This part focuses on my takeaways from a book “Soft Skills for Hard People: A Practical Guide to Emotional Intelligence for Rational Leaders” by Helena Kim, PhD.

My reason to read it

This is a second book I picked about Soft Skills. Unlike the previous book, which was for everyone, this one is focused on leading people. How do you make sure you are not micromanaging them, that they want to discuss work with you and work better as a team.

My key takeaways

The most important, this is not about you. Give people freedom to make decisions, ask questions about their approach which will help them understand the problem better. Be there for them and show them that you want to understand how they feel, what they want to do. I will be honest in terms of freedom, I’m not 100% sure how it can work in software engineering. We often do brainstorming as a team to come up with good design and making sure we considered different options, what pros and cons they have. People regularly ask me for help when they get stuck or when they want to know my opinion. I’m aware, that asking good questions will make people understand why something doesn’t work, but often you want to show them what is causing a bug. It’s a very good advice with people who want to own a solution, making sure they can drive the work and enable them to grow. I like freedom and being able to influence the direction, so being a leader who let other people shine and feel proud of their work is my goal. I still like teaching others though, so I will have to think how both can fit in.

The author shared 3 conversation killers.
First is hijacking when the conversation is about one person in a group and we make it about us. This can also apply when we try to show that we commiserate with them because we have had some similar experience. But it changes the discussion to me, me, me. It may happen as well when apologising. The book has few examples of conversations I found useful to see it, I’m not sure how easily I can spot this behaviour, but it sounds like a good thing to eliminate.

Projecting, trying to understand other’s situation through our own lens and experiences. Saying things like “If I were you…” means projection. Even if you are standing in the same place, you walked different paths in life to it. You can ask them questions about their situation instead.

Unsolicited advice, this one I never liked when it happened to me, so I was avoiding doing it to others. I’m glad to know it’s annoying for everyone. If there is no time to change, keep the advice to yourself. Questions to consider: “Did they ask for my advice?”, “How does what I want to say add value to this person/situation?”, “Am I trying to impress them?”, “How do I phrase my advice so it does not shame, demoralize, or impose?”.

As a leader you want to empower them and not show how great you are.

In some situations you have to step in, when there is urgency, employee is not yet fully trained or when team is just forming and/or new team members need you to provide structure and guidance.

Conflict is not all bad. People have different opinions, there is no growth without friction. Embracing conflict shows others that you are not afraid to face it.

Complaining is fine, if it comes with proactive suggestions, solutions, and invitation for discussion. It’s better to let people complain, so they don’t hold it inside until it becomes toxic.

Anger is a result of other negative emotions, the author called it a tip of the Iceberg. “When someone is angry, it’s a sure sign that one or more of their important needs is not being met.”. You can use anger constructively, it can take a form of passion, fervor and excitement. Address it early before it explodes and causes a lot of damage.

Four stages of team development are forming, storming, norming and performing. Every time there is a team change, someone joins or someone leaves you go through this cycle again. The storming is when there is a conflict and it’s important to embrace it, so the team learns how to work together and not hide problems, as it will come back again.

Something what I’m not sure about is the clean boundaries. The author recommends to not use work for satisfying social needs. I’ve made a lot of friendships at work and the advice, if I understood correctly is to not be friends, as then emotion will affect the work. We spend a lot of time at work, so making friends was something natural to me. And it’s easier with people I already spend a lot of time in a team. But I can see how as a leader you want to help people and be fair for everyone without special treatment for friends.

Chapter which I really enjoyed was about moving questions. It gave a lot of examples showing where “Why questions” are not good. I haven’t thought before about unsolicited advice being hidden inside a Why question, so it’s something I will avoid now. There was a lot of examples of questions which let other people to use their creativity and think about different angles of the problem. We have to make sure we mostly use open-ended questions. Some closed-ended questions can work too, if they make other people think about the problem more, e.g. “Do you have some ideas how to make it better?”.

Parting thoughts

This is another book I’ve read about Soft Skills and I’m glad I did. It focused on different things and I found there a lot of useful ideas how to lead a team. This is not about you, focus on other people, listen, ask moving questions, while they are thinking about a solution they want to implement. If you want to lead others go and read “Soft Skills for Hard People: A Practical Guide to Emotional Intelligence for Rational Leaders”.