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Soft skills – Maintaining competence at work

Coach Ville Ojanen

Understanding human behavior and the skills required to influence it (the so-called soft skills) have perhaps become even more important than understanding and influencing things. Soft skills are on the rise for many reasons.  

Employees have even higher demands for workplace culture. We want human-friendly environments based on trust, collaboration, and respect. 

Social media has created a whole new level of transparency, authenticity, and honesty requirements. You can no longer work poorly in the shadows while maintaining a good public image. Exceptional customer service is no longer sufficient. Nowadays, employees have begun sharing their experiences on social media. A bad experience can destroy a company’s reputation within 24 hours. 

Management, supervisors, and employees must work together, take care of each other, and maintain the company’s reputation and results. The essential tools are communication, listening, and humanity.

Another megatrend is rising: automatization and robotization. However, humans cannot be replaced. Humans’ hybrid roles, as interpreters between humans and technology, are increasing. Machines create knowledge, solve problems, provide estimates, and manufacture products, but humans collaborate and decide on how to use these machines. Negotiating skills, interaction, and collaboration skills will become more important than ever.

Management professor Lynda Gratton from the London Business Schools sees significant challenges in the development of soft-skills, it is still insufficient. She attributes this to two interlinked reasons. Firstly, we don’t have a very good understanding of how to develop these skills. Secondly, we live in a world where the dominant opinion and human understanding directs us through schools, homes, and workplaces to act under terms set by things – not humans.

Today’s working life challenges us to develop not only ourselves as learners but also our ability to understand and develop people, primarily ourselves. From the perspective of psychological skills and personal growth, the core of soft-skills has four elements:

1. Mentalization – the ability to understand the mental state. Efficient progression with things often requires excluding useless perspectives, emotions, needs, and expectations. Operating on human terms requires an opposite approach. Mentalization means highlighting and discussing experiences.

2. Assertiveness. Presenting and discussing opinions, perspectives and your limits in a clear yet constructive way. It requires awareness of your limits and subconscious reaction models.

3. Ability to take responsibility. Leadership skills are becoming more critical despite our roles or positions. This requires the ability to accept responsibility and take an active role in progressing with the situation, for example, in resolving conflicts. 

4. Curiosity and playfulness. Attitudes towards the relationship to humans and humanity are often too serious and tense. More regularly, the problem is a conflict between the world and our emotions, requirements, and expectations. People who can efficiently and skillfully manage humanity are most likely curious and playful.

This core surrounds with possibilities for developing skills and important ways of acting, for example, communication skills (writing, storytelling, and presenting), self-leadership (focusing skills, resilience, and recovery skills), negotiating, customer service and interview and assessment skills.


Resilience is like a muscle – training it helps me achieve more


End-user Helmi Hämäläinen 

I’m sensitive and vulnerable. Changes and surprises are stressful and take up a lot of my energy. As sensitivity is a personal trait, it affects my natural capacity to act under pressure.

Vulnerability or any other personality trait is an easy excuse: I’m weak, so I can’t handle the stress caused by change. By sprinkling ash on my personality, I merely get an itch.

Personality and temperament affect my reactions when I encounter surprises. However, I can grow my resilience by recognizing my fixated beliefs and ways of thinking.

Stress is a natural way for the brain to react to a potentially risky situation. Stress caused our ancestors to fight instinctively when coming across lions. Nowadays, however, stress is an issue as the things we encounter in our daily lives are not lions.

The ability to act under pressure is not an inborn ability but a learned skill. A resilient person who is persistent, gutsy, and adaptive operates smoothly and efficiently when it comes to stressful changes. Resiliency can be developed by training the seven ways of acting, and growing the so-called change-muscles.

The first change-muscle is positivity. My way of thinking about myself and the surrounding environment positively is, for example, important during work if I feel like I have failed.

I have often stressed after being criticized for my work. The feedback doesn’t even need to be spiteful to make the heart pump and eyes squint. The same reaction helped my ancestors to find the best escape routes. However, failure is no reason to escape work through the back door.

I can’t run, so I start reproaching others and myself in stress. I didn’t focus as I was tired. Furthermore, my boss didn’t help me even though I would have needed it. So I suck, but at least half of it is my boss’s fault.

Resilience training starts with recognizing your own challenges and ways of acting. You can always develop better ways of acting. Changes may be uncontrollable, but your own emotions are not.

I started the week by writing down situations that cause uncertainty and stress. I identified a clear pattern in my internal dialogue. If something failed, I was generally pessimistic about the world.

Once I identify my inner pessimist, I ask and answer some questions. I ask myself if the situation really is as bad as I think? I haven’t failed as a person even if this task was not a success. I’ll ask for help next time. My boss did not help me because she did not know that I needed help.

