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The Importance Of Soft Skills

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017


I said yesterday that we would take a look at the skills needed to succeed in today’s workplace and, more importantly, in the future.

You probably read Yonatan Zunger’s response to James Damore’s manifesto.

One of Damore’s arguments focused on the worthlessness of so-called “soft skills” in a tech company.

Zunger was emphatic in his disagreement.

Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers.

If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. Solitary work is something that only happens at the most junior levels…

Long ago tech more or less mastered the continued iterating of software and hardware, but when it comes to wetware not so much.

It’s soft skills that are crucial to when dealing with wetware, AKA, people.

Business Insider listed 16 skills that would pay off forever; the list was drawn from the responses to a question posted on Quora.

Empathy topped the list.

Empathy is the most important skill for understanding, relating, leading/managing and innovating.

These days, tech is enamored with life hacks and athleticism is all the rage.

Too bad more time isn’t spent developing and exercising what David Kelley, one of the founders of Stanford’s D School, calls the empathy muscle.

Image credit: Sean MacEntee

Miki’s rules to Live By: Mastering Your Spoken Word

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

https://www.flickr.com/photos/scottchene/7330424504/Words are incredibly powerful.

If you’ve ever doubted that the recent election is absolute proof.

Words reflect who you are.

Words can bring people together or drive them apart.

Words can wound or empathize; they can build or destroy.

You are the only person responsible for your words, there is no way to pass the blame for things you say — or don’t say.

Knowing that, I kept these Anon quotes foremost in my mind, until they became unconscious habit.

The first

Be quicker of mind than of tongue.

leads directly to the second

I am the master of my unspoken words and a slave to those that should have remained unspoken.

There is a third, that is far less eloquent, but sums things up nicely.

Be sure to start brain before putting mouth in gear.

Image credit: TRF_Mr_Hyde

If the Shoe Fits: the Empathy of Jack Dorsey

Friday, October 14th, 2016

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mA few weeks ago I wrote about three ways to close a company — the right way, the wrong way and the (allegedly) crooked way — and years ago referenced Guy Kawasaki’s guide to laying people off.

The common thread that runs through them, both the to-do and not-to-do, is the need for honesty with employees and the speed with which rumors will spread and kill moral.

A year ago Twitter laid off over 300 people — most by by email, but some by more of a lockout.

We’re hearing that at least a handful of employees who weren’t remote also woke up to seeing that they were laid off via the fact that their emails and Hipchat, a messaging product, had been turned off overnight.

These days, continuing rumors of more layoffs to come, combined with chaotic reports that the company may be sold, has sent morale spiraling downward at an alarming rate.

Rank-and-file staff members are frustrated about being in the dark on the company’s future, and a handful of employees have stopped showing up for work entirely, several insiders said.

Dorsey’s response to the turmoil is garbage.

“I empathize with the feelings that come from the constant critique, the constant negativity, and the constant doubt.”

There is no way a guy worth more than a billion dollars can put himself in the shoes of someone who depends on their paycheck to feed their kids and pay the mortgage/rent.

And that lack of empathy shines clearly through the rest of his comment.

“But hey, that’s life in the arena. All we control is how we choose to react to it.”

I sincerely hope that his global workforce is choosing to update their resumes and react with their feet.

Image credit: HikingArtist

The Empathy Muscle

Monday, January 6th, 2014


There was a time, and still is to millions, when “design” meant looking pretty—or not.

Design certainly didn’t refer to finding solutions to life’s real problems.

Of course, first you have to identify the problems, which isn’t done 140 characters at a time.

You won’t find them with Google and there’s no app for that.

Identifying real-world problems requires actually talking (gasp) to people—and real world experience doesn’t hurt.

This may be why senior entrepreneurs are on the rise, since it means communicating with empathy and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Empathy seems to be in short supply the younger you go, but it can be taught and where else but at D.school—the top design school.

At the heart of the school’s courses is developing what David Kelley, one of the school’s founders, calls an empathy muscle. … the students are taught to forgo computer screens and spreadsheets and focus on people.

So far, that process has worked. In the eight years since the design school opened, students have churned out dozens of innovative products and start-ups. They have developed original ways to tackle infant mortality, unreliable electricity and malnutrition in the third world, as well as clubfoot, a common congenital deformity that twists a baby’s feet inward and down. (…)

Mr. Kothari also said his plans took a new path. Before he took his first D.school course in 2008, he said, he spent most of his spare time in front of a computer, brainstorming ideas for websites and mobile apps that never materialized. Design was always an afterthought. But he says that first ramen assignment became the prelude to a revolutionary new way of solving problems by spending time with people to understand how they live their lives.

Empathy muscle.

I like that.

Too bad the teaching is limited to design and only at one school.

It’s definitely a muscle that is lacking in many of the under-25 crowd and badly atrophied in much of the rest of the population.

Flickr image credit: Arya Ziai

Ducks in a Row: Empathy

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

http://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/8043812614/Last week I told you about the second best manager I’ve known; second best because he had everything except empathy.

I realized after that I wrote abut him previously when discussing how to create Good Culture in a Toxic Environment.

“Ray” was amazing. He had all the skills and insights that Craig had, but added a dimension that was grounded in empathy.

Like Craig, he worked hard to help all his people succeed, but his vibe was warm and caring.

He was always willing to listen, whether the problem was work-relate or not. He knew when people needed help finding a solution and when they just needed to vent.

His concern extended beyond their time in his organization, so that he remained a trusted advisor or occasional source of advice throughout their careers.

In fact, he turned down an opportunity in a startup that required relocation and would have made him a multi-millionaire, because of concerns of what would happen to his people when he wasn’t there to shield them from the brunt of the company’s toxic culture.

When he did change jobs locally he was followed by an unending stream of resumes from people who wanted to work for him again.

The difference between Ray and Craig may be summed up in the word empathy.

Empathy is defined as “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”

Whereas Craig couldn’t identify with or experience anything beyond his own actual world, Ray could do both, with a feel even for those with backgrounds so different they had no connection to anything he knew.

Ray’s empathy was grounded in the fact that they were both human and that was all he required to connect and care.

Flickr image credit: Quinn Dombrowski

Leadership’s Future: The Need For Empathy

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

Not long ago a friend was at a high school basketball game; the home team, from a wealthy community, was losing to the visiting inner city team. My friend was horrified to hear the home team students start chanting “We don’t care, we won’t fuss, someday you will work for us!”

He was even more aghast when he realized that many of the parents were joining in.

That’s why some schools are working to change kids’ MAP (mindset, attitude, philosophy™) by finding ways to teach empathy; programs such as Second Step and Roots of Empathy seem to be working in the schools using them.

Empathy is especially important for those kids from wealthy areas whose parents often have (hopefully) unconscious, elitist MAP.

But it’s hard to empathize with things you’ve never experienced.

Neither adults nor kids can understand hunger if they’ve always been able to eat when they feel like it.

It’s not just feeling hungry, cold, wet, etc. that creates empathy; it’s enduring them beyond where it’s comfortable that allows people to get some idea of what millions face every day.

Few adults like venturing outside their comfort zone and kids like it even less, but learning empathy requires discomfort. Go ahead, you’ll survive—I promise.

Please take a few minutes to read the article and think about your own level of empathy and the levels of those around you—at home, at work and elsewhere.

Then think about what you can do to increase empathy in your little corner of the world. Perhaps then we can replace one e-word, entitlement with another, empathy.

If everybody does that the whole world really will change.

Your comments—priceless

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