Soft ecology

Ecologists are multi-talented folk (if we do say so ourselves!). A diverse set of skills are required to write grants, heft field-gear over mountains, code statistical analyses, run simulation models, draft manuscripts and chat with the media.

Less obvious, however, are the ‘soft skills’, such as emotional IQ, resilience, decision-making, flexibility and the ability to empower the talents of others. Nonetheless, these skills are fundamental to collaborative success in academia, government and private industry. For our first QAECO reading group of 2017, I hosted a discussion on Gibert, Tozer and Westoby’s ‘Teamwork, soft skills, and research training’ which was recently published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.  This post is adapted from a blog I wrote for QAECO about the discussion.

Gibert et al. compiled a list of 14 soft skills that they considered important for scientific collaboration and teamwork, and asked a group of influential research team leaders to review them. ‘Inspiring moral trust’ and ‘emotional intelligence’ were the skills most frequently ranked as important for effective collaboration. The majority of leaders thought that all 14 skills could be improved or learned (rather than just being inherent personality traits), and believed that they could assess soft skills during recruitment. Gibert et al. argue that graduate programs should include short training courses to increase young scientists’ self-awareness of the skills they currently possess, and ability to demonstrate these skills in interviews.

Our group agreed that these soft skills are very important for both academic and non-academic careers. In particular, bringing an open attitude and a talent to empower others was highly rated. People have experienced conflict within collaborations when these skills have been lacking, especially when there was a lack of trust in others’ conduct.

We concluded that, although these skills are important, they can sometimes be overlooked within