Paradoxically, it's easy to learn the hard skills. Need to learn about VMware so that you can virtualize your environment? Pick up a book. Go to some classes. Play with it in your lab. Sure, it will take some time to master the topic, but there are numerous defined learning paths at your disposal.
The soft skills? Not so much. These take practice and, in some cases, a well-rounded education.
Here are five soft skills that I consider of prime importance. Add your own in the comments.
1. Ability to communicate professionally
An inability — or, worse, an unwillingness — to attempt to communicate professionally is a personal pet peeve of mine. I'm not asking for perfection, but I do expect communication within the IT group and communication that flows outside the group to be mindful of the audience and to be free of, well, junk. An example of unprofessional communication would be sending a message to the entire organization that includes text-speak — i.e., "R U at risk of a virus?" Yes, I've seen this happen. Suffice it to say that this kind of communication is not taken seriously and damages the credibility of the person and the group.
Personally, I rarely, if ever, even use text-speak when I send text messages. Maybe that makes me old or something, but it just seems pretty lazy to me.
2. Listening skills
"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." — Winston Churchill
It's easy to talk, but it's hard to listen. Listening — really listening — to people is a skill that must be mastered. None of us have all the answers, and we have to listen to those around us to learn.
So, when you're in a meeting or interacting with coworkers in a professional setting:
- Don't futz around with your iPhone.
- Don't ignore what's being said while you "wait your turn" to speak.
- Take seriously what others are saying and incorporate what you're hearing when you do get around to speaking.
- Don't worry about it if you don't get to speak at a particular meeting... unless it happens all the time!
Now, we all know that some meetings are truly pointless and boring. If you find yourself in such a situation, question the need for the meeting or find a way out of it, if you can.
3. Maintaining a good attitude
This is more important — and more difficult — than I can probably put into words. We all go through periods of time when we're moody, down, burned out, demotivated, or what have you. That's pretty natural, and it might even show a bit in the workplace. After all, we're only human, and we spend 1/3 of our lives with coworkers, so some negativity is bound to come out from time to time.
But, it should be "from time to time" only.
If you find yourself truly miserable and it persists for a long period of time, you might have a bad attitude. If you're the person in the office who people tiptoe around or feel like they cannot approach due to your temper, you might have an attitude problem. If you're creating an environment that is causing others to dread coming to work, you might have an attitude problem. If this is the case, you also have a pretty poor manager; attitude problems should be nipped in the bud before they create chaos in the organization. That's right from Management 101.
You can't teach a good attitude. You just have to figure out what works for you and your employer.
4. Critical thinking
The oft-quoted Wikipedia defines critical thinking as "in general... a higher-order of thinking that questions assumptions. It is a way of deciding whether a claim is true, false, or sometimes true and sometimes false, or partly true and partly false."
I'm not going to repeat the contents of the Wikipedia article here since that article outlines in clear, concise terms what is encompassed by the term.
Answer a few questions:
- Are you able to independently and correctly verify and validate sources of information in order to ensure that you're making good decisions?
- Are you able to separate yourself from the source in a way that maintains your credibility?
- Are you able to validate the accuracy of the facts that are presented?
That's just the tip of the iceberg, though.
There aren't college courses just for critical thinking. This is something that is simply infused into robust curricula and can take time to master.
5. Teamwork and collaboration
Loners don't get anywhere anymore. Long gone are the days of IT being a back-room function. Today, we're relied on throughout the organization, and we have to — gasp! — talk to people. We also have to be able to effectively work with people in teams and leverage one another's strengths and cover the weaknesses in all of us. That's the beauty of a team. With the right people present, there will be very few, in any, weaknesses as long as everyone is on a level playing field.
These are just a few soft skills that are sometimes lacking in IT. With our traditional focus on the hard skills, it's not a big surprise that the soft skills have sometimes been overlooked. However, as time goes on, the soft skills will be increasingly important.
Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive with CampusWorks, Inc. Scott is available for consulting, writing, and speaking engagements and can be reached at email@example.com.