Organisations look out for people not only with core technical skills but also with soft skills. While technical skills are easier to assess, it is challenging to measure soft skills as they are subjective and perception-based. Some employers have an exhaustive list of soft skills that they tick during hiring or performance assessment, while a few others think that fluency in speaking and good manners alone are good enough: both often leading to error in judgement. A better measure would be of “life skills”, which more than adequately cover most of the soft skills.
World Health Organisation (WHO) conducted studies and identified ten life skills that are relevant across cultures. WHO recommended that these skills are built earlier in people’s lives – while in schools and colleges – so that they are better equipped to handle themselves as adults. Though WHO focused on developing these in third-world countries, many people even in advanced nations are unaware of what life skills are.
Though some treat them as 10 different skills, I would like to better explain them as five pairs of life skills. They are as follows:
- Problem Solving and Decision Making
- Critical Thinking and Creative Thinking
- Communication and Interpersonal Skills
- Empathy and Self-awareness
- Managing Stress and Managing Emotions
The first three pairs are quite familiar in a professional environment, as they commonly appear in job descriptions, performance score cards and assessments. The last two pairs though familiar are more personal in nature.
I have described below each of these pairs from the perspective of an organisation, and how they play an important role in the development of people as employees and as individuals.
1. Problem Solving and Decision Making
This is a key skill in all roles of any organisation. In the current scenario, almost every role carries some amount of risk. When risks turn into reality, there are issues. If people are tuned to treating risks as potential problems, they would be better prepared to find suitable alternatives and solve them when they do turn into problems. But this kind of skill does not come naturally for everyone. When faced with problems, they become stressed or find ways to sweep them under the carpet. In both cases, the problems remain – or possibly become bigger. By learning about tools and techniques that help with identifying problems and solving them, people can turn into problem-solvers. There are employees who are known for their fire-fighting skills. They have gotten so used to solving problems that they always look forward to facing bigger and bigger problems. The solutions need not be earth-shattering, just simple changes that minimise any negative impact to the organisation. Some problems can be solved with technology, but in that case, they create a new set of problems which require further solutions. That is another vicious cycle.
Some employees are great up to the point of identifying alternatives. But they are unable to move to the next level. They do not know how to decide, or they hate deciding. Decision-making is the end point of any solution. Most problems come with more than one solution. There are a dozen alternatives to any challenge faced by an organisation. What is crucial is to decide which solution is more relevant given the circumstances. Because the same problem may require a different solution at different times. One does not need to be a boss or a senior leader in the organisation to make decisions. Decisions are required at all levels. It is necessary while agreeing on problems, identifying, and short-listing solutions, getting consensus, making proposals to leadership, getting budget approvals, implementation and training, customer relationship management, sales, automation – in fact, everywhere. What to decide is as important as how to decide. What becomes the final solution, while how becomes the technique.
2. Critical Thinking and Creative Thinking
An organisation is a social gathering of people – some more formal than the others. But ultimately, it is what it says – a group of people. The people are termed employees. The expectations of most organisations are that each employee does the required work as per pre-set standards and help achieve their strategic (or tactical) goals. Individual whims and fantasies are not acceptable. However, this did not mean that people are not allowed to think critically. If people did not think critically, the industrial age would not have happened, nor the information technology era materialized. Critical thinking involves looking at situations (whether problems or not) and asking whether they make better sense in different circumstances. Critical thinking could be towards providing services to customers, talking to colleagues, or even inter-office correspondence. Any type of work could be thought deeply, analysed thoroughly, questioned on the pros and cons, finding potential solutions, and helping to form a judgement. Now, you can see the connection between critical thinking and the previous pair of skills.
Creative thinking is an extension of critical thinking. One can be critical without being creative as well but being creative helps. Who does not like creativity in their lives? If not for creativity, we would not have had the advanced technological gadgets or communication devices that we cannot live without today. Creativity does not mean being artistic or aesthetically attractive (like painters, musicians, or writers), but looking at things in a different way. A fresh perspective to otherwise the same wine in a different bottle. If people open their minds and start thinking from “it’s been done this way” to “let’s try a different way”, they already have started to become creative. All they would need to do is to communicate the necessity of doing that to the others in the organisation. This automatically requires to leads to the next pair of life skills.
3. Communication and Interpersonal Relations
This pair is an essential part of any person – employee or otherwise. With just these two skills, a person can easily gain an upper hand in any conversation or relationship. There have been cases of leaders in many organisations, who are poor in the other set of skills, but have managed to be at the top for years using just these two skills. This is not by any means to recommend that one should acquire these skills alone, but that these skills are so powerful that by developing the other life skills make for even better personalities in employees.
Communication is a basic trait in every living being – remember even plants can communicate, just that they do in a manner different to animals. Human beings are more evolved in verbal and non-verbal communications as compared to other animals. Among humans, one can be an excellent orator but with poor writing skills, and vice versa. There are some who are excellent at speaking on a stage, but falter when delivering a webcast. As a life skill, it is not about prowess in writing, speaking, or presenting in PowerPoint. It is to understand and be understood. To understand correctly, one should be able to listen. And that is one thing people are generally poor at. The inherent nature makes mouths overpower the ears. And just imagine when everyone does the same – communication fails.
Interpersonal relations are a cause as well as an effect of communications. Evidently, both are corollaries of one another. When communications have a lot of listening involved, they usually result in having good interpersonal relations. Bosses who listen to their reports, peers who listen to their counterparts, listening to voices of customers, all make for a great working environment. Everyone feels they are heard, and that they are wanted in the ecosystem. When they feel good, they carry that feeling with them everywhere – in the office, in extended workplaces and back home. This gives them ample opportunity to understand other people better, and more importantly, know themselves better. And this is what takes us smoothly on to the next pair of life skills.
