Why are Soft Skills So Hard? Part I

Nikki Christison, CCRA, TIACT, President, Clinical Resolutions, Inc.

Nikki Christison, CCRA, TIACR, President, Clinical Resolutions, Inc.

In part one of a three-part series, Nikki Christison, CCRA, TIACR, president of Clinical Resolutions, Inc., looks at the ever-growing importance of “soft skills” in the workplace. 

In an industry where we are continually being asked to do more/better/faster, the art of communication is often left by the wayside. Whether we are working in a sponsor or contract research organization (CRO) environment, or at a site interacting with clinical trial patients, we sometimes forget the value of “please” and “thank you” and the basic art of conversation. This is something we learned as children, but we are now so busy that getting to the point seems more important.

Our communication is often reduced to a quick e-mail or text full of acronyms and shortcuts that lack any personal touches. A Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report published last February tells us that “70% of U.S employees are not engaged at work.” In an industry where our actions and decisions can impact an individual’s safety, this is a terrifying fact to consider.

In this series, we will explore the what it means to apply soft skills in our research environments, why this is necessary, and how we can do it to better engage ourselves, our colleagues, and our patients.

We will look at this in three parts; today, let’s talk about this from a CRO or sponsor management perspective. In the next part, we will look at communication and soft skills for clinical research associates (CRAs) and those working in the field with sites, and lastly we will touch on the value of further implementation of these skills in patient recruitment and retention, and how this will improve the overall study experience for all parties.

If you are in the position of managing a team in any capacity, you should know that it is expected that there will be a “stormy” period. This concept was proposed by the social scientist Bruce Tuckman in his breakdown of the stages of team development.

The first stage is “forming,” which is at is sounds—there is general politeness during a grace period of getting to know one another, when people hesitate to make demands on each other, and where individuals are generally not on solid enough footing to assert themselves. Think of this as the kick-off meeting phase and very early study start-up activities; the pressure is on, but there still appears to be plenty of time to meet the timelines.

Next comes the “storming” stage. In this stage, people prioritize their individual needs, they are less polite, and those who are the most assertive may find themselves trying to take over to get things done, while those who are less assertive feel like they are being run over. This is normal—if not much fun—and it will be challenging, but it will happen.

With the application of soft skills, the storming phase may be reduced in length, allowing us to reach the next stages, called “norming” and “performing,” sooner. In the norming stage, we have our hierarchies established either by personality or job function, we know what to do, and we may just be entering the enrollment phase in a clinical research setting at this point.

In the performing stage, people understand their responsibilities and we spend the bulk of time getting the study enrolled, maintained, and completed; however, this stage is when passion and interest may wane, and we may start to fall into that 70% “lack of engagement” category.

Eventually we will be in the “adjourning” phase, when we may feel some loss at the conclusion of a project, but we are moving on at that point.

So how can soft skills help shorten or better manage those stormy periods and engage team members during the norming and performing phases to allow for more interest, engagement, and dedication during a project?

A quick Google search provides a definition of soft skills as “personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmonically with other people.” If we could all do this, would our work lives be different? The challenge is that we often work in a virtual or global environment. Or even if we are in an office environment, we are often siloed by our tasks and impacted schedules.

Companies and teams will often build Intranet forums or use mass e-mail blasts to keep people informed. This may provide some level of information, but again, does not truly engage individuals. A survey completed by Prescient Digital Media in 2013 noted that 31% of employees never use their Intranet. So how can we better interact effectively and harmonically? Consider having more frequent small group touch points to allow individuals to speak up and be heard. This can be accomplished live or virtually.

The argument is that we are already too busy, but consider the cost and effort of turnover and what it takes to bring on new team members. A small, ongoing investment of time may help offset high turnover by bringing in the old-fashioned conversation piece. Use of e-mail is efficient, but we are all very aware of the fact that e-mail may go viral, and we should be wary of writing down any personal comments or expressing feelings or even concerns. A small, informal discussion could proactively identify individual situations in which people are starting to feel dissatisfied, frustrated, or overwhelmed early on and allow for early mitigation strategies.

Additional ideas for implementation of soft skills include:

  1. Recognizing individuals for actual contributions vs. blanket statements.
  2. Acknowledging the value of professionals who continually get their reports in on time. (Yes, getting reports done on time may be part of the job description, but can require herculean efforts during busy periods.
  3. Acknowledging specific comments or contributions during team meetings.
  4. Sending out a “thank you” for a job well done and commenting on specifics (and copying people to provide recognition).

There are many ways we can make people feel valued. Our jobs are not easy, and it is said that in this industry the only constant is change. A little communication can go a long way; if you don’t work with people in an office, my final tip is to just pick up the phone and call them. A short chat can save a lot of frustration and send the message that “you are important” just by the effort being made.

Author: Guest Blogger Nikki Christison, CCRA, TIACR, President, Clinical Resolutions, Inc.