August 23

How to grow your soft skills

Introduction

“Forget teamwork.”

6 months ago, that was my mantra. Why bother about being a good team player if I was a strong individual contributor? Who cared about playing in a team if the team wasn’t as good as me?

But even more so, why bother playing in a team if you didn’t like the people at work?

A colleague had shouted at me in front of other colleagues. Another colleague had copied supervisors and directors in an email about my mistakes. Yet another colleague had sent out an email to the team, asking me to talk to him before I shared any ideas with the team. He said,

As cliche as this sounds, there’s no “I” in team.

These experiences left me feeling small. As if I didn’t matter. That I was a fly waiting to be swatted away.

For 6 months, I decided that if this was how I was going to be treated, I wasn’t going to bother about playing in a team.

After all, aren’t these experiences of shame, being silenced, and being shouted at valid reasons for disengaging from the team?

For 6 months, I ate alone. I went to a quiet meeting room every lunch break, sat there, and interacted with myself. I kept to myself.

I thought this was just me.

Then yesterday, I spoke to a friend about her troubles at work.

It’s been tough at work. My boss shouts at me. My colleague is always picking on me, telling me that my work is horrible.

I’ve been so tired by that. I no longer want to go into work anymore. My mental health is affected and I don’t know how to continue.

I hope this isn’t your experience.

But I observed two things.

The shared experience of pain

Firstly, that my first full-time work experience was not a singular experience. It was a shared experience. Others also shared it.

It forced me to start thinking,

Why do some people seem to succeed at work, immediately after school, whilst others don’t?

What makes these people different? What helps them succeed?

This led me to search for a solution. I started looking at people who were very successful at work, even though it was their first job.

I saw patterns.

Here is 1 vignette. Please note that whilst the people are real, names have been changed to preserve confidentiality.

The excellence of Cindy

Cindy is well-liked by all in the team. Even the sulky receptionist likes her. There are many reasons why.

For one, she’s always dressed professionally. Secondly, she’s always smiling. Thirdly, she delights colleagues at work by buying occasional treats for them. On Valentine’s Day, there were donuts from Krispy Kreme. On the day she left, there were hand-carved wooden plagues with our names.

She is trusted. She’s the ultimate go-to person. Even though she was here for only 1 year, she was already entrusted to lead a team.

The dimensions of teamwork (Credit: Bruce Tulgan, in Bridging the Soft Skill Gap)
The dimensions of teamwork (Credit: Bruce Tulgan, in Bridging the Soft Skill Gap)

The soft skill solution

Secondly, and more importantly, it seemed that a solution lay in the soft skills of the person.

But the question is,

How do you build soft skills in the workplace, if your employers do not teach it to you? What can you do if your boss expects you to have these skills?

This is what this article aims to answer. Because in many workplaces, with the focus on output, there is little time for target timeouts where your manager takes time to coach you.

When the manager takes time to coach you, usually it’s too late.

I speak from experience. When my manager finally spoke to me about soft skills, two conflicts with colleagues had already happened. One was an argument with a manager about how I could get back my money, played out in front of others in the office.

That’s when the organisation decided that it was better to have me on a Performance Improvement Plan. If you’re not familiar with that, that’s a get better or get sacked plan.

There’s a clear layout of goals you’re supposed to achieve, and how to achieve them.

But despite having this plan, there were still no targeted conversations on what I was doing well, what wasn’t working, and what could improve.

That’s why I am writing this article. Firstly because there are no resources that can help others to adjust to difficulties in soft skills in the workplace.

Secondly, many of the resources out there are targeted at managers managing young people like yourself. They are not for you. One author that has been helpful is Bruce Tulgan. But his materials are aimed at managers, rather than you.

So you and I need to get to work. On ourselves. Fast.

Before we get sacked.

For most of this article, I will share examples from my personal work experience in my first job. It’s not because I’m narcissistic. But it’s because I believe this will give you a better idea of real life experiences. You may find shadows of your own experience listed here.

Why bother with soft skills?

Soft skills matter because they determine your ultimate success. No matter how technically brilliant you are, you will never get anywhere meaningful without soft skills. This sounds like an exaggeration.

But it’s true. I’ve seen it play out in my own life.

I graduated with a first class degree in social work. When I finished my degree, I was shortlisted for the Vice-Chancellor’s Global Graduate of the Year. I had taught a university module on public speaking. I had been invited to speak at a conference. I was asked to write a book.

