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Relationships and Business Success

Soft skills are not really soft and are much more than skills

[Download Free PDF version]: Li #211 Relationships and Business Success

Li #211 Relationships and Business Succe
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THE ABILITY TO cultivate healthy relationships with people might be the most important indicator of future success in business or anywhere else.

“Soft skills” is a common stand-in for this quality. This is roughly a combination of emotional intelligence (EQ), social graces, communication, speech, personal habits, friendliness, and so on. They are often contrasted with “hard skills” including basic intelligence (IQ) along with the knowledge, education, training, and competencies for one’s chosen profession ─ all of which sounds much more impressive than anything called “soft”!

Soft skills are typically downplayed in the bottom-line business world. Hard-bitten businesspersons sometimes dismiss them with a sneer. “Isn’t that about touchy-feely manners and such?”

Not according to Daniel Goleman, coiner of the term emotional intelligence (EQ):

"When it comes to leaders, effectiveness in relationships makes or breaks. Solo stars are often promoted to leadership positions and then flounder for lack of people skills."

In executive coaching, we see this routinely. If a CFO gets fired, it’s seldom because they don’t understand the competencies of accounting and finance. It’s usually because they can’t get along with their boss or their peers, or because no one wants to work with them or follow their lead.

Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith concurs with Goleman. While many believe the opposite, he asserts that the ability to build and maintain positive relationships is crucial for executives:

"Behavioral matters become so much more critical as you climb up the upper rungs of the corporate ladder. All other things being equal, your people skills (or lack thereof) become more pronounced the higher up you go."

I don’t really like the term, but “soft skills” is too well-established in usage to fight. Still, I’d like to issue a caution. To me the more problematic part of the term is not “soft,” but “skills.”

Are “soft skills” really skills?

The ability to get along well with others does involve characteristics that rightly can be called skills. As with any skill, you can get better at cultivating human relationships with practice, and coaching is often helpful to gain awareness and insight. I believe in the value of coaching; after all, that’s what I do. But there’s a dark side, too.

If you lump things like communication, relating, listening, persuading, serving, and building positive relationships into the category of “skills,” you risk conceiving of them as mere mechanics, rote techniques to apply correctly.

Some people do need coaching on the mechanics of communicating positively with others, but that’s remedial work ─ damage control, a process to help those who can’t see what to do on their own. The danger is that it can degenerate into insincere techniques to manipulate. Emphasizing the “skills” in soft skills can lead to concentrating on self rather than others, on procedures rather than people.

To illustrate the distinction between reality and a skill in the realm of manners, let me share a memorable experience.

Nightmare on sorority row

One look at the place setting before me told me I was in trouble. I was a freshman tagging along with Danny, a senior, representing the Sigma Chi fraternity on a visit to the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house. I’m not suggesting I was a bumpkin, but formal dining at the Kappa house was way beyond my training. There were multiple forks and spoons and things I didn’t recognize arranged in precise dimensions every which way around the dinner plate.

At the head table sat the scariest looking woman I’ve ever seen, the House Mother. She reminded me of a huge bulldog, and she was staring disapprovingly at Danny and me. My sharp navy blazer began to feel rather warm, and the tie around my collar seemed to grow tighter by the minute. Some signal was given, and the sorority sisters began to eat.

My dad had given me some advice for a time like this: “If you don’t know what to do, watch the others, and do what they do.” That helped me get through it. I’m sure the food was delicious, but it didn’t register. I was too worried about doing the right things and figuring out which utensil to use for what.

I was so uptight that I hardly noticed the hundred attractive women around me, and I never remembered what anyone talked about. My concentration was on myself. I would have been a lot more comfortable if I had known how the famous etiquette expert Emily Post defined good manners:

"Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use."

I thought manners were all about mechanics; about doing all the right things. But here’s the expert in the field saying that manners are about being respectful and considerate of others’ feelings. Worrying about mechanics had me thinking about myself, but genuine manners lead you to concentrate on other people. In the end, manners are about showing respect for others.

People with right attitudes usually don’t need many mechanics as a crutch. They just need occasional prompts to slow down, and reminders to pull up from the work on their desk to see the wider world populated by people.

Are “soft skills” really soft?

Keith Ferrazzi came from a small-town, blue-collar background, yet worked his way through Harvard Business School. In his book, Never Eat Alone, he writes of the intimidation he initially felt among the driven number-crunchers at Harvard. But that changed:

"I came to realize that first semester at business school that Harvard’s hyper-competitive, individualistic students had it all wrong. Success in any field, but especially in business, is about working with people, not against them. No tabulation of dollars and cents can account for one immutable fact: Business is a human enterprise, driven and determined by people."

Ferrazzi eventually founded his own company and developed a worldwide network of friends and contacts. He writes,

After two decades of successfully applying the power of relationships in my own life and career, I’ve come to believe that connecting is one of the most important business — and life — skill sets you’ll ever learn. Why? Because, flat out, people do business with people they know and like.

I believe Ferrazzi’s phrase “people do business with people they know and like” applies both outside and inside one’s company, not just with customers or clients, but also with peers and coworkers.

When Keith Ferrazzi talks about building a world-wide network of friends and contacts and about the impact of those relationships on his business success, soft skills sound like anything but soft.

What you can do

Anyone who thinks that in this world you can be successful no matter how you treat or relate to people is incredibly foolish. Just in terms of the bottom line, it may be the most important thing you do.

Step one might be an attitude adjustment.\: Rejecting the lie that all that matters is personal production, knowledge, and skills. Instead, coming to grips with the fact that no matter how practical or numbers-driven business might be, it is still about people working with people getting the job done with and through people.

Second, rather than giving a list of suggestions, perhaps the quickest way to improve is to follow my dad’s advice. Remember this? “When you don’t know what to do, watch others and do what they do.”

I’ll bet that within your sphere of influence or company there are some individuals who excel at building positive relationships. Such people are typically happy to offer advice and help to others. Ask for an appointment and ask them how they do it. Get some pointers and apply them yourself. Put a few slots on your weekly calendar to build your relationships.

Finally, seek the help of a mentor or coach. I do this routinely, help people come up with simple ideas within their capability to improve situations and relationships.

Emily Post was right: Good manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. Treating people properly is a value, not a technique, a lifestyle, not a performance. Ultimately, it’s about character and authenticity.

And it might just be the most important key to your future success. Li


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