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The Undeniable Benefits of Soft Skills
Soft skills are the collection of personal attributes and interpersonal abilities that enable project managers to achieve higher levels of motivation, conflict resolution, and employee and customer service. Project management soft skills have been touted as absolutely necessary to succeed in a diverse global economy where adapting to new situations and people is the norm. Some of the most important personal attributes identified with success in business are:
- Optimism - viewing the glass as half full rather than half empty to motivate and inspire others to achieve
- Common Sense - finding and following reasonable solutions
- Responsibility - declaring that the buck stops here and knowing when and how to apologize for mistakes
- A Sense of Humor - bringing "fun" back to the workplace while defusing tense situations and cushioning the delivery of bad news
- Integrity - instilling trust in others to form and maintain good working relationships
Interpersonal abilities help to form lasting business relationships and include:
- Empathy - placing yourself in the shoes of others to gain new insight to reach compromises and resolve conflict
- Leadership - expanding beyond the safety of the managerial role to take command in fulfilling the organization's vision and mission
- Communication - effectively reading the cues of verbal and nonverbal messages to understand what people are actually saying
- Courtesy - displaying good manners and making it part of the business's culture, which is never missed by customers
- Ability to Teach - leading to effective delegation through knowledge exchange
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The Skeptic's Response: Can Soft Skills Be Trained?
Skeptics and outright critics argue that soft skills cannot be learned in the traditional classroom setting and that training has little effect on changing a person's natural tendencies and character. They argue that soft skills are more complex than other skills. While hard skills are technical skills that can be acquired through mostly a linear learning process, soft skills involve working with people and unpredictable situations that cannot be reduced to a series of teachable steps.
Because soft skills are personal attributes that make up one's personality and develop during the formative years, they cannot be significantly altered later in life even with intense study. In other words, once an introvert always an introvert. Skeptics also point to the fleeting nature of such training. Even if you concede that soft skills training can penetrate a person's core self, such training is conducted in a vacuum and people will revert to their old habits once they return to their workplaces and the real world.
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The Proponent's Reply: Can Soft Skills Be Trained?
Proponents in favor of training reply that soft skills development is not beyond the reach of those project managers willing to hone these skills to improve their performance and the performance of their teams. They attest to the effectiveness of training because soft skills and hard skills are not fundamentally different. While hard skills are more readily acquired, soft skills can be developed with practice. In many ways soft skills learning is similarly to learning a language—while it may be more complex and take longer, adults can learn a second language with time and persistence.
Optimistic about the positive influence of training, proponents dismiss attempts to equate soft skills with personality traits. Unlike personality which describes natural tendencies, soft skills are developed through interactions and experiences and training provides another opportunity to gain exposure to new experiences. Training also provides a safe environment for project managers to explore and practice new ways to handle difficult situations, such as how to say no to a client, through role playing and networking with other seasoned managers. If a manager fails to follow-up on what he or she has learned, then like any other skill, a soft skill can become rusty or even lost.
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Getting the Most Out of Training
Training is a vital component of professional development and offers many long-term benefits. Because the human brain is naturally wired for learning, training offers project managers one of the best opportunities to hone their soft skills in a safe environment -- remember what happens in training stays in training.
To reap the greatest rewards from training, project managers must treat their newly acquired soft skills as a new language and converse with others as often as possible. Also project managers should take cues from visual reminders, such as a glass half full on their desks, to keep what they have learned in training on the tip of their tongues.
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"What is soft skills? - Definition from Whatis.com." CIO information, news and tips - SearchCIO.com. http://searchcio.techtarget.com/definition/soft-skills (accessed October 15, 2010).
- Drying Hands - Graur Razvan Ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
- Glass of Water - Derek Jensen / Wikimedia Commons (released into the public domain)