‘Our brains interpret our experiences. We can mold those experiences to become more positive,’ claims resilience coach and psychologist Ville Ojanen.

The remaining six change muscles affecting resilience appear when I am multitasking and have limited time. Handling all of this requires a systematic approach, managing the overall state, social skills, and proactivity, which are all traits promoting our capacity to act.

The same traits are also used when not at work. You must manage to feed yourself and perhaps others as well, keep your home in order, do laundry, work, not to mention exercising. Fitting all this together is like a giant spider-web.

‘Life molds our brains on a cellular level. The brain is one of the world’s most complex coping systems that adapt to challenging situations,’ states Ville Ojanen.

Developing our brain requires repetition and time. As change itself is already challenging, I want to make it as easy as possible. The best benefit of online trainings is that they are not locked to a specific time or place. The resilience course was effortless as it was divided into five sections. Furthermore, the videos were short enough to stay focused.

Despite the convenience, it’s good to remember that no virtual training can be a treatment for severe stress reactions. Personal development is only possible if you are healthy.

‘At a certain point, it no longer helps just to say that I’ll stop and develop my resiliency. It’s important to know when you need help,’ summarizes Ojanen.


The time management mini-training gave me tools to handle rush


End-user: Antti Pohjonen, Trainer: Ville Ojanen, Finnish Text: Helmi Hämäläinen 5 August 2018

Finalize a project plan, send an offer, make a shopping list, print the slides, and schedule a lunch date with Tero.

Modern life is fragmented and requires adapting to changing situations. Most of the working-age people, students, and even children live in a world where time management is needed. We may get nothing done despite our daily to-do lists.

‘Sometimes I’m in a horrible rush at work, but at the end of the day it feels like I have achieved nothing,’ says consultant Antti Pohjonen.

Pohjonen works in a software company called Siili Solutions. He participated in an online course on time management.

‘I seek out new methods from Academy of Brain’s online courses, to apply them into my own life,’ explains Pohjonen.

The time management Quick Fix gives tips for time-management at work and during free time. The objective is to identify what influences ourselves and plan our day accordingly. Psychologist Ville Ojanen discusses time management from the perspectives of prioritization, scheduling, and circumstances.

‘Time management is like today’s hunting; it’s inevitable for survival,’ states Ojanen.

According to Ojanen, time management is one of the essential skills for getting important things done. The opposite is rushing and the feeling of not having enough time. Good time management skills enable us to have enough time and energy for our tasks.

By participating in the time management training, you will learn to recognize what is important and how to schedule all of the tasks in their calendar. In addition, you will understand how a work environment affects your work.

Not only a means of survival

The objective of the first section in this training is to learn how to prioritize and write down tasks.

‘Things get forgotten if they are not written down.’ According to Pohjonen, the training gave him tools for structuring and scheduling tasks, yet at the same time shortening the to-do list.

Time management begins at stopping and thinking about why we are doing what we are doing. For many, memos and task-lists are a means of survival, a necessity. According to Ojanen, they can be much more than that: they can be used for becoming more efficient.

The second part of the training covers daily planning. Once you have listed and prioritized your tasks, transfer them to a calendar.

‘I was already using note applications along with the most common to-do list in the world – email,’ explains Pohjonen.

Pohjonen now turned his attention to recognizing routines and taking care of them first thing in the morning.

‘I have scheduled an hour each morning to deal with the smallest yet most disruptive tasks on my list.’

According to Ojanen, the morning is a time of awakening. It can be used for tasks requiring interaction and creativity but also for certain unavoidable routines.

‘Dealing with routine tasks each morning gives you energy, and you won’t be weighed down by dull tasks during the day. The end of the day often goes by quickly leaving tasks unfinished.’

Understand when you need to work remotely

In the last part of the training, we learn to identify environmental effects on our activities. Antti Pohjonen works as a consultant where it is common to be suddenly interrupted. According to Pohjonen, the interruptions are sometimes required to avoid being buried under your own thoughts. However, open offices are not always the best environment for tasks that require focus.

‘This training gave me the tools to manage my environment. If my task requires planning or thinking, I try to book a conference room or work remotely.’

Changing one’s habits requires a systematic approach, and it’s easy to fall back to old habits.

‘I have taken a new approach to many things, but sometimes I slip,’ admits Pohjonen.

Slipping from what you have learned does not mean failure. It is an essential part of the change, and it requires repetition.

Self-reflection and sparring with others are excellent ways of adopting new methods.

‘It pays to think about why am I doing something the way I am doing it, and not the way I should be.’ Ojanen says that learning new habits is comparable to a process in nature where a path is slowly covered with fresh grass if it is left unused.

