The science of soft skills

Emotional intelligence and “soft” skills are musts for today’s corporate denizens.

From entry-level coders to those in the C-suite, few people have the luxury of a lone wolf mentality. Research shows it’s your soft skills and emotional intelligence (EI) that determines everything from whether you get promoted to how happy you are at work. Luckily, with knowledge, awareness and practice, you can boost your EI.

What are emotional intelligence and soft skills?
Like Web 2.0 or SOA, soft skills and emotional intelligence may be defined differently depending on whom you’re talking to. The term soft skills tends to be the more inclusive and casual of the two. “Soft” is in contrast and complement to the more concrete (or “hard”) technical skills. Soft skills are one’s interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, including friendliness, effective communication, persuasiveness, etiquette and everything in between.

Emotional intelligence is essentially soft skills’ more scientific and researched counterpart. Like the soft/hard concept, “emotional” is both complement and contrast to the “intellectual” or cognitive aspects of intelligence. Both emotional and intellectual aspects of the brain matter, but scientists are finding that emotion influences everything from intelligence to life experience much more than previously thought.

Emotions at work
Although we may think we don’t or shouldn’t bring our emotional selves to work, the truth is a bit different. For one thing, people want to hire, promote and simply be around people they like, those who are confident, even-keeled, optimistic, committed, trustworthy. Think of a boss you loved and one you hated and think why. Chances are in neither case was technical ability the determining factor of how you felt, says Daniel Goleman, co-chairman of The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. “One had EI and the other didn’t.”

Scientists continue looking into the nuances of emotional intelligence in the workplace, but by the late 1990s research had established its baseline importance. For example, one-third of the difference between average and top performers was due to technical skill and cognitive ability while two-thirds was due to emotional competence, according to a study by Goleman of 200 companies worldwide. In top leadership positions, that difference was four-fifths. In another study of a global food and beverage company, divisions led by emotionally intelligent senior managers (as measured by Goleman’s research tools) outperformed yearly earnings goals by 20 percent. “If you look at specific abilities, competencies that set star performers apart from average ones, technical skill is not even in the top three,” says Goleman.

Think about what you have seen at work. “A lot of people write code,” says Richard Boyatzis, chairman of the department of organizational behaviour at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. “But who gets listened to? Who is asked to work on the product development team? It’s not the brainiest, but the person who works well with others.” Start talking C-suite and the soft side matters even more.

“A lot of promotion is based on technical ability,” says Jim Clemmer, leadership consultant and speaker, but “the higher on the ladder you go, the more important soft skills and emotional intelligence becomes.”

None of this implies that everybody should be exactly the same or that you must be “touchy-feely” or even that you need to be an extrovert (although some outgoing expressiveness helps to connect with others). Not everybody will have the same strengths in the same way. As Boyatzis notes, “There is an intervening issue called style.”

“At its most basic, emotional intelligence is, literally, the intelligent use of emotions,” says Boyatzis.

That may sound easy, but when harried by deadlines and traffic or faced with your own or someone else’s unpleasant emotions, being emotionally intelligent can be easier said than done.

Structured programs exist to boost emotional intelligence. They typically include a special 360-degree review or observations of you by specialists, as well as targeted workshops. The Emotional Intelligence Consortium is a good resource for emotional intelligence research information, including programs that focus on boosting an organization’s emotional intelligence. But other endeavors can help you in the quest to use your emotions intelligently and strengthen your soft skills. Here are four to start with.

Learn to take responsibility
The cornerstone of emotional intelligence and soft skills is responsibility. Everybody has met the manager who is always looking for someone to blame, who micromanages or who condescends. These folks lack the most foundational tool at your disposal — taking responsibility, says Christopher Avery, Cutter Consortium senior consultant and author of Teamwork Is an Individual Skill. Responsibility is not simply paying your bills on time or managing a staff of 10. It is, in Avery’s terms, the internal process of taking ownership to the extent you can for the situations in your life and creating the best from that.

Why, you may ask, in this age of layoffs and mergers, would you want to take ownership of situations you likely had no hand in? In a word, power. In the 1959 classic Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but the last of human freedoms — the ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.” The act of becoming responsible capitalizes largely on that mindset.

Being in denial, blaming, justifying, feeling shame, quitting or feeling obligation are all ways of abdicating responsibility, but they are also what humans are hardwired to do when something goes wrong, says Avery. Recognizing this gives power, because it means that although those reactions might be natural, you have the choice to move away from them and on to ownership. So when your brain flashes, “It’s all her fault,” “This place isn’t fair so I give up trying,” or, “I’ll do it because I have to,” you simply recognize these thoughts for what they are and move on to a more powerful position.

Becoming responsible is quite simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Avery has a three-step model: commitment, awareness and situation examination.

