How to help someone catch up on the soft skills he should have picked up growing up?
April 22, 2012 10:17 AM   Subscribe

What can help someone learn the 'soft skills' of successful employment? I have a friend who is constantly putting up barriers to his own success, and i think that it might just be a matter of recognizing what he's doing and what to do differently.

The barriers he puts up are really self defeating - ie. not completing tasks at all because the deadline is undefined; constantly giving excuses for gaps rather than promising to fill them ("i didn't do it cause i was busy with xyz personal things" rather than "sorry i'll do that right away"). He applies for jobs he's overqualified for because he doesn't know how to sell himself. He pushes on little things (dress codes etc) because he's technically "right", rather than picking his battles.

I don't think he even knows that these are problems or recognizes that these are things that are holding him back. In his personal life, he's a cooperative, intelligent and trustworthy guy. He's smart but has spent his life in unskilled or dead-end jobs, and he's floundering in those.

For those of you who have read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, I see a lot of commonalities between this friend and the unsuccessful genius he profiles - lots of intelligence and a good person, but without the skills on how to deal with authority or how to navigate systems/bureaucracies/management to succeed in a conventional way. He wants to succeed in that conventional way.

So, my question: what are the books or courses (etc) that teach this stuff? The 'how to succeed at work' type books, that aren't targeted exclusively for executives or white collar professionals?
posted by Kololo to Work & Money (8 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps Working with Emotional Intelligence and/or The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People would be good starting points for your friend.

It sounds like he has a lot of ground to cover -- I would suggest identifying one change to make, starting with that, and then once he feels like that is "wired in", select a different change. No one changes overnight and if you try to change too many things at once, you might not make much progress.

Also, he should be aware of the "Four stages of competence" -- sounds like right now he is mostly "unconsciously incompetent". Moving into conscious incompetence can be hard -- but it is necessary in order to change.
posted by elmay at 11:05 AM on April 22, 2012

I, a number of years ago, was sent to a Dale Carnegie course by an employer. The reason I was sent there (I think...) was to learn the type of stuff your friend is struggling with, or to better understand it. Whether it was an appropriate solution to the particular issues I was having or not aside, it seemed to be very beneficial to those who understood why they were there, wanted to be there and had a good understanding of what the final goal was. Some people had some real breakthroughs.

Even if it doesn't change his life, there is some really good stuff in there on salesmanship, working with people and time management. I do go back to the material from time-to-time for reminders on how to handle some business relationship situations.
posted by chiefthe at 12:24 PM on April 22, 2012

Oh, and I should note, that the material is not only for white-collar types. My father was sent to one of these courses (guess it runs in the family...) many more years ago when he was doing small engine repair and had to deal with customers on a regular basis.
posted by chiefthe at 12:26 PM on April 22, 2012

A while ago, this book: How to be Useful, A Beginner's Guide to Not Hating Work, was mentioned here. I believe there's a fairly extensive preview so you can skim and see if you think it would help him.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:19 PM on April 22, 2012

What he really needs to hear is that this stuff is important, from someone whose opinion he respects. It sounds like he already knows the "what" to do, just not the "why" you do it. I know he doesn't yet have a professional job, but this book may come in handy - Effective Immediately: How To Fit In, Stand Out, and Move Up at Your First Real Job. The related books from Amazon may also be useful.

But the key thing really is going to be hearing this out loud and in person from someone in authority (not necessarily business authority - someone he identifies as an authority.) You might want to show him this Mike Rowe Ted talk, for instance. But it totally, totally depends on who he admires, what kinds of work he thinks are "real," what motivates him, etc.

Some people hear this kind of thing (and "get it" for the first time) from a church leader, from the boss who's firing them, from a buddy who has a real job and is explaining over drinks why it is that he always has the cash to do what he wants, from their AA sponsor. Whoever they're willing to listen to. I learned it from my parents when they took me to work with them, and demonstrated how to respond to your boss, your customers, etc. (and that they weren't exempt from these bizarre rules of behavior, any more than they could just throw a tantrum in a store and get what they want like the world revolves around them.)

So your first question shouldn't be "where are the books and classes" but rather "what will get through to this guy in particular." And that's probably not going to be answerable by MetaFilter without a lot more info. :)
posted by SMPA at 2:16 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: SMPA, i have no idea what will get through to this guy in particular! None. And that really is the most important thing. (I feel like coaching and practice and ongoing mentoring might be useful, but i don't know who would provide that kind of thing.) I don't know what kind of additional info would help you (or anyone else) give me that advice. If you can tell me what kind of info would be helpful, i will provide it!
posted by Kololo at 3:26 PM on April 22, 2012

Here's some of the info that would help: What does he do or say when you call him out / disagree with his self-defeating choices? Have you always just nodded and felt awkward about it, or have you actually told him that you think he's hurting himself in these specific cases?

Some things that can be persuasive for different kinds of people:
- intellectual arguments for the effectiveness of soft-skills-type interactions. "Even if you're right, it's better to have a small flaw in the project, rather than jeopardize all future projects by alienating the team."
- specifically pointing out things that you think are weird. He might just not know that X seems unprofessional to other people.
- close coaching to help him not under-sell his own skills; this is things like having long conversations about what he's done and what his skills are, so that he understands that, yes, he HAS "independently driven multi-departmental projects to completion" and "lowered parts cost 20% by researching alternative vendors". And in turn, that he is qualified to do those things elsewhere.
posted by Lady Li at 5:52 PM on April 22, 2012

When I was younger, I was this guy. I had already received pep talks as SMPA describes, but y'know what really made the necessary impact on me? When I was 20 years old, at the urging of my then-flame, in college, I read a book that changed my life, my working life. Because up until then, I didn't give a shit; any job I managed to acquire, I was the fuck-up who didn't last long.

This book taught me that work was okay, that pride in a job well done was not only possible, but a good thing. I know, I know, a message my parents, teachers, Boy Scout leaders (and even Cool Hand Luke) had been trying to hammer home, that you'll get out of something what you put in to it; but I hadn't been receptive to that message. Finally, I got it.

I know this won't sit well with a lot of MeFites, but the book was Atlas Shrugged. Many think of this tome as a poorly-written Libertarian Manifesto, but it's also a tribute to work as well as a fascinatingly-accurate description of a possible (and ever-more-recognizable) American Apocalypse. For more info see "The Joy of Work" section of James Fallows' essay on Ayn Rand.
posted by Rash at 11:22 AM on April 23, 2012

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