4. Empathy and Self-awareness
This life skill has been widely explained as “putting oneself in the shoes of others”, which is of course a good enough metaphor. But most people do not understand how to apply this skill in the real world. I believe the best possible way of showing empathy is to accept or acknowledge another person’s actions (or feelings or thoughts). For example, if my colleague seriously says, “I hate our boss” (and presuming we have the same boss), I would be empathizing with my colleague only when I accept without any doubt that he really hates our boss, and do not harbour any misgivings based on that statement. Now, I may really love my boss, or I may not have such extreme feelings. But if I do not acknowledge the right of my colleague to feel that way, I would not be empathizing. Once I can acknowledge without forming an impression, I would then be open to “listen” to my colleague (note the connection to communication skill here). I can proceed to understand the reason behind that feeling and decide whether it is a fair reason or not. What is important to remember is: even if I later decide the reason to be invalid, I do not change my decision to have acknowledged the feeling earlier. I can disagree with the opinion, but I fully well recognise my colleague’s need to make that statement. Empathy can be applied to any and every person’s situation in office.
When one practices the art of being empathetic, people tend to trust them. Colleagues (junior, peers or seniors) tend to share inner feelings with them. They know that they are not being judged based on how they feel. They tend to be relieved of their stress. More people becoming empathetic in office means that the workplace is as good as a pub or a getaway.
Self-awareness is a slightly more complex skill to describe. But having explained the one before, I believe that this is like a mirror to empathy. It means acknowledging or accepting oneself as they are. But to acknowledge oneself, one needs to know themselves better than what they thought they knew. The big question is how does one know oneself better? This sounds very philosophical. Am I like what my family members or my friends or my partner tells me I am? Do I look or sound like the person my boss told me in my performance review? Does my 360-degree review with my juniors and peers tell me more about myself? Will a psychometric test help?
It would help to understand better if we knew how to measure self-awareness. A key requirement for measuring is to define a standard (or baseline). For self-awareness, the standard is always our own internal values. How these values align with the organisational values will determine whether one is a good fit or not. When these values align, it would then become easy to measure by means of an established model. A simple model would be the Johari window. The model helps to assess our own interpretation of the values against that of others within the organisation.
These values would show up in four quadrants – those known to self and others alike (Open), those known to self but not to others (Hidden), those know to others but not known to self (Blind), and those not known to either (Unknown). See the graphic below. If one is self-aware, irrespective of whether the values are known to others are not, the windows on the bottom pane will be bigger than the ones on the top. Ideally, all traits of an individual should be known to self and to others.
By becoming self-aware, one can resist reacting adversely to external (or even internal) changes in the organisation. A self-aware employee will remain calm, observe when something changes, evaluate the impact on own values and that of the organisation, and then take informed decisions.
This acts as a great counter to the stress and negative emotions that have a habit of creeping up on people at different times. And this takes us nicely into the last pair of life skills.
5. Managing Stress, and Managing Emotions
These two are the most subjective ones among the lot.
Note the terminology for managing stress – one cannot expect to remove stress entirely. As long as people are alive, they will undergo stress in some form or the other. The key is to manage stress in such a way that they go about their daily lives with least discomfort. Stress is inevitable in organisations. Responsibility and accountability pose regular challenge to even the best of people. Adding fuel to these are competitiveness and creativity. If we circle back to the four pairs of life skills we discussed earlier, they have the capacity to not only build stress but also reduce it. For example, the process of problem solving involves a lot of brain storming, and arguments for and against solutions. The process can be stressful. But self-awareness and empathy can help one to understand what causes the stress and minimise it. Listening to others and communicating in a common language will avoid conflict.
Stress and emotions are intricately connected. If people are aware of what emotional state they are in at any given time, they can decide when they should be upping their game and when to lie low. When to get into a healthy argument in office and when to remain silent. Organisations nowadays refer to the Emotional Quotient (EQ) while hiring or assessing employee performance. There are several sites which give out a response-based scoring, but in generally all they do is ask your response to hypothetical situations. One generally tends to mark responses as to what one hopes to be doing than what was really done in that situation. A better way is to know what emotions are, the difference between emotions and feelings, and how to recognise the emotion we tend to display in our work circumstances.
Apparently, humans experience more than 30,000 types of emotions. Based on research, psychologist, Dr. Robert Plutchik proposed that there are eight basic emotions – paired as opposites: joy and sadness, acceptance and disgust, fear and anger, surprise, and anticipation. Variations and combinations of each of these emotions produce all the other emotions. One can visualise better in the Wheel of Emotions diagram below. (More details of how to interpret and use can be found in link here). By being able to differentiate the levels of emotions, one can regulate momentary emotions, adapt their feelings better and reduce any negative feelings.
The basic difference between feelings and emotions is that feelings are mental, while emotions are physical. Emotions are reactions activated by neurotransmitters and hormones released in the body due to external stimuli. Whereas feelings are how the mind interprets or experiences the emotions. Two persons can ‘feel’ the same emotion in different ways. For example, when two employees hear about a change in a specific HR policy, both undergo the basic emotion of surprise, but depending on their beliefs and circumstances, they might have different feelings of curiosity, admiration or even bitterness.
Having gone through these skills in some detail, it is evident that all these skills are inter-related. There may be a need for a mix of these skills in certain situations. But knowing and understanding that these are basic skills expected in all people, makes us realise that everyone does not have all these skills. This helps us to remain open, especially in an office environment.
Eventually, life skills are what they are – they help people take control of their lives, especially in adverse circumstances. Most people, be it entrepreneurs or employees, spend one-third of their adult lives at work. Therefore, having and developing these basic life skills gives everyone a mutual advantage. They not only make their own lives better, but also contribute to the development and well-being of their families, friends and of society.