Kathy was excited to be promoted to team leader in her software development company. Her team was given an important assignment to develop an app that would support an important product for a client. She has a team of talented software developers, but one member, Chris, was a problem. Chris struggled to communicate with other team members, and tended to be a lone wolf who did not coordinated with the rest of the team. Chris was in many ways Kathy’s best programmer but was her worst team member. The problem is that Chris lacked the soft skills for teamwork that are needed for teams to be effective.
What Are Soft Skills
When we think about the skills for a job, like a computer programmer, we first think about the technical skills needed for completing tasks. For a computer programmer, it would include skills of programming in the language being used, complex problem solving, critical thinking, and web platform development. These skills allow an individual to be effective programmers on their own but are not very helpful when it comes to working with others.
Soft skills include a wide variety of nontechnical skills that can be important for success on the job. Many of them are interpersonal skills that allow us to work well with others one-on-one and in teams. They mainly involve communication and getting along with others. This means being able to get your ideas across clearly, understand the ideas of others, and maintain good working relationships. Often schools are so focused on teaching technical skills, that they neglect teaching soft skills. At my university we hear time and time again from employers of our graduates in technical fields that they lack soft skills.
Soft Skills for Teamwork
Teamwork involves the coordinated efforts of employees who work together to accomplish the same goals, such as developing a computer app. The work needs to be divided up among team members so each person knows which part he or she is doing, and that work needs to be coordinated so the parts will fit together. Disagreements can arise over how the work is to be done, and who is responsible for each part. Problems arise that need to be solved. The most skilled programmer will be ineffective as a team member if he or she lacks soft skills. These include.
- Communication. Effective communication is a two-way street. You must be able to clearly express your ideas, and you need skill in active listening to be able to accurately understand other people’s points of view. You also need to understand when and how to use different communication channels. Sometimes written communication is best to share information, but other times the personal touch is needed. For example, when an issue is personally sensitive, a face-to-face conversation would be more effective than an e-mail. Humor is best saved for face-to-face as it is easy for a humorous or sarcastic comment to be misunderstood.
- Emotional Intelligence. The skill at recognizing and controlling the emotions of others is important in teamwork. For positive emotions, this might mean friendly banter and joking around which can be helpful in dealing with stress. For negative emotions it can mean recognizing during a conversation when someone is getting upset and being able to pivot to avoid creating a problem. Sometimes this means approaching the topic from a different perspective or inviting the person to share their point of view.
- Conflict Management. Differences of opinion will naturally arise within teams. Sometimes those differences become personal as people get annoyed with one another. Conflict management skill means being able to have open discussions without offending someone, and at times intervening when other members of a team look like they are on a collision course.
- Negotiation. Sometimes members of a team have different ideas about how to do something. Being able to negotiate means knowing how to bring people together to compromise so that an acceptable solution can be found. This might mean meeting in the middle, or it might mean letting everyone have a turn at making a choice.
The Challenge of Working in Teams
Teams are necessary because for many complex tasks it takes more than one person. When teams are struggling to coordinate their efforts, one solution is to provide training that can help members learn to work together. This can be at the individual employee level, or it can involve team building that trains an entire team together. Keep in mind that for teams to be effective they need to go beyond technical skills. In other words you need soft skills for teamwork.
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