A Practical Guide to Soft Skills
eBook - ePub

A Practical Guide to Soft Skills

Communication, Psychology, and Ethics for Your Professional Life

Richard Almonte

  1. 178 pagine
  2. English
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  4. Disponibile su iOS e Android
eBook - ePub

A Practical Guide to Soft Skills

Communication, Psychology, and Ethics for Your Professional Life

Richard Almonte

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This accessible text looks at the range of soft skills sought after by employers and provides a practical guide to developing and effectively demonstrating these skills.

Soft skills -- including communication, customer service, teamwork, problem solving, and personal management -- represent a major component of any worker's professional identity. This book analyzes major soft skills, including both inward-facing soft skills (how workers manage themselves to effectively perform their work) and outward-facing skills (how workers effectively interact with others and in groups). It explores how these skills are rooted in fundamental areas of liberal arts including interpersonal communication, psychology, and ethics. It provides an active learning pedagogy, including creative exercises and case studies through which students can assess their understanding of underlying concepts and their application in real-world situations.

The book can be used as a supplement for communication, business, and career-oriented courses, and it will be of interest to individual students and junior professionals as well as career counselors, postsecondary instructors across the curriculum, and professionals in human resources and learning and development.

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Informazioni

Editore
Routledge
Anno
2021
ISBN
9781000506501

1

SOFT SKILLS IN A DIGITAL AGE

DOI: 10.4324/9781003212942-1
Over the past ten years, the phrase “soft skills” has increasingly entered public discussions in various forums including the media, business (often in human resources and skills training), elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education, as well as in peer-reviewed research journals.1 As often happens when a phrase begins to appear so frequently, its use is often a direct reflection of some form of crisis, debate, or change in the wider society.
1. Examples of recent soft skills coverage includes Lister (2019) “Corporate Canada Is Facing a Soft-Skills Deficit” www.theglobeandmail.com/business/careers/leadership/article-corporate-canada-is-facing-a-soft-skills-deficit-what-can-we-do/; King (2019) “Wanted: Employees Who Can Shake Hands, Make Small Talk” www.wsj.com/articles/wanted-experts-at-soft-skills-1544360400; Brett (2018) “Future Graduates Will Need Creativity and Empathy: Not Just Technical Skills” www.theguardian.com/education/2018/dec/20/future-graduates-will-need-creativity-and-empathy-not-just-technical-skills. Similar examples abound in the business press, and in peer-reviewed education, psychology, and organizational behavior journals. Some of these peer-reviewed sources are discussed later.
In the case of soft skills, speaking anecdotally, I began to notice around 2010 that the phrase was cropping up in discussions with my colleagues at a
WHAT’S COVERED IN THIS CHAPTER?
In this chapter you’ll learn:
  • A multifaceted definition of soft skills
  • What employers and researchers have said about soft skills
  • Whether or not soft skills should be considered a “moral reform” movement
large urban community college. At the same time, the phrase began to appear in various think-tank reports as well as in newspaper business sections. Upon first glance, I could see that the phrase was being used in one of two ways. First, it was being used by employers to name a group of sought-after skills they thought weren’t being displayed effectively enough by employees (the “complaint” or “gap/deficit” view of soft skills). Second, it was being used by journalists, educators, and skills trainers to name a group of sought-after skills that employees and potential employees could and should master, in order to be successful (the “self-help” or “competency” view of soft skills).
As you begin your exploration of soft skills, let’s agree to resist easy definitions of the term. You’ll find it more productive to start thinking of soft skills as an elastic and relational term. By this I mean when it comes to defining soft skills, besides saying that it’s “a noun that refers to a group of skills that are sought-after in today’s world”, the phrase also has several other meanings. For one, as we saw earlier, it can refer to a complaint that exists in the world about the way people behave. For another, it can refer to techniques you can use to improve these poor behaviors. In other words, a key aspect of the phrase soft skills is that it’s always both referring to the problem that it solves and at the same time embodying the solution. “Soft skills” is one of those terms like “values” that signifies both a problem and a solution.
