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March 2016
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The Public Manager

The LOSS Co-Worker and an Ode to the Soft Skills

Successful leaders know how to build relationships and inspire those they lead.

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Try using the phrase "soft skills" in your next meeting and you are likely to be met with rolled eyes, dropped pens, and people leaning back in their chair glancing around and avoiding eye contact. And, if you're really lucky, someone will actually use air quotes when rejecting the concept with a flippant tone and dismissive posture.

Then, the conversation will jump to "a strategic, engineering-based, methodically paced, scientifically validated, systematically designed, tactically vectored execution framework required for mission accomplishment." This diatribe will no doubt be delivered by a speaking voice two octaves below the normal human range and accompanied by a series of PowerPoint slides with dashboards; red, yellow, and green dots; and far too many words for anyone to assimilate before the next slide is shown. Congratulations, you've just encountered your lack of soft skills (LOSS) co-worker!

The concept of soft skills is not a new notion on the leadership landscape. Leadership scholars and practitioners have written about teamwork, collaboration, adaptability, communication skills, managing conflict, skillful negotiation, and listening for decades. As far back as the early 1900s, prominent social worker and management theorist Mary Parker Follett opined that we can never completely detach the human from the mechanical side because human relations and operations are bound together.

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Abraham Maslow and others followed with a distinctly humanistic approach to leadership, pointing out the importance of the underlying informal mechanisms beneath our formal organizational structures. Since then, the presence of social and psychological awards, a focus on behavior, individual growth and development, and engagement have become the norm. Even the use of 360-degree evaluations dates back to the 1950s.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about the so-called soft skills is how consistently leaders ignore the need to develop such talents. One only needs to look back at the last 20 years of data from Gallup or any number of other sources to see the importance that the workforce places on soft skills.

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Identifying LOSS Individuals

LOSS individuals in the workplace are not difficult to spot. But there are a few more subtle signs that leaders should be on the lookout for to root out these LOSS workers:

  • They handle conflict poorly. A lack of soft skills is especially detrimental in the area of conflict management. When resolving conflict in the workplace, one requires the innate ability to judge and assess another person's perspective and build toward a mutual goal.
  • They rely too heavily on their expertise. This is a crutch, pure and simple. Oftentimes LOSS individuals will use jargon and ridicule to make their points while belittling the input of others.
  • They rarely communicate on any subject outside of the business at hand. Closely related to their deference to expertise, LOSS colleagues refrain from establishing any connection beyond their comfort zone. Friends, family, hobbies, and so on are off-limits.
  • They don't work well with others. Teamwork requires mutual trust and focus on a common goal. Relationships form the fabric of effective teams and LOSS co-workers battle with building the kinds of relationships that allow for team success.
  • They have a sour attitude. This is often exhibited through a "been there, done that" type of perspective. This defense mechanism protects LOSS ­individuals from risk and further insulates them from the organization.
  • They are not adaptable. Focus, direction, and procedural allegiance give the LOSS colleague a sense of comfort and emphasis. Adaptability involves risk, and the emotional fabric from which the LOSS individual operates does not allow for the kind of self-esteem necessary to take chances.

In a 2011 interview, noted emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman pointed out that research shows that to be successful in any profession, one needs an intelligence quotient that is approximately one standard deviation above the norm. That means that in the typical workplace everyone is about equally smart. So what happens after that? If everyone is smart enough to run the same type of regression, perform the same statistical analysis, or construct a strategic execution plan, how do we know who our leaders are? What's left over?
The answer is in an individual's ability to forge relationships, to build coalitions, to gain trust, and to inspire others. There is simply no amount of systematic problem-solving approaches or execution strategies that can inspire individuals at the level of the soul. Only through building relationships with people whom we lead are we able to connect at a deep enough level to ensure their commitment, their true commitment to organizational mission.

Almost 40 years ago, noted scholars Charles Lave and James March in their book An Introduction to Models in the Social Sciences wrote, "It's a nuisance, but God has chosen to give the easy problems to the physicists." Any leader who has been faced with the challenge of inspiring those who may lead, instilling a vision for the future direction of an organization, making a tough ethical decision, or simply providing a fair and accurate performance evaluation, knows just what Lave and March mean. It is the soft skills that challenge us to our core and hone the fabric from which we lead others.

About the Author

Patrick Malone is director of Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent guest lecturer on leadership and organizational dynamics and has extensive experience working with government leaders. Patrick’s research, teaching, and scholarship include work in public sector leadership, executive problem solving, organizational analysis, ethics, and public administration and policy. He is a retired navy captain, having spent 22 years in a number of senior leadership and policy roles.

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