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Building values and sound human relations skills in public service By Dr. Akintola, Benson Oke

Dr. Akintola Benson-Oke

Famous Roman statesman, orator, and writer, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BC), who established a model for Latin prose, once affirmed that: “The welfare of the people is the ultimate law.” Really, any government that denies the truism of this assertion does so at its own peril. Similarly, employers who deny this run the undeniable risk of ruining their enterprise and the trust and devotion of their employees.

It is in line with Cicero’s wise assertion that governments across the world go to great lengths to build the capacity of their workforce so that they in return could see to the welfare of the citizenry. This explains why, for instance, the Lagos state government under the leadership of Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode has continued to invest massively in the training and retraining of members of the state’s public service.

Like every other public service across the world, the Lagos State Public Service is desirable of having officers with two skills sets: ‘hard skills’ and ‘soft skills.’ As we all know, ‘hard skills’ are the specific, teachable abilities that can be defined and measured, such as typing, writing, doing math, reading and the ability to use software applications/programs. By contrast, soft skills are less tangible, harder to quantify, challenging to teach and, sometimes, difficult to describe. Soft skills include attributes such as sterling personal values, etiquette, getting along with others, listening and engaging in small talk, among others.

These skills are related to the concept of ‘Employability’. ‘Employability’ is the greatest attribute any candidate for employment can aspire to meet. It refers to the ability to transfer the knowledge embodied in the hard skills into application. In order to do this, hard skills must be supplemented by soft skills because, ‘soft skills’ are those personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people to make relationships and ventures harmonious and productive.

For a long time, many have been excluded from employment or dismissed from their jobs because of non-possession of soft skills deemed relevant to the job or employment. This has always been the outcome of the non-possession of soft skills because it was considered impossible to learn soft skills. Now, the good news is that, like any skill, soft skills can be learned and acquired.  Wait a minute, there is even better news which is that boosting your soft skills not only gives you a leg up on a new job or a promotion, but these skills also have obvious applications in all areas of a person’s life, both professional and personal and ultimately contribute to the efficiency and effectiveness of your organisation.

Public servants and, indeed those in the private sector, will attain better performance heights if they possess good communication skills. This doesn’t mean they have to be brilliant orators or writers. It does mean they have to express themselves well, be it in writing, persuading others with a presentation or just being able to calmly explain to a team member what is needed.

Clearly, the possession and practice of vital interpersonal values and human relations skills is an art that is not taught in Universities and other formal Schools. While reporting the outcome of a survey of more than 2,000 businesses in the United States, American business reporter, Larry Buhl revealed that employers opined that entry-level workers in a variety of professions were lacking in several areas, including communication skills, problem solving, conflict resolution and critical observation. He then noted that it is now fashionable to see these ‘soft skill’ showing up in job descriptions, next to demands for technical qualifications or ‘hard skills’. He concluded that employment experts agree that while ‘hard skills’ may get you an interview, these ‘soft skills’ will get you the job—and help you keep it while contributing to the effectiveness of the organisation.

Today’s institutions want people who play well with others and can effectively work as part of a team. According to LyneSarikas  of the MBA Career Center Director at Northeastern University: “That means sometimes being a leader, sometimes being a good follower, monitoring the progress, meeting deadlines and working with others across the organisation to achieve a common goal.”

Employees are also expected to have the skills to solve problems as organisations want people who can be left on their own to figure out how to resolve conflicts and avoid chaos and ill feelings. They are also expected to be able to identify and spot potentials for conflicts before they fester into full-blown crisis. Indeed, the ability to persuade, negotiate and resolve conflicts is crucial if you plan to move up. On this, Sarikas also observes that employees and potential workers need to have the skills to develop mutually-beneficial relationships in the organisation to influence and persuade people.

Organisations are now looking out for people who are able to make critical observations. Since the world is fast changing and issues are becoming more complex, the people in charge of important organisations must be able to observe and critically assess the impact and consequence of developments as they arise and, sometimes, even before they arise.

Soft skills have everything to do with one’s attitude. Attitude is so important that most other coveted attributes flow from it. According to Shawn Ashmore, “style is a reflection of your attitude and your personality” while Hans Selye opined that “adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.” American writer and poet, Maya Angelou, wrote that: “if you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

Similarly, American motivational speaker, Lou Holtz observed that, ‘virtually nothing is impossible in this world if you just put your mind to it and maintain a positive attitude.” Former American President, Thomas Jefferson, once affirmed that “nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal and nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.”

A good relationship can be established only when employees demonstrate a positive attitude towards their work and colleagues. Through positive energy, work becomes a pleasure and employees find it easier to achieve their goals. Benefits of positive attitude in work place include:  career success, productivity, team spirit, strong interpersonal relationship among others. A positive attitude at work is, no doubt, beneficial not only to the organisation, but also to the employees on an individual basis.

On a final note, famous Swiss executive communication coach, Dorotea Brandin once said that “no matter what we do, each instant contains infinite choices. What we choose to think, to say or to hear creates what we feel in the present moment. It conditions the quality of our communication and in the end the quality of our everyday life”. It is this model that the Lagos State Government is inculcating into its workforce through its numerous training programmes and this is being done with the future of the state and the good of the people in mind.

Dr. Benson is Honourable Commissioner for Establishments, Training & Pensions, Lagos State

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