Going a bit further down this path, when I say that soft skills both refer to a problem and embody the solution to that problem, I’m getting close to answering the question that’s implied whenever the term “soft skills” is mentioned: why do we need soft skills? We need them, I’d argue, because they offer one useful solution to a current challenge facing many parts of the Western world. The challenge, simply put, is how to manage vast amounts of change in the make-up of society and in how society functions, knowing that many people’s natural tendency is to be conservative (not necessarily in the political sense), that is, to like things the way they are.
The changes I’m speaking about are, on the one hand, rapidly increasing amounts of diversity in our societies, both racial and ethnic and gender-based, as immigration increases to fill the demographic decline in places like Canada, the United States, and Western Europe, and as new definitions of gender become normalized.2 At the same time, rapidly increasing amounts of technological disruption exist in our lives, by which I mean all the new and changing tools, gadgets, apps, and digital modalities we encounter in our home and work lives such as Zoom, texting, Slack, office-hoteling and many others.3 It’s these twin disruptors – diversity and digital technology – plus a third disruptor I haven’t yet mentioned: sharp generational differences in society – that seem to be causing the world we live in to be, to some degree, destabilized.
2. Examples of rapid demographic change include Ballingall (2017) “A Majority of Torontonians Now Identify Themselves as Visible Minorities” www.thestar.com/news/gta/2017/10/25/a-majority-of-torontonians-now-identify-themselves-as-visible-minorities-census-shows.html; Poston, Jr. and Saenz (2017) “U.S. Whites Will Soon Be the Minority in Number, But Not Power” www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/op-ed/bs-ed-op-0809-minority-majority-20170808-story.html; Dawar (2013) “White Britons Are Now a Minority in 4 Towns and Cities” www.express.co.uk/news/uk/370013/White-Britons-are-now-a-minority-in-4-towns-and-cities. Discussions of acute generational conflict include “The Clash of the Baby Boomers and Millenials” www.forbes.com/sites/nazbeheshti/2018/11/29/the-clash-of-the-baby-boomers-and-millennials-how-can-we-all-get-along/#64a24f81f9e2; “Generational Differences at Work Are Small: Thinking They’re Big Affects Our Behavior” https://hbr.org/2019/08/generational-differences-at-work-are-small-thinking-theyre-big-affects-our-behavior; Cotton (2019) “Millenials Cause Generational Conflict in the Workplace” www.businessleader.co.uk/millennials-cause-generational-conflict-in-the-workplace/60389/. 3. Representative coverage of rapid technological change includes Jackson (2018) “Reports of Rapid Tech Change Causing the Demise of Traditional Employment Are Greatly Exaggerated” www.theglobeandmail.com/business/commentary/article-reports-of-rapid-tech-change-causing-the-demise-of-traditional/; Porter (2019) “Tech Is Splitting the U.S. Work Force in Two” www.nytimes.com/2019/02/04/business/economy/productivity-inequality-wages.html; and Partington (2019) “Things Are Changing So Fast” www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jun/30/changing-fast-benefits-dangers-robots-uk-workplace.
Here we can pause to add another provisional way to approach thinking about soft skills. Soft skills invoke a small-c conservative movement for managing rapid change by creating and upholding agreed-upon standards for behavior. In a world of disruption and change, it makes sense that a somewhat fuzzy concept – soft skills – should emerge as one potential method of restoring things to “normal”. An example will illustrate what I mean. Let’s say a large organization in the financial services sector was challenged recently with how to reconcile its need for employees who can communicate effectively and its commitment to diversity. A young employee complained to her manager that she felt “exposed” and “threatened” when giving presentations. She further stated that in her culture, speaking openly in front of other people was something women were discouraged from doing and that she would therefore prefer not to have to do this at work. Her manager’s private feelings were understandably conflicted. The employee in question was a member of a visible minority, and his department had for many years been working to increase its number of visible minority employees.
At the same time, the manager was surprised by his employee’s complaint, because speaking to co-workers, clients, and other parties (whether in a conversation, a meeting, a presentation, or a seminar) was a bread-and-butter aspect of the job, for people of all genders and backgrounds. In fact, the employee had talked up her own strong communication skills when she was interviewed for the job! And on top of that, “effective spoken and written communication” is the first requirement listed in all of the department’s job descriptions – considered so important that it appears before the more technical, hard skills tasks like spreadsheet use, risk management assessment, or financial planning capabilities. What was he supposed to do? How to reconcile the diversity-based request (i.e., I’m uncomfortable speaking in front of people for cultural reasons) with necessary workplace norms (i.e., speaking in front of people is a foundational part of the job)?
