Soft Skills Revolution: A Guide for Connecting With Compassion for Trainers, Teams, and Leaders, Maxine Kamin. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2013. 235+ xviii pages. S $46.00
Reviewed By: Jerry Mulenburg, PMP
This book provides a clear definition of what “soft skills” are, a detailed description of their relevance, and an understanding of how to develop them in individuals and teams. Although the title states that the primary audience for the book is trainers and teams, the content is equally essential to the third stated group, leaders who want to improve their skills in managing projects, groups, and even companies.
We, of course, all have an idea of what “soft skills” mean but like many terms we use without thinking much about them, each of us most likely has a slightly different understanding of what they really are. The author, Maxine Kamin, solves this dilemma for us with a simple definition of soft skills as, “…interpersonal skills that demonstrate a person’s ability to communicate effectively and build relationships with others” (p. 12). These two things, she says, are most important in dealing with others at work and in our non-work lives, and describes their relevance to “…problem solving, negotiation, and team building” (p. 12). She develops the argument for why they are important, how they evolved, and what it takes to learn them. They are important, she says, because they work.
The material presented “…spans decades of thought, both on a philosophical plane and in activities that promote authentic communication and understanding of others. Philosophy and action are often intertwined, knitting the fabric of life…” (p. 205). As management evolved from command and control to engagement and participation, the role of soft skills evolved from early humanistic applications into critical personal skills in today’s work societies. She mentions McGregor’s theory X and theory Y approach as an example of where philosophy and practice meet.
Each chapter focuses on an aspect of communication and the relationships involved that enhance or prevent good communication through an analysis of specific types of interactions and what can be expected from them. Following each chapter is a “Leaders Connection” section to clarify the content just presented and its application in the real world, followed by probing questions about the concepts involved and concise tips that capture the essence of the chapter. This information is followed by a set of activities to practice the ideas developed in the chapter.
There is little controversy that communication is important, but there is misunderstanding about how to make it effective. The book’s primary goal is to ensure authentic and effective communication that produces clear action, which we can only accomplish by really listening to each other. Listening is important, Kamin says, because, “When we communicate, we are in essence painting a picture in the other person’s mind…to show…graphically what we are seeing in our mind’s eye” (p. 21). She shows how emotions fit into our communications and describes a hidden side of communication based on motives: “Motives are influenced by beliefs, attitudes, opinions, stereotypes, psychological issues, environment, money, influence, power, fame, and core values” (p. 20). Because these personal motives drive behavior, feedback must be created through good listening skills, positive intent, good faith, and trust. By thinking positively and taking positive action Kamin says, “…others pick up your optimism and are likely to respond in the same way” (p. 44). One way to do this, she says, is to show appreciation to others for their contributions which she says, is “the most powerful form of appreciation” (p. 45). Motives can also be barriers to be overcome but, she says that valuing and respecting others breeds respect and trust in return: “People trust leaders whose motives are not self-centered…” (p. 37). This provides reciprocity of trust as a gift willingly given back, often through cooperation. If done well, feedback can prevent conflict, and in some cases, be enhanced by it.
She explains how communication flows through the various channels such as face-to-face and other spoken and written methods to help or impair the communication. She uses the model of a sender encoding and transmitting a message, a receiver decoding it, and the receiver then transmitting a response back to the sender. It is, however, the sender’s responsibility to determine if the appropriate understanding occurred. For effective communication, we must first recognize the types of receivers of our communications. Kamin identifies common receivers as, Light Bulbs, Cynics, Hearts, Spirits, Leaders, Bullies, Sociopaths, and Narcissists, and describes ways to deal with each of them.
Throughout the book the theme is about people connecting with each other as part of a community. She acknowledges that being good at soft skills is difficult. Some see soft skills as being weak, but they are really powerful and provide self-confidence and trust that is successful in working with others: “Being right is often important…That is why listening, a soft skill, is essential” (p. 212)
Because many readers are interested in communication among team members, she highlights the use of soft skills in teams and considers problem-solving a soft skill due to the creativity and insight needed to do it well. Using examples, she explores two primary functions of teams: the effectiveness of getting necessary work done through planning, goal setting, analysis, review, and decision making, and the evaluation and monitoring of the efficiency of the process. She describes the various roles involved in both task and maintenance functions of teams, and includes analysis of some of the negative roles that crop up with suggestions for how to deal with them. The priority here, she says, is “freedom of thought and validation of others. Great team connections spark enthusiasm and creativity. (p. 111).
We all know that personalities can sometimes get in the way of good communication and, because we are driven by our personalities, the book would be incomplete without a discussion of how to understand and deal with various personalities. Kamin does this with clear and concise narrative covering the Meyers-Briggs type-indicators. Understanding the differences we all share and how we and others relate to the world, get our energy, gather information, and make decisions is perhaps one of the most important challenges of teams. If one reads just one chapter of the book, this would be the one not to miss.
Of the many books available on soft skills, Kamin provides a carefully crafted work built on insight into what is effective, when it is needed, and how to put it into use. Significant in this book is a clear description of the appropriate soft skills, how they impact modern organizational work and workers, and how to obtain and improve them.
Jerry Mulenburg, PMP
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Retired)