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Improving a soft skill is easier said that done

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Improving a soft skill is easier said that done

Scott Miker

This morning I was reading Project Management JumpStart by Kim Heidman and I came across a section on gaining trust and respect from team members while leading a project.  Several “tactics you can put into practice today to help build trust and respect with your teams” were listed. 

I found it insightful yet I immediately felt that it makes it sound very easy to build trust and respect but in reality is extremely difficult.  Here are a few of the tactics she mentions: Do what you say you will do, lead by example, be honest, be on time, clearly define the goals of the team and hold team members responsible. 

I completely agree that these are all important when it comes to building trust and respect.  The more I thought the more I realized that these are very easy to say but extremely hard to change.  People that I know that have these, work very hard to grow their leadership capabilities.  But people that don’t have these traits likely don’t realize that they don’t. 

If you surveyed mid-level managers at a random corporation and asked them to rate how effective they are at each of these things I’m sure they would score themselves very highly.  We all tend to have a bias towards ourselves that clouds reality.  If you took the subordinates of those managers and asked them to rate their manager you would probably get completely different results.

If our goal is to improve this isn’t helpful.  Instead we need to evaluate the systems around each of these in order put real concrete actions in place to improve based on realistic assessments of our abilities.

Many improvement resources focus solely on the mental aspects of soft skill improvement.  They explain what the soft skill requires and gives some examples hoping that the student will take away key lessons and then implement them in their lives. 

But adjusting behavior is extremely difficult if we don’t address it on the habit level.  We have to realize that we have habits in place that automatically control our response to situations.  We have to better understand the various aspects of that habit or system in order to know how to modify it. 

If we are always late to meetings there could be any number of problems causing this.  It could be that we don’t value others’ time as much as our own, that we are busy and trying to fit in too much during the day, that we feel more powerful knowing that the room is waiting for you to enter, or that we simply can’t effectively manage our time.  But if you want to improve here, it doesn’t matter as much why as it does what are you going to do differently to be on time.

This is where a lot of people will respond that they are trying.  Unfortunately this usually means that they refuse to put real effort in and the superficial effort that they are using should be enough for others to overlook their inability to improve.  But this doesn’t mean that someone will improve, it means they expect others to overlook their inability to improve. 

A better strategy is to ask, how are you trying?  This will reveal the level of commitment and how thought-out the process is.  If the only response is that we will try to do it that usually means that we will not really change anything.  But if we focus on specific behaviors that we are working to change, it will be easier to see just how focused we really are on growing this particular skill set.   

Improving soft skills requires a lot more focus that people realize.  If we really want to improve in these areas we have to put aside our biases towards ourselves and focus on the behavioral aspects.  If we focus on the actions and making improvements in our habits, we will start to see (and others will start to see) improvement in these soft skills.