable pattern that’s causing the problems. During the difficult period of “conscious competence,” it’s all too tempting to fall back on already-ingrained, dysfunctional ways of interacting with others.

Another problem that makes people skills hard to acquire is that the learning isn’t well supported by books, videos and courses. I’ve read dozens of books on people skills, and the best of these focus on only a handful of key skills. One key area of leadership skill involves coaching. But most books on this topic focus on mentoring and executive coaching, not skills for operational leaders. Video production companies treat only a few of the essential people skills, and their approach seems mostly to entertain and motivate, not to teach how.

One intellectual movement, called “emotional intelligence,” introduced by Daniel Goleman over 15 years ago, shined a spotlight on people skills. But he aggregated people skills, managing emotions, personality and character traits into a single area of competence, further confusing the issue. The concept has become popular in some HR circles, which is unfortunate, because people skills have as much to do with logic as with emotions. Plus, this artificial clumping of important issues makes it easier for executives to segment “all that stuff” into a secondary “soft” area.

All the proponents of people skills fall short of describing the true scope of this element of workplace performance. If you ask consultants or trainers to name all the people skills, they’re likely to name fewer than ten, certainly no more than fifteen.

But actually, there are several dozen essential people skills. These apply to all employees, whether managers or their direct reports: communicate effectively in writing, defuse negative emotions, express feelings constructively, handle customer phone calls, interpret nonverbal behavior, listen to understand, facilitate dialogue, present a persuasive argument, request feedback, accept feedback, give positive feedback, give constructive feedback, request feedforward, give feedforward, affirm people’s strengths, give encouragement, learn from experience, improve a work habit, set self-development goals, share information. express appreciation/gratitude, manage time, assert your needs, deal with difficult people, interact with diverse people, build rapport, build work relationships, show respect, apologize, accept apology, negotiate, avoid conflict, deal with complaints, ask for support, give support to coworkers, make a decision, resolve conflict, respond to a suggestion, solve problems, and troubleshoot problems.

And that's not all. There is also an impressive array of people skills that seem especially appropriate for managers who need to get results through people: interview a candidate, respond to suggestions, give a briefing, give a speech, deal with behavior problems, teach a concept, teach a procedure, teach a skill, facilitate experiential learning, encourage constructive attitudes, assign roles and responsibilities, communicate vision, delegate responsibility, plan a strategy, set results goals, express expectations, empower people, give results feedback, hold people accountable, inspire internal motivation, lead by example, manage a project, encourage innovation, manage change, monitor progress, deal with mistakes, recognize achievement, reinforce expectations, conduct performance review, facilitate idea generation, evaluate ethical factors, facilitate thinking, facilitate conflict resolution, facilitate decision making, involve people in decisions, manage a crisis, conduct a meeting, facilitate cooperation, and facilitate team bonding.

That's a lot of people skills - way more than managers or experts acknowledge. And they're one of the biggest “difference-makers” in the workplace. The difference between a leader and a manager is people skills. The difference between a good employee and a stronger, high-performing employee is people skills. That’s why year after year executives rank “people skills” at the top of their wish lists when hiring people.

There's nothing "soft" about people skills.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

No comments: