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Developing people skills in STEM organisations


STEM employees at work

September 6, 2022

I mentioned “soft skills” once, but I think I got away with it.

The very nature of many roles in STEM industries, and perhaps the very nature of many people who work there, is centred on research, facts, logic, number-crunching, evidence, problem-solving and striving for definitive answers.

STEM employees gathered round a desk

While this is the perfect mindset for the functional side of a STEM role, it doesn’t always lead to effective collaboration or cultivating positive working relationships. Because other people aren’t a problem to be solved.

There has always been a need to develop people skills in STEM, but this has been heightened with the increase in remote and hybrid working. Collaboration tools such as Slack, Trello and Teams bring together remote colleagues, but this creates an intense spotlight on people skills, which can cause anxiety for some employees.

This is why so much of our work with STEM organisations focuses on so-called “soft skills” and developing them to achieve hard results.

What are ‘soft’ skills?

Soft skills bring together a wide range of capabilities, all of which help you to build more effective and productive relationships with the people you work with.

STEM employees at work

This can include interpersonal, political and collaborative skills. It’s about using emotional intelligence to understand how to get the most out of your interactions with the people around you – whether as a leader, a colleague or a direct report.

As a side note, the phrase “soft skills” probably isn’t a particularly helpful term in the STEM environment. It has connotations of weakness and “fluffiness” which doesn’t resonate with your average techie. We’ll explore this a bit more later on.

Why soft skills are important in STEM

Google logo

In 2002 Google’s founders questioned whether they really needed managers. So they structured Google as an entirely flat organisation. This experiment didn’t last long – they quickly realised the need for people management skills in many aspects of their business, such as communication, prioritisation, collaboration and career development.

But there was still a desire to understand and rationalise softer, management skills in a more ‘Google’ way. So, in 2008, they embarked on Project Oxygen. Its aim was to identify the most important traits of a Google managers – and whether their traditional recruitment of people based on STEM skills was the right approach.

The project’s results were a surprise. Eight “ideal” manager attributes were identified, and STEM skills ranked at the bottom of the list.

Google repeated the research in 2018 and discovered that the qualities of their best managers had evolved as their company and the wider world had changed. This time they identified 10 behaviours, which are still the focus of their management development programmes today

The best Google manager …

  1. Is a good coach.
  2. Empowers their team and does not micromanage.
  3. Creates and inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and wellbeing.
  4. Is productive and results-orientated.
  5. Is a good communicator – listens and shares information.
  6. Supports career development and discusses performance.
  7. Has a clear vision/strategy for the team.
  8. Has key technical skills to help advise the team.
  9. Collaborates across Google.
  10. Is a strong decision maker.

Read more about Project Oxygen.

Isn’t this all namby-pamby mumbo-jumbo?

No. In fact, many people in STEM roles will already be highly skilled in this area. Newer graduates, for example, will probably have been brought up in an education system which encourages emotional intelligence. Think friendship benches in school playgrounds and working together to achieve DofE awards.

Buddy bench

However, there will inevitably still be a number of people who feel that soft skills lack value in a technical environment. That they are a pseudo-science and of minimal tangible value. The problems caused by this outlook can be exacerbated when these people are in leadership roles.

The 2018 Project Oxygen results didn’t just list the skills an excellent manager should have. They also demonstrated a measurable link between managers who score highly in these behaviours and the teams’ attrition rates, satisfaction and performance.

The higher a manager scored the more likely their team members would stay at Google, give high scores for satisfaction and perform well. Since learning from Project Oxygen, Google has seen statistically significant improvements across managerial effectiveness and performance.

How to convince your people that soft skills are important

Don’t call them soft skills!

First and foremost, consider using a different term than “soft skills”. “Soft” can have negative or childish connotations. Plus, it doesn’t have the “does what it says on the tin” approach that your team might appreciate.

Consider alternatives such as “people skills”, “management skills”, “interpersonal skills” or “emotional skills”.

Focus on evidence-based approaches

Google’s Project Oxygen has given them empirical evidence that developing soft skills in their managers improves the performance of their business. In a STEM organisations, having that data-driven approach, will naturally appeal to your people and increase engagement.

For example, we often start with Insights Discovery training, which is a proven, evidence-based model for analysing personality traits and preferences. Explaining the science behind this enables us to get buy-in from even the most sceptical participant.

Insights Discovery color wheel Our colour wheel is a useful tool when explaining the science behind Insights Discovery.

Emphasise the benefits to them

Consider the problems experienced by team members who don’t have strong people skills. Do they lack the confidence to speak up? Have trouble influencing others? Feel alone in the workplace? Struggle to progress through the organisation? People skills are often the key to unlocking these problems.

It’s also important to point out that these skills are highly transferrable between different roles and organisations – they are true life skills.

Developing relationship skills at SPSE

SPSE logo

A great example of the direct benefits of enhancing soft skills came from our work with SPSE.

They had a team of Technical Consultants who performed excellently from a functional perspective, but struggled to form the deeper client relationships which would move to “trusted advisor” status.

We ran a series of events for SPSE which used science-based approaches to develop their self-awareness and understanding of how to better engage with their clients.

As a result, they saw improved relationships with clients, leading to an increase in the team’s confidence and more fruitful negotiations.

Read more about our work with SPSE.

Find the right people skills development strategy

We work with organisations across STEM industries to develop soft skills that bring hard results. Read more about our work with Ericsson and CGG.

For introductory discussion about how we might be able to support your people, call us on 01444 702 701.

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