Learning Soft Skills at Work: An Interview with Annalee Luhman

By Muir, Clive | Business Communication Quarterly, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Learning Soft Skills at Work: An Interview with Annalee Luhman


Muir, Clive, Business Communication Quarterly


THE INCREASINGLY INTERPERSONAL nature of the workplace has been widely written about. Peter Drucker (1994), for example, in his highly regarded article, "The Age of Social Transformation," eloquently describes how the decline of manufacturing has created a "knowledge worker" class, which he estimated to be a third of the American labor force at the end of the 20th century. The effective knowledge worker works in teams, multitasks, and is a critical and creative thinker. Such a worker must adapt well to social and operational contexts. For managers in such environments, supervision is a social rather than a technical function because subordinates can and must work independently and often remotely, needing little supervision but much coaching, cheerleading, and coaxing.

Henry Mintzberg (1994) goes further. He proposes a revision of the traditional (and highly theoretical) role of managers from performing discrete functions of planning, organizing, communicating, and controlling to a three-level concentric model. The first level is managing by information (acquiring and processing information). In Level 2, managing through people, information is disseminated. In Level 3, managing action, individuals take action desired by the organization. Mintzberg notes that managers must develop effective communication skills that include the ability to scan the environment informally while interacting nonverbally and orally to gather information and to focus on affective aspects of the organization. The process is by no means a linear one, as the traditional model suggests, because managers must be prepared to think creatively and critically to accomplish their goals. Indeed, our understanding of how organizations work has been shaped by the study of communication (social and task) networks overlaid on the "formal" organization. These communication networks are indispensable for diffusion of innovations and for creating inclusive environments, but they can also serve as "leveling coalitions" that resist changes to the status quo.

One term that comes to mind that describes this interpersonal dimension of life at work is soft skills. Soft skills are attitudes and behaviors displayed in interactions among individuals that affect the outcomes of such encounters. These differ from hard skills, which are the technical knowledge and abilities required to perform specific job-related tasks more formally stated in job descriptions. In the past, it was felt that managers and employees did not need soft skills as long as they could do their work, but now even positions in hard, task-oriented areas such as accounting (Cole, 1999) and information systems (Solomon, 2002) require soft skills as well as technical skills.

How do organizations respond to the interpersonal evolution in the workplace? How do they measure the need for soft skills? And how do they design programs that address such needs? To find answers, I turned to Annalee Luhman, Learning and Leadership Manager at the Port of Seattle in Washington. The Port of Seattle, a municipally chartered public company, is divided into three major operating divisions: an Aviation Division that operates Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, a Seaport Division that operates the marine terminals and related maintenance, and an Economic Development Division. The port employs approximately 1,500 employees and budgeted US$318 million for operating revenues in 2003.

Dr. Luhman holds a Ph.D. in speech communication (complex organizations, cross-cultural communication, organizational decision making) with a minor in labor relations and other business courses. Prior to her current position, she was an independent organization development and leadership consultant to a range of industry sectors for 8 years. Her position is located in the Human Resources and Development Department.

As the leadership and learning manager at Port of Seattle, what exactly do you do?

I help ensure that the Port of Seattle's workforce is a high-performing one that has (1) the requisite knowledge, skills, and abilities for the organization to accomplish its current mission and that is (2) appropriately prepared for achieving the port's vision for the future. …

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