Understanding Soft Skills: The Secret to Good Teamwork

It’s an interesting phenomenon to observe different group dynamics occurring in real time. Take an MBA class, a professional conference, or even internal organizational meetings, often you will find the different approaches by some managers and meeting facilitators. Yet you’re also bound to notice certain teams and collaborative efforts move faster, smoother, and overall more effective than others.

What are the features these teams and groups have that launch them into some sort of different atmosphere compared to others? Is it experience, diversity, or subject-matter expertise that set these groups apart? While these aspects can definitely provide some context why some groups move faster, it remains partial towards a dimension many people overlook: soft skills.

What are “Soft Skills”?

To better understand soft skills, it can be useful to define skills as we come to know it as “hard skills” or job-specific skills. Hard skills are essentially technical expertise that you’ll need to either execute a task properly or execute a task to a certain higher degree of quality. If you think of very technically explicit jobs, such as computer programming, hard skills would fall under one’s capability to write code in Python, SQL, or Swift. Hard skills can come in all shapes and sizes but are usually measurable in proficiency and certifiable through specific grading bodies (your university degree can be understood as a hard skill example within that realm).

Soft skills, as the name suggests, focus on lesser measurable skills and hone in on interpersonal aspects of how you approach jobs, colleagues, and even conflict whenever it arises. Popular job-hunting resource Indeed dedicated an entire article on why soft skills are important, not just because of how it helps you build professional relationships, but as its way to help employers understand how you can fit in and effectively work with the rest of the company.

Indeed goes on to explain that soft skills “can increase your growth potential in an organization because of your leadership, teamwork, or communication capabilities”.

Complexities of Team Dynamics

Whatever the job we do, at least for the majority of us, we live in society, and in order to get our job done, it’s in our best interest to collaborate with other people. These people can be clients, suppliers, partners, or even more generally, any audience we might be addressing.

Working in collaboration, though, is easier said than done. Despite likely having the same end objective in mind, we often find ourselves at odds with the person or people we are working with. It’s a common concern for most and is one of the main reasons why many abhor working in groups as it can take away a lot of what they find effective in their method of approaching work, and raise uncertainty and unpredictability for them.

This can lead to a phenomenon where working styles come at odds with each other in a team. “A working style is how you naturally operate in a team environment”, says Jenn Chen, a San Francisco-based digital strategist. But much like personality tests, working styles can be hard to pinpoint despite their many different influences on teamwork.

Differences in backgrounds and contexts can also be a contributing factor to the complexity of team dynamics. Anam Ahmed, a writer for Chron, explains that while cultural diversity can mean unique perspectives and opportunities, it can also bring challenges in the different communication styles, understanding of hierarchy and power dynamics, as well as how people perceive risk and make decisions.

Even with a particularly homogenous group, you can run into problems of miscommunication with the work itself. “It’s any manager’s nightmare to hear that a team member has completed a task that has already been done,” says Kate Dagher for Fellow. Indeed, overlapping work can lead to resource consumption, time lost, and even conflict over which person has the higher ownership over the task.

But group work is unavoidable most of the time and is still seen as one of the best ways to bring about innovation and efficiency to your organization. As such, employers look to soft skills alongside hard skills to gauge how well you can develop the necessary capability to work with others in many different contexts.

Essential Soft Skills for Teamwork

As we established, soft skills operate on the other side of the coin of employable skills that companies look for. Whereas hard skills are often measurable through the many certification courses and professional reviews, soft skills are a bit more subjective and abstract.

Much like personality tests and different psychological evaluations, it can be useful to categorize certain soft skills into groups that people find most useful in team settings. These soft skills can be expressed in different ways, so expect to see other resources talk about these soft skills using different terms but remain largely consistent in some core aspects.

Effective Communication

One of the first things you’ll want to start developing, both for yourself and with anyone else you’re working with or managing, is the skill surrounding effective communication. We may know how to speak the language and talk among ourselves on a regular basis, but doing so in the most effective manner is a skill in itself.

It’s that key point, effectiveness, that defines this as a key soft skill for teamwork (and general professional development). Put formally, effective communication can be defined as the process of exchanging ideas, thoughts, opinions, knowledge, and data so that the message is received and understood with clarity and purpose.

In developing effective communication, you can look towards a useful framework to guide how you talk and share ideas: the 5Cs of Communication. The 5Cs stand for Clear, Correct, Complete, Concise, and importantly, Compassionate. Through these guidelines around how you communicate, you can better share your ideas with whoever you might be talking to.

It’s important to address communication as one of the first soft skills you need to develop. In a report by Provoke Media, almost $37 billion is lost per year through some sort of error in communication. That’s almost $26,000 per worker! On the flip side, improving communication can lead companies to about 47% higher total returns for shareholders compared to companies that don’t improve their communication skills.

