Interpersonal skills could be key to career advancement

In a high-tech workplace, it is a person’s high-touch skills that set one apart from their peers.

By Diane Dierking

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I once took a class to help me improve my presentation skills. Something the instructor said has stuck with me in the years since: In a high-tech workplace, it is a person’s high-touch skills that set one apart from their peers.

Perhaps you’ve recently had your annual performance review, or are about to do so. Which skills or core competencies is your review based on? You might find the scales tipped toward soft skills, or high-touch, rather than technical. However, it can be difficult to not only evaluate an employee’s aptitude in interpersonal skills, but to measure any benefits to the company.

Your annual performance could be evaluated based on any number of competencies that might include problem solving, safety, meeting deadlines, customer focus, teamwork, leadership and possibly attitude. Those in sales roles might also be judged on their ability to close a deal, whereas managers are likely held accountable for staying within budget and developing their direct reports.

Obviously, you won’t succeed in a technical organization if your technical skills aren’t up to par. But what sets you apart from, and hopefully above, others? In many cases, it’s your interpersonal, or soft, skills.
The performance of PPG Industries’ employees is based on a set of success factors: a comprehensive internal competency model, says Allan Foss, manager of leadership development, learning and development for PPG, Pittsburgh.

When asked why soft skills are important in a technical organization, Foss says, “Everything we do involves people. Innovation and creativity are created through interaction with others. That’s why we put a premium on interpersonal skills.”

At PPG, employees’ soft skills are evaluated as part of a success factor, such as teamwork.
“Teamwork might involve communications and conflict-resolution skills, as well as the ability to work in a diverse, cross-cultural environment,” Foss says. “Each of these aspects is very important.”

Foss says the expected behaviors for each success factor at various levels in the organization are communicated to employees so everyone knows which skills he or she needs to develop to successfully move from one role to another. PPG offers both internal and external training classes, as well as Web-based E-learning courses, to help employees improve their aptitude and help them advance.

Aside from giving everyone a warm, fuzzy feeling, why should you work on your soft skills? And why should your company invest the time and money?

Karl Corbett, president of Sasha Corp., Cincinnati, says, “Soft skills are absolutely critical if you want a stable workforce.”

Corbett’s firm offers team and executive coaching that focuses on improving soft skills, although he started out training employees and front-line supervisors to help companies improve employee-retention rates.

Corbett says line employees aren’t motivated by their career path or salary (ranked No. 6). Instead, he says having a good boss and being recognized for a job well done, both related to excellent soft skills, rank higher as motivators.

When leaders are trained to excel at communicating, listening, motivating direct reports, and dealing with nonproductive behavior, Corbett says it’s not unusual for companies to reduce turnover by 20%; one client even managed to cut turnover by 80%. While not providing specifics, Foss says PPG’s turnover rates are as good, if not better, than those of other companies with which it competes for talent.
I asked some engineers whether they thought soft skills were important in a technical workplace. One engineer concedes that soft skills are critical to function in a technical role, whereas another says, “Soft skills are not as important in a technical role as technical expertise as long as you have management or business support who are really good interpreters.” But it’s not to anyone’s advantage to rely on someone else to communicate a problem or idea to others.

Another engineer says, “This subject should be a no-brainer, and it’s unfortunate that it isn’t. Managers are sometimes selected only for their technical skills and are lacking in interpersonal skills.”

No-brainer, or not, we have to communicate with others every day, so don’t let your interpersonal skills take a back seat. You might find it makes all the difference at your next review.
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