"My co-workers tend to resent me." the candidate said, "but I have a great ability to ensure a team delivers value despite their irrational feelings."
I raised my eyebrows. People are fascinating. I debated how to respond. You see, if you simply say, "You sound like a tool." They'll realize their error and backpedal. When interviewing, you need to hand your candidate a shovel, and see if they're going to dig the hole deeper, or dig a ramp to get out.
"I'm glad you can make a team deliver value." I said wisely. "Why do they resent you?"
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The candidate smiled. "Oh, because when they make mistakes, I point it out to them. They're not nearly as good as me. Everyone resents the people who are better than them."
Ok! They've clearly chosen to dig a new quarry.
Now, I must admit, this story is a bit less about soft skills, and a bit more about people who are absolutely clueless socially. That wasn't only a lack of skills, it was a lack of awareness.
But plenty of people are disliked on their team. Many people have trouble with time management. I've regularly talked to people who have issues with adapting to new challenges. Quite a few people claim they're bad at upwards communication.
Those are various aspects of what are called soft skills. Hard skills are things like project management, or coding, or writing, or data analysis. Soft skills are harder to quantify.
At work, we aren't just concerned about hard skills. We all care about these soft skills as well. We look for them when interviewing. We evaluate them for promotions. We often choose to work on teams when we appreciate the soft skills of our management or teammates.
Yet, there's one major difference between these two types of skills that isn't talked about frequently.
People think soft skills are innate
"I'm just a jerk."
"I'm just not a networker."
"I'm just not a bubbly person. I can't communicate cheerfully like others."
When people say a version of, "I'm just", it's stating that this is how they are. It's a state of being. It's innate.
When someone is bad at coding in Java (for example), it wouldn't make sense to say, "I'm just not capable of being a Java coder." I mean, people say things like that, but they're being goofy.
The more accurate statement is something like, "I'm not currently a Java coder." or "I'm not great at Java coding yet."
And I think everyone would agree that hard skills can be learned. Absolutely, you might not want to learn that skill. Or you do, but you haven't learned it yet. But we all agree that it's a learnable skill.
Soft skills are called skills for a reason. They're also learnable.
How do you improve skills in general?
We all agree that hard skills are learnable. How do you go about learning things?
- Set a goal
What do you want to improve? What specifically about that do you want to improve?
If you wanted to learn computer networking (an amazingly complex but beautiful area), what's your goal? Do you want to be able to diagnose what's wrong with your Wifi? Do you want to be able to get a specific job position? Or is it an area you're simply curious about?
If you wanted to learn project management, you'd want to decide what your outcome would be. Do you want to be a project manager? Help keep your team's projects on track? Be able to improve your team's processes?
- Learn the fundamentals
What are the basics underlying this skill? What are the core elements that everyone must know and understand?
If it's networking, you'd read about how packets work, what IP addresses are, and perhaps protocols.
If it's project management, you'd likely want to read about Waterfall, Kanban, Agile (in general), various project tracking tools, estimation methods, and risk management.
If it's design, you'd want to learn how to use Photoshop probably, and how to um, draw things. And other aspects of design, which I totally don't know because I'm not a designer. But I feel bad when I don't ever use design examples, so I try to toss them into my articles sporadically.
- Practice regularly
This part everyone knows. Learning requires practice.
If you're learning networking, you need to put your skills into practice. Diagnose your home Wifi issues. Setup a simple program to connect across a network. Read and change the advanced settings on your router.
If it's project management, you'd take over some tracking duties at work. Clean up your Jira installation. Create a regular status report.
- Seek feedback
You need to get feedback on how your practice is going. This is how you turn arbitrary practice into a purposeful improvement activity.
This feedback could be one of three major things.
- Measured: Your project estimate being off by 3 days.
- Anecdotal: You didn't understand what was wrong with the network in that one case.
- Subjective: Bennie didn't like your status report.
- Adapt and improve
You take whatever feedback you get. You decide what you agree with, and what you don't. You also decide what feedback is worth your attention and time.
Then you adapt your behaviors, practice more, and seek feedback again. 3-4-5 over and over again.
While I've outlined the steps necessary to improve hard skills, I think everyone would recognize those as the basic steps they follow. You've been doing it ever since your parents forced you to brush your teeth on your own.
The same thing applies for soft skills.