1. Commit to operating from an outlook of responsibility. Each morning determine that you will take responsibility throughout that day and remind yourself at scheduled times, especially before entering what you suspect may be a difficult situation. Creating a new habit must be constantly encouraged and reinforced to become second nature.
2. Practice noticing when you are blaming, feeling shame or in other ways acting, thinking or feeling irresponsible. This can be difficult, says Avery: “The ego doesn’t want us to see all the parts of our character.”
3. Examine each difficult situation objectively — what is happening and what your role is in it, and determine how you can act more responsibly.

Just committing to these practices will change your relationships and promote respect — both from yourself and from others.

Take a public speaking course
Learning the nuances of public speaking is one of the best ways to improve your emotional intelligence and soft skills, says Jim Clemmer, leadership consultant and author. “The ability to verbalize, persuade and influence are tightly interwoven in what is at the heart of emotional intelligence and the work of influencing or relating to others,” says Clemmer.

There’s the self-management aspect, of course, in that you must manage your own feelings, such as nervousness. In addition, practicing public speaking can be an exploration into your personal style and what works best for you, including what audiences you are most comfortable with. For example, someone who is analytical and serious is likely to have more comfort and influence using his own personality style as a base, rather than trying to suddenly be Mr. Funnyman.

Perhaps surprisingly, public speaking can also help you become more attuned to others. “Advanced presentation skills will teach people how to tune into audiences better, it forces you to empathize, to ask questions,” says Clemmer. You’ll learn how to make it more about them and less about you. A good presenter is tuned in to the audience, so you will learn how to meet listeners where they are and how to guide them where you want them to go. Important skills for any manager.

Practice yoga and meditation
At the heart of emotional intelligence is mindfulness, and mindfulness is at the heart of yoga and meditation. At their most basic, both of these disciplines use attention on the breath as a tool to enable relaxed awareness, focus and objectivity. Stress, fear, anxiety and other negative feelings impair focus and decision-making capabilities. The brain literally works differently under stress.

Picture a lake during a storm. On a sunny clear day, you can probably see right through the water to the bottom of the lake. But on a stormy day, the water is choppy and the view to the bottom obscured by waves. Simply put, “When you are stressed, you don’t have access to most of your brain,” says Boyatzis. “That’s why things like meditation become so important; it allows movement across the brain.” When you are calm and happy, says Boyatzis, you can function at a much higher level, you can process difficult concepts, you can sense things at a wider distance, you are more open to experiences and you can multitask better. “Just the opposite is true when you are stressed.”

When you are stressed or negatively emotional, you tend to be reactive — that is, more likely to act on a negative impulse. Meditation and yoga train you to notice a thought or feeling without becoming attached to acting on it. Say you begin to move into a difficult yoga pose and all you can think about is how difficult it is and your whole focus starts to concentrate on how your muscles are resisting (which just makes them resist more). The yoga teacher might direct you at that point to remember how your muscles felt loose and relaxed in the previous easier pose and ask you to try and feel similarly in this more difficult pose. Simply thinking of it in this way can profoundly change your experience of discomfort to one of greater ease. And becoming adept at short-circuiting automatic — but not necessarily wanted — responses can have payoffs at both work and home.

Take an improv class
Comedic improvisation relies on listening and building off others. These skills are underrepresented in the workplace, says Chet Harding, co-founder of the Improv Asylum in Boston. “Corporations are built on ‘yes, but…I’m listening but I’ll use my idea anyway.’ Or, ‘I’ll look like I’m listening but I’m really waiting for you to finish so I can talk.’“ To show the power of emotional intelligence and to develop it in corporate employees, the Improv Asylum offers special training. “A lot of what our training shows is how you come up with ideas that are bigger and better than what you could [come up with] working alone.” At the end of the class, he says, participants create a scene. It becomes clear that the idea came from no one person, and it’s better than any one person could come up with on their own.

From the outside, the exercises can seem a bit…well…silly. But repeat customers such as Raytheon attest to their power. One of the first exercises is about the power of yes. Participants form a circle and switch places by allowing, or not, another to take their spot. The caveat is that if one person says “yes,” he must quickly find another spot before the person he said yes to arrives at his spot. Harding says that people quickly form strategies, and one emerges especially fast: “If you say yes to me, I tend to come back to you. I won’t go back to you if you say no, because I’m just wasting my time.”

Beyond that, lessons surrounding the way someone says no (if it’s necessary) emerge as well. “Especially with customer service, you may have to say no, but how you say it is crucial.” He points to the example of Red Bull, a longtime client of the Improv Asylum. Instead of saying, “No, there’s not,” when potential customers worried that, “There’s too much caffeine in that,” the answer can be, “I hear that a lot, but it turns out it’s about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee.”

Another exercise demonstrates “questioning something to death.” Participants quickly see that when free-flowing brainstorming is halted by questions with the “that won’t work” undertone, ideas quickly die before they have a chance to bloom. Other exercises include creating stories bit by bit, one participant at a time. All require listening, empathy, flexibility and other emotional intelligence skills.

The Improv exercises illustrate what may not always seems obvious and what gives emotional intelligence such importance — people need people. Says Boyatzis, “Fundamentally you can’t do much in life alone.”

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