Efficient working methods are part of your professional skills. According to Ville Ojanen, it is good to notice people who are doing something well and simply ask them how they do it.


The ABC of Focusing – Why did I lose focus?


End-user: Helmi Hämäläinen, Trainer: Ville Ojanen

I step to the edge of a shaking springboard. I have been practicing diving for a month to learn a new skill. Committing to something has always been challenging for me as I am not a natural planner. Despite everything, I have been at the pool every week and committed time to learn how to dive. I slept exceptionally well last night and have focused my energy on this goal.

Imagine that you have achieved an important goal. You did a successful somersault or finally saw results after working hard for months at your job. What led you to achieving this personally important goal?

Fragmented working life and continuous change is a great challenge to the brain when we should be focusing on achieving an objective.

‘The ability to focus is the most common brain challenge in working life. It is the most common complaint,’ knows the ABC training psychologist Ville Ojanen.

When I focus, I direct my energy towards important things, so they progress and get done. A healthy brain aims for achievement.

This training breaks concentration down to bare bones. While going through this training, I learned to identify the daily factors impacting my ability to focus. Whether we are talking about diving practice or writing a work e-mail, developing focus starts with setting objectives. Focusing requires a flexible definition of objectives. I want to learn how to dive, but in a rush, I must know how to re-evaluate this objective. Maybe I need to take a different path. At the same time, you must practice systematically. Easier said than done, but good objectives give us energy to move forward.

A good objective clarifies necessary actions. Additionally, it steers us to getting things done and supports us moving on. The objectives of the information age are constantly changing. A good objective is clear, measurable, and achievable but also flexible. According to psychologist Ville Ojanen, unclear goals are even more common than setting objectives that are too big. ‘Significant and important objectives always require collaboration.’ According to Ojanen, achieving an objective requires visible actions and evaluations, which mean discussions and sparring.

Invest time like money

A clear objective is not enough on its own – achieving it also requires resources. Physical recovery – sleep, exercise, and nutrition – is the foundation of concentration. Psycho-social recovery processes like the feeling of achievement and interpersonal relations are also meaningful when we need to keep going. If I have enough energy, I can plan the use of my time. Time can be viewed as an investment. Investing time is different from just using it.

Because we learn new skills by doing, we should plan our actions. Ojanen gave us a tip to plan the next day during the previous evening, and I tried this. It gave my brain free time to prepare for the upcoming tasks: preparation is stress-free, and you can jump right in the next morning. I have also enhanced my time use with to-do lists. It’s ok to postpone some things to the next day.

‘Show some self-compassion. Any planning is more likely to help you than no planning at all,’ says Ojanen.

Procrastinating is a separate matter. Sometimes it’s better to leave an idea to marinate and handle it when ready. However, procrastination is often just an excuse. Smashing chest first into water is just not nice. Pointless procrastination depletes your energy and stresses you until you get the mandatory task done. It’s important to differentiate between procrastination and flexibility. Procrastination costs you energy and leads nowhere, whereas long-term flexibility is a precondition for focusing.

According to Ojanen, efficient time use can be practiced as a cure. ‘I allow myself to drift into chaos before starting to use time management methods. If I repeat this often enough, the skills will become commonplace.’

Identify personality and challenges

People have different habits and methods for time management. However, in the information age, we are all in a similar situation where we are constantly interrupted. Luckily we can also learn to manage interruptions. If I identify an interruption, I can accept the situation and take a time-out. Instead of answering a new e-mail immediately, I can think about the situation I am in. It makes continuing after the interruption easy.

The extent of disturbance caused by interruption links to my personality; it is one of the elements impacting my ability to focus. It’s often thought that some personality traits are either good or bad. While this is not true, personality does affect the challenges I meet when trying to focus.

One of the personality traits affecting my ability to focus is my habit of seeking out interaction. Extroverts may find it hard to concentrate if colleagues are heading out for a coffee. I want to join them! Introverts would stay focused and finish the task but might miss out on some important coffee table discussions. According to Ville Ojanen, people don’t know their personality very well.

‘When a personality trait is highlighted, they recognize themselves easily and can develop their behavior.’

By nature, I’m not skilled at pushing myself, but luckily focusing is also based on motivation.  My brain has trouble focusing on tasks that don’t interest me. I usually get excited about tasks that serve my central values and objectives. I want to learn to dive, as it’s a new skill that would develop my physical ability. I’d stay healthy and live longer.

But what happens if the objective seems boring, like answering e-mails. If I don’t have the inner motivation, can I motivate myself with a reward?

‘Rewards often help us finish simple tasks that we really don’t want to get to. The more complex the task, the worse the rewards work.’ According to Ojanen, in that case, we would be fixated on the carrot, and our abilities deteriorate.

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