Collaborative Disposition

Collaborative disposition, or what we would like to describe as your ability to openly collaborate with others, is the natural next step once you develop your communication skills amongst your peers. Some might describe this in other terms such as “open-mindedness” or “trust”, but all these different terms are focused on further enriching the collaborative atmosphere within your group.

One specific aspect of the collaborative disposition is the ability to listen and to listen effectively. Similarly to our entry on communication, listening to yourself and people surrounding you is a soft skill that you ought to be developing alongside other key teamwork skills. Business leadership coach Cameron Herold describes this as one of the most important skills you’ll need to integrate into your leadership styles. He explains that listening skills are “…not just about listening to someone talking, but really hearing what they’re trying to say, which is absolutely necessary to have good communication”.

To be a better listener and overall more effective collaborative teammate, focus on methods to continue enabling contributions from the people you work with. Ask open-ended questions, keep an open mind to their answers, and avoid interrupting their turn to speak, adding your voice only to summarize what they said in an attempt to reciprocate their thoughts and confirm your understanding.

Emotional Intelligence

As we delve deeper into the nuances of soft skills, we start looking beyond external interactions and begin to reflect on how we internally react to the situations around us. Soft skills demand more than just external validation but a true critical evaluation of how you yourself manage the way you emotionally react to the world around you.

This self-awareness is called emotional intelligence, a key soft skill and is defined through 5 different elements (at times measured as Emotional Quotient, or EQ). Psychologist Daniel Goleman defined these 5 facets as self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. These different dimensions of emotional intelligence can lead to success not just in your professional life but in your personal life as well. It essentially governs your ability to maintain composure in stressful situations, relates to others in meaningful ways, as well as develop sustainable relationships over a long period.

This wide and encompassing soft skill has been around since the 1990s and has since risen to prominence as one of the most important soft skills in the workplace. Almost 75% of hiring managers look towards EQ over IQ, believing that emotional intelligence can lead to better job satisfaction and performance.

As this is a largely individual soft skill, developing emotional intelligence requires plenty of self-awareness practices. Identify how you react in specific situations, especially high-stress ones and be clear with yourself on how you might need to improve on some aspects. Continue building your social etiquette by involving yourself actively with your peers, even utilizing the active listening strategy we discussed previously.

Decision-Making Confidence

Much of what we’ve discussed so far has been focused on developing your ability to work together with your team in different modes of communication as well as your internal capabilities in managing all of this. But there will come a time when key business decisions need to be made and you’ll need to develop your skills in decision-making confidence to give your team (and yourself) the assurance regarding your next steps moving forward.

Decision-making confidence enters the frame in many different situations and is often a key factor that managers look for when it comes to looking for potential future leaders in their business. Knowing how to make well-informed decisions with sometimes incomplete information is tantamount to keeping your business going. As a team member, this skill can help you uncover biases, make use of all available information, and help everyone arrive at the most effective decision possible.

Frameworks for decision-making confidence are fairly straightforward, similar to any good investigative project that you might be undertaking. Like the scientific method, it’s important to properly understand the problem that you’re facing before looking towards solutions. It’s here that Albert Einstein himself is quoted to spend “55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes on the solution”, which goes to show how important it is to frame the problem in a way that everyone understands what they’re trying to solve.

From here, you follow by hypothesizing on possible solutions and deciding which alternatives give the best advantages while minimizing possible risks. From here, you’re likely going to have a little more confidence than when you started on which action to take.

Growth Mindset

Last on our list is the most forward-looking and subjective soft skill that can launch you and your team towards new innovations and better efficiencies: the growth mindset. The tricky thing with defining this soft skill is that growth itself can mean different things for each one of your teammates. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck coined this term in the early 2000s, using it to describe how some students utilize failures and mistakes as part of their long-term growth plans.

These days, the growth mindset is a powerful soft skill to have as it essentially welcomes the idea of experimentation and fosters innovation as it focuses less on risk factors and more on potential benefits in the long run. While it doesn’t disregard the material reality that these risks have, the simple shift in perspective allows you and your team to better dig deeper into critical issues in your business or project that can be solved with lateral thinking.

Moreover, growth mindsets can also help the interpersonal aspects of your team. With proper growth mindsets integrated as part of your work dynamic, you and your team can much more easily share feedback with each other as well as volunteer for new projects that can propel your capabilities even further. The growth mindset is one of the most adaptable soft skills that people can develop, but will need consistent nurturing to ensure it doesn’t diminish into a fixed mindset later on. Focus on developing through mistakes here and there while encouraging experimentation on different fronts, even established processes. With this soft skill established in your team, you can not only work with your peers better but elevate them to new heights as well. 

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