A Hard Look at Soft Skills

Family Matters

Is it just me, or does it seem that people who have the worst communications and people skills are often the most likely to be promoted? They are aggressive, arrogant and work hard, so they keep advancing — all the while making everyone below them miserable.

In many company cultures there is a sense that the so-called “soft skills” — or “interpersonal abilities” — won't get you anywhere. In fact, if the culture is competitive, being seen as “too nice” can even be a liability. After all, don't nice guys finish last?

The good news is, this seems to be changing. Recent studies show that soft skills, in the final analysis, can bring solid benefits. Major studies of more than 27,000 employees in Canada, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the Work & Family Connection have all indicated that the development of “soft skills” in managers is the most important thing a company can do to retain workers and keep them committed.

Organizations are beginning to realize, for example, that the No. 1 factor in ensuring employee motivation and retention is having managers who are liked and respected by their staffers. In a Canadian study of the challenges employees face in balancing home and work, the interpersonal skills of the boss proved even more important than daycare in providing a sense of balance. Also, a recent book on management and leadership, Break All The Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently, argues that an employee's relationship with his or her immediate supervisor has a more powerful impact on employee morale than does any factor regarding the organization as a whole.

Given all this management science, how should an authentic Christian behave in the workplace? Christian clinical psychologist and researcher Edward Worthington Jr. has shown that we show others love when we are willing to “value” them. At the foundation of every relationship, he writes, are opportunities to show that the other person's contribution is vital. Makes sense. When I value you, I treat you with respect independently of your performance. I might or might not be pleased with your performance, but I respect you as a person.

An employee who feels valued is more inspired to show appreciation, to value others, to commit and to overcome self-interest and better serve the organization. An employee who does not feel valued is more likely to become sad, angry, envious, discouraged or resentful.

One pitfall to avoid is viewing the soft skills as just another technique in a manager's productivity-boosting repertoire. Employees will naturally suspect the manager is being nice or showing more interest not because of genuine concern for his people but as a means to manipulate them. But authentic valuation of employees is a result of respecting each person's dignity as a human being created in God's image. It's what we're called to do not only in the workplace but everywhere we go.

As Christians in the workplace, we should take a big-picture view of the soft skills. We don't improve our interpersonal abilities merely to be more productive or successful. We practice them every day because our love for Christ generates a desire to love and serve others in every area of our lives. That this particular skill set is so effective in producing positive business outcomes is an outstanding fringe benefit, though. Wouldn't you agree, managers?

Art Bennett is director of Alpha Omega

Clinic and Consultation Services in Vienna, Virginia, and Bethesda, Maryland.

Representing the Holy Spirit that descended “like a dove” and hovered over Jesus when he was baptized.

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