A contributing factor to misunderstandings at work is that we tend to view ourselves as a novel, while everyone else views us as a movie.
If you’ve ever read a novel, you know how a writer is typically able to let the reader into the mind and thoughts of the main character. This way the reader can empathize with the protagonist as he or she battles one conflict after another. The writer is putting the reader in the place of the protagonist for maximum effect.
In daily life we experience ourselves as the main character in our own novel, in that we are aware of our own thoughts from one second to the next. This means we always know exactly what our intentions are—and those intentions are typically good. But others around us can’t share our insight or feel a level of trust. Instead, these innocent bystanders view us as they would a movie, in that they are only able to interpret our words (which can be misspoken, lost in translation or misheard) and our actions (which can be clumsy in the first place or misinterpreted after the fact). Because of this dichotomy in mode between how we see ourselves and how others see us, we would be wise to be extremely intentional about what we say and do around others.
Being mindful of how we are perceived by others is at the core of skills we typically call “soft skills.” Some call them “employability skills” or “professional skills,” but I like the term soft skills so that they aren’t confused with the “hard” or technical skills. “Emotional intelligence” is another potentially useful phrase, but I’m not convinced that having head or heart knowledge is necessary to be a good worker. A person can actually be quite emotionally unintelligent but still employ the right skills at the right time to create positive outcomes on the job.
In 2016, I led a team that developed a soft-skills curriculum for IT students. We named it PrepareU. Able to be deployed as part of an intensive two-week boot camp or parsed out over several weeks or months, the first half of the course helps a student land a job while the second half helps them keep it.
For would-be IT workers, the course covers job networking and interviewing, right down to how to create a LinkedIn page. Those same students, as well as current IT workers, can benefit from the second half, which uses role playing, classroom discussion, and small group work to examine strategies and tactics around reducing anxiety (the cause of a high percentage of workplace blunders), understanding different social styles of colleagues, building a personal brand, and how to be seen as the go-to employee when a new opportunity arises at the company.
There’s no textbook, as it’s important for the student to focus on people, not paper. For the same reason, there’s no online version of the course. It’s all about learning how to work with people.
For over two years now, PrepareU has been part and parcel of my organization’s IT-Ready program, which relies on its graduates performing well in employer interviews and on-the-job, so that the companies will keep coming back for the next graduating class. I like to think that PrepareU is one of the reasons that IT-Ready has grown substantially over the past two years, from one city to three (and at least two more in 2019). In addition, CompTIA’s Training Strategies Group has offered PrepareU to all its technical training clients. In its young life, about 1,000 students have experienced this soft skills training.
Has it made a difference? While it’s hard to test how the same person would have done without the training as compared to having the training, we have observed a confidence boost in our graduates. And this confidence is crucial for someone going into their first IT job interview.
There is much new ground still to be tilled in the area of soft skills.
First of all, soft skills need to be taught more in high school and middle school, which typically over-accentuates individual efforts rather than the give-and-take of working in a team.
Second, we need to make sure the right skills are being taught. CompTIA’s Center of Technology Workforce Solutions is already collaborating with George Mason University to make sure that programs like PrepareU are up-to-date.
Finally, new methodologies need to be developed for teaching and measuring soft skills to make sure they stick. Soft skills aren’t the sort of thing most of us can simply memorize and then say we’ve “got” it. There has to be buy-in and the incentive for someone to put the skills to use. Only with practice over time can a person overcome the novel/movie disconnect—and become the hero or heroine of their career story.
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