Be like water: Learn the soft skills

Be like water: Learn the soft skills

Employers today sift for soft-skilled employees like prospectors of old sifting for gold. They prospect because, like gold, self-motivated, empathic and responsible (soft-skilled) workers are rare and valuable to an organisation.

What makes Soft Skills so valuable?

Soft skills make salespeople effective, employees self-starters, give a doctor or nurse their bedside manner or make a CEO revered.

Soft skills are the hardest to learn and the most beneficial to the workplace. When present they are the oil that lubricates the workplace engine, and the skills most likely to contribute to a person’s well-being.

When absent they cause low-morale, actively dis-engaged employees, burnout, high staff turnover, job dis-satisfaction, low productivity and more.

 Why are Soft Skills NOT taught in mainstream education?

Because they are hard to teach and poorly understood. It is often assumed that people who exhibit soft skills —like empathy— were born with them.

Also because they are subjective. A math test or language is easier to verify with a test, but a person’s ability to listen, lead and make decisions require more subjective evaluations over long time periods and can vary in the same person at different times and in different situations.

Conventional standardised education doesn’t like things it can’t quantifiably measure.

What are soft skills?

You can think of any skill that helps people to sustainably co-ordinate effective action in open and energizing moods as a soft skill.

Soft skills enable people to work well on their own, be actively engaged at their work—without an overseer checking to see that they are not goofing off.

Soft skills often catalyse hard skills by helping workers know what to focus on and by having them bring all of their technical (hard) skills to bear because they feel valued and appreciated. .

Some examples:

There is no consensus on a comprehensively complete soft skills list, but here are five that, when absent, are killing to an organisation.

Mood setting

Mel Gibson's character in Braveheart leading troops to battle
A typical day at the office?

Human beings exist in moods. At any given moment we are sitting in a mood e.g. indifference, anxiety, frustration, concern or wonder etc.

Some moods are helpful to effective action and some moods are not.  Don’t believe me? Have your high IQ teams work in moods of anxiety or resignation and see what happens to their innovation, and productivity.

There is a reason the hero rides back and forth in front of his troops before battle.  We say he’s firing them up, but what does that mean?  He’s changing their mood from fear and hopelessness to moods of vengeance, patriotism, hope, confidence etc.

The workplace is our battlefield and we go there every day.  Learning how to create/sustain productive, collaborative and inspirational moods is perhaps the essential leadership soft-skill.

Seeking and giving feedback

scared boss giving-feedbackFeedback is the mirror that tells us how we’re performing and is the gateway to growth. Because we are social beings it doesn’t matter how good we actually are, what matters is how others perceive how good we are and how we go about doing what we do. Without feedback we can’t focus on what works, or stop doing what doesn’t.

The ability to give and receive feedback is a critical soft-skill necessary to prosper in today’s workplace.

taking feedback well
Does it work like this in your office? Call me. (smile)

A team that doesn’t use feedback as a performance gauge soon becomes ossified and dysfunctional. They can only survive in non-competitive, protected environments.

Shifting perspective

old woman young woman
Shift perspective from old woman to young woman.

Changing perspective, seeing things from another person or company’s perspective is essential to resolving conflict and making better choices.

For this to be possible, people must have learned somewhere along the line not to seek single stories as absolute truth, and that certainty is at best temporary.

We almost never have all the information and perspective to be certain and business decisions are about making decisions in the face of un-certainty.

This skill also brings a new comfort level with being wrong or mis-taken and a capacity to acknowledge same without taking it personally.  A critical skill because we are usually wrong before we are right and over time we realise we only had a few pieces of a much bigger puzzle.


A practice of asking questions is another invaluable soft skill to individuals and organisations.

Why do we do this?


“Why do we do things this way?

Is there a more humane way to execute a convict? is one question that assumes you’ve answered a more fundamental question: Does the state have the right to execute it’s citizens?Monkey thinking

How can we turn this business around? vs. Should we be focussing our resources to support or start another?

If more people had the courage and wisdom to ask questions, the mortgage-backed securities insanity might have been stopped before they torpedoed the U.S. economy.

Sadly many dis-engaged workers  won’t ask the tough questions and are happy to move stuff around as long as they get paid.

Relationship building

It's all about the Koalas (sorry) people.
It’s all about the Koalas (sorry) people.

Perhaps the most important skill for life and work is the skill of building and nurturing relationships.

Mainstream education somehow assumes that human beings are naturally able to manage the relationships in their life; especially their relationship with self.

We can’t, and we spend hundreds of billions every year on police, prisons, psychotherapy and self-help to manage the consequences.  We then offer band-aid soft skills training like “anger management” and “marriage counselling” after the train goes off the rails instead of front-loading our education with the fundamental hows and whys of human relationships.

In a work-place environment people with poor relationship skills are unable to handle breakdowns, forgive and let things go.  They are unwilling to seek help from mentors and colleagues, and many will hold grudges and even sabotage colleagues with gossip and withheld information.  The office becomes a soap opera.

Be like water

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.”    Bruce Lee

Soft skills in the workplace are like the water Bruce Lee talked about.  They dissolve, go through, or move around obstacles and allow individuals and teams to do good and fulfilling work.  Until mainstream education emphasises them, it’s on you to make sure you educate yourself and your teams in the soft skills.


Any thoughts? Contributions/acknowledgments welcome.