Clearly this example is stark, and not likely to occur frequently. That said, less stark and dramatic versions of the clash between established norms and new points of view are happening every day; otherwise we wouldn’t be hearing all the noise we have been for ten years about the “lack of” or “gap in” soft skills. Perhaps one way out of this dilemma is to examine briefly another way in which soft skills can be approached, and that is, by reference to its binary opposite of “hard skills”. In the same way that “soft skills” is elastic and relational because it refers both to a problem and to the solution to that problem, so too is it elastic and relational because it is always referring, if only obliquely and subtly, to its opposite, which is “hard skills”. Like all binary opposites (good/bad; beautiful/ugly; rich/poor; gay/straight; etc.) liberal-minded academic commentators have long argued that seemingly neutral binary oppositions like hard skills/soft skills are not neutral (or natural) but rather culturally produced. And what’s more, they’re produced in a dishonestly “equal-looking” form (i.e., the binary) that serves to mask the reality, which is that one term in the binary is always valorized, or held in higher esteem, compared with the other term.4
4. Helpful discussions of binaries and their deconstruction in various forms of analysis include Wilcox (2015) “Deconstructive Literary Criticism” https://medium.com/@brettwilcox/deconstructive-literary-criticism-e2fcf9b2e848; Thomassen (2010) “Deconstruction as Method in Political Theory” https://webapp.uibk.ac.at/ojs/index.php/OEZP/article/viewFile/1369/1063; Kau (2001) “Deconstruction and Science” http://sites.science.oregonstate.edu/~stetza/ph407H/Deconstruction.pdf; Balkin (1987) “Deconstructive Practice and Legal Theory” https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=7061&context=ylj. Similar sources can be found for numerous other aspects of human culture or endeavour including religion, society, culture, education, etc.
In such a cultural analysis, it’s customary to destabilize or deconstruct the binary to show, for example, how the less equal term within it is as valuable or even more valuable than its opposite. In another form of this type of analysis, you can demonstrate that there are categories that stand apart from, between, or outside the binary that are just as valid (e.g., today the gay/straight binary is rarely invoked without recognizing the validity of bisexuality or trans identities and the oversimplification, in terms of sexual orientation, of the original binary). If you were to perform such a destabilizing analysis of the hard skills/soft skills binary, you might begin by agreeing that “hard skills” has traditionally been the valorized term. It points to the specific, technical, skills-based abilities – often stemming from years of education and training or else natural talent – that employees demonstrate as part of their job, and which set them apart from others who don’t have these abilities.
Historically, soft skills were thus the less valorized part of the binary. These skills, variously known as “professionalism”, “people skills”, “ability to get along”, “confidence”, “communication” among many other synonyms, were assumed to come with you into your job. In other words, the assumption was that soft skills were part of our upbringing, our culture, our way of doing things. No extra education or study was required, and any professional employee or person aiming to be a professional could tap into these already-existing parts of themselves, or know when and how to deploy and perform these skills. Some people today, when speaking candidly – educators and employers among them – still believe this. As a result, when soft skills behaviors are not obviously deployed and performed, a crisis is invoked.
Funnily enough, it hasn’t required a cultural analysis to destabilize the hard skills/soft skills binary. Two very real-world phenomena of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, globalization and automation, have done the job for us. Broadly speaking, for many years between the Industrial Revolution and the immediate post–World War II decades, the Western world was the heart of manufacturing, as well as of the various forms of innovation and ancillary functions that go together with making things, such as research, design, marketing, finance, etc. The past 30 years have altered this picture. Manufacturing is becoming skewed toward Asian and in some cases Latin American countries, and even the ancillary industries supporting manufacturing are beginning to shift their geographical locus.5 The impact this has had on the Western world has been profound. We’ve experienced on the one hand an economic shift to “knowledge economies” in which labor is more about creative, problem-solving skills than about mass producing things (this is the positive end of the spectrum) to, on the other hand, a political shift toward nationalist, populist governments whose base of support comes from populations who feel “left behind” by the knowledge economy shift (this is the negative end of the sp...

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