I don’t say this to boast. But I say this because I want you to know my history. Applying for jobs, people were very impressed by my CV.

They liked to say,

“You’re clearly a high-achiever.”

Alas! How little of that CV accounted for my workplace success!

I found myself struggling to work with people. I would struggle to get my ideas through. I felt like an alien in the team. Conversations with people would get awkward, and people didn’t seem to enjoy talking to me. Despite working hard to think of ideas, no one seemed to buy them.

After 3 months of working, my boss’ boss came to tell me about how I needed to spend more time having lunch with people. Working together with people.

I found myself frustrated.

It was a complete contrast to Cindy, who came in 5 months ago. She didn’t do as well as me academically. But she was well-loved. People laughed with her. People felt comfortable with her. There was something different about her.

She made people feel safe, with her soft skills. The more I observed her, the more I saw the deliberate small efforts she made to work well with others.

  • She would smile when she passed you in the doorway.
  • She would take time to chat with her colleagues when she passed them at their desk, talking about things unrelated to work.
  • She would stay back to get things done, coming back on weekends, and staying until past working hours.
  • She would joke and laugh at her own expense.

What are soft skills anyway?

We’ve spoken a lot about soft skills, but how would you define soft skills anyway?

I would define soft skills as:

The old fashioned basics of work, things that are not easily measured in competency frameworks, but which matter in building an effective working self, trusting working relationships, and great organisational impact.

What soft skills are
What soft skills are

How do you bridge the soft skills gap?

Be purposeful

Know where you’re lacking.

It was in the U.K. that I learnt to celebrate myself as an individual. Growing up in Singapore, I had always learnt to fit in… but somehow I never did. I would stick out like a sore thumb. But in the U.K., I saw the qualities in myself. I learnt that if I didn’t like someone, I didn’t have to spend time with them.

When I moved back to Singapore, I brought that back with me.

That didn’t work. In a hierarchical society where community and conformity matter a lot, focusing on yourself as an individual wouldn’t work well.

But it was only in the past week that I saw how I couldn’t expect others to change for me. I had to change myself.

I had to be purposeful about the changes I needed to make, and purposeful about how I was going to make those changes.

There are three aspects of soft skills, as listed in Bruce Tulgan’s great work, ‘Bridging the Soft Skills Gap’.

Credit: Bruce Tulgan, Bridging the Soft Skills Gap
Credit: Bruce Tulgan, Bridging the Soft Skills Gap

As you can see from the above, there are many aspects of the three main themes – followership, professionalism and critical thinking.

  1. Followership – do I know how to follow people and the context of the organisation I’m at?
  2. Critical thinking – do I know how to think, rather than just googling the answer?
  3. Professionalism – am I professional with my work?

Be practising

Soft skills are a muscle. You need to practise them. That’s why after you know your gaps, you need to come up with a plan to work better with them.

Credit: Bruce Tulgan, 27 Challenges Managers Face
Credit: Bruce Tulgan, 27 Challenges Managers Face

Be processing

Lastly, reflect on your journey. Don’t leave it to chance. Instead, adjust along the way. It’s not the plan that matters.

Its the planning that makes the difference. It’s the adjustment along the way that helps you to build a better self, with better soft skills.

Conclusion

A week ago, I finished my Performance Improvement Plan. Directors, supervisors, and HR sat around a Zoom meeting talking through the pointers that I had reached.

There were no celebrations. I didn’t feel a great sense of success.

Because all I knew was that as much as it felt like a weight off my shoulders, I felt that I hadn’t developed much. In fact, if anything, it felt that I had gotten worse.

Everyone commented on how I grew quieter over the course of the 6 months. Reflecting, I saw how fear had driven me to shut up. It had driven me to tell myself that there was no point in sharing ideas.

The wider issues of teamwork, people skills, and a positive work attitude were not developed. That’s why I wrote this.

Because expecting others to do something that would improve you, is hopeful. It may not happen though.

It’s in your hands.

It’s your work.

It’s time for you to work those changes out.


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  • Hey John, really wanted to share my appreciation for your posts. I love that you combine the personal narrative with practical tips to improve things. Keep up the great writing! I wonder what you thought about how I could ask my own employers for help with soft skills? I don’t know how to ask !

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