The hidden truth of soft skills: make them work for you

I will focus on how to make your workplace safe for every team member, as well as how to give proper feedback to your teammates, amongst other key aspects.

When I am looking for a job I am usually checking list of required hard skills: programming language, framework, tools etc. But there is usually a list of soft skills required for a job, for a successful candidate to be preselected for an on-site interview amongst all candidates. Whether you apply to a lead, or a developer position, there are certain skills required to become a good team player in a certain team.

Every team has its own culture and skills required. For example in a Scrum team one of the most important sprint team activities is a Sprint Retrospective, wherein the development team looks retrospectively into their processes through the entire sprint. The goal of this meeting is to be honest about what went well or whether the team needs improvements, to define action points, and to listen to different opinions. The sprint retrospective should provide a safe environment for each team member to express their opinions. No one should be blamed, yet, everyone should be honest. In order to establish such a safe environment, the team should know how to handle difficult conversations, and how to interact with each other. These are exactly the soft skills which every team member should have or be trained for. This is but just one example, in reality there is a lot more to learn and be aware of.

Soft skills needed for a Team Member and a Team Leader

Hard skills are the skills we can learn at school, university, or at work; they are connected to our daily tasks as software developers.

Soft skills, on the contrary, are skills which help us to communicate with other people, resolve issues at work, measure and evaluate deeds of other people, etc. Fortunately, we can also learn soft skills, attend a dedicated training or practice at work.

Before writing this article I searched for which soft skills should Team/Tech Lead and Team Member have.

Soft skills for a Team/Tech Leader:

  • ability to establish trust
  • communication
  • decision-making
  • problem-solving
  • Business Focus
  • Ability to Give Context
  • Ability to Hire and Motivate
  • The Ability to Keep Calm and Execute
  • Influence
  • Protective Instincts
  • The Ability to Recognize Your Own Weaknesses

Soft skills for a Team Member:

  • communication
  • collaboration
  • ability to learn
  • creativity
  • accountability
  • adaptability and flexibility

These are all important soft skills. For sure, it would be a great benefit to develop all of them and constantly improve on your weak ones. But how to do it? I heard from some people that they don't make mistakes, or worse, they can't afford to make any mistakes because their team or management will blame them for it. This is one of the biggest mistakes, as we can only learn when we try to apply techniques, and learn from our mistakes.

Which soft skills are the most important

For every team member and for a team leader is important to learn:

  • your own values
  • vulnerability and trust
  • shame resistance
  • how to create a safe environment at work
  • how to handle difficult conversations
  • how to give radically candid feedback

Weather you are a team member or a team leader, these skills will be beneficial. As a lead you could also prepare workshops for a team or share your experience with colleagues to help your team to understand each other.

Where to start

The first step is to think what matter for you the most.

Take a look into list of values:

  • Authenticity
  • Ambition
  • Collaboration
  • Courage
  • Curiosity
  • Diversity
  • Family
  • Friendship
  • Honesty
  • Kindness
  • Openness
  • Patience
  • Respect
  • Safety
  • Simplicity
  • Teamwork
  • Truth, etc

Full list can be found on the internet, for example:

Select two main core values from the list. Of course, it would be a challenge to select only two, but it's even harder to keep them. The more you pre-select from the list, trying to fit a picture in your mind, the harder it will be to keep these values. Two core personal values will be your guide in personal life and at work.

You can also setup a "Core Values" workshop to understand your teammates more. Each member should define his/her two core values and then share them with others. After this exercise every team member can say (or write) a few nice words of appreciation to build stronger connections between all participants.

Depending on the core values, the words of appreciation will also be different. Let me explain this statement. Every person understands appreciation differently. There are 5 languages of appreciation:

  • Words of affirmation - some people love praise for accomplishments, for doing a great job, for their personality, their skills etc.
  • Quality time - some people prefer spending time with others, as an act of appreciation. For example, get invited to have lunch together or have a small talk during break, be invited to a team event etc.
  • Acts of service - some people would feel more valued and appreciated if you would offer to help them with something, but make sure you will do it their way and when they are comfortable with help.
  • Physical touch - some people like to be hugged or get a handshake as an indicator that their job is well done.
  • Tangible gifts - some people would love to get a gift, which will show them that their time spent for this project or dedicated to this team is valuable and in return they have some nice reminder of it. Free time can also be a nice gift.

I believe that looking at people's core values, you can identify which language of appreciation a person expect from others. This research will help to build up good relationships with your team members.

Vulnerability and boundaries

By Brene Brown, a Vulnerability is

The emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. It’s having the courage to show up, fully engage, and be seen when you can’t control the outcome. Vulnerability minus boundaries is not vulnerability.

To build trust and connections with your team members, you should be open and show real yourself to your teammates. First of all we have to be honest and vulnerable, not to build walls between our personal life and work. But at the same time we have to set boundaries before we share anything with our colleagues.

There are multiple techniques how to define boundaries:

  • "Start Slow": first get to know the people you work with, earn trust points, listen what information they share with you, do not share any personal information they tell you with others.
  • Think what would you like to share, do not overshare if you do not want anyone to know about it.
  • Share only to a certain level you defined for yourself.

Shame resistance and safe environment at work

One of the biggest problems of every team member is a shield which was built a long time ago to protect them from a possibly dangerous environment at work. This goes along with thinking "Am I good enough? Did I do my job well?"

Everyone does mistakes, but not everyone reacts correctly on their mistakes. Imagine that you said something bad to your colleague, accused him of not finishing his task, but a few days later you find out that it was not even his fault, as he was blocked by an unrelated task. You feel ashamed of what you did, but instead of coming to your colleague to apologize, you are looking for excuses as to why you did what you did. In the end you have a very heated conversation with him making it even worse. You feel even more guilty, and it continues. Instead of trying to protect yourself from shame you could come to your colleague and explain the situation, apologize and earn more trust points in his eyes. This would be an ideal solution if you could learn how to resist your shame.

The best advice when you have a heated argument, or you feel guilty or ashamed of something is to take a break, take a few deep breaths, try to relax and analyze the situation from different angles. There is one more powerful tool Rumble through your argument.

Feedback sessions

Feedback is also important to build trust and improve your team. It's really hard to give honest feedback and at the same time do not harm person's feelings.

I highly recommend reading Radical Candor, a book by Kim Scott, to learn more about this topic and start practicing Radically candid feedback (maybe not with your boss while you are still learning). To give proper feedback to anyone and not to hurt their feelings, you should care personally and challenge directly. This means that your feedback should show your good intentions to the person you are addressing, preventing that person from taking a defensive attitude towards you and then provide clear explanations of what went wrong, what can be improved and why. The book I mentioned above has a lot of examples, which will help you understand which behaviour can help people to learn something and which will ruin your relationships.

Used sources and books to read

  1. "Dare to Lead" by Brene Brown
  2. "The Culture Code" by Daniel Coyle
  3. "Radical Candor" by Kim Scott
  4. "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High" by Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny, and Ron McMillan
  5. "The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace" by Gary Chapman and Paul White
  6. Constructive Feedback in Difficult Conversations
  7. Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash
  8. 9 Boundaries You Need With Your Friends At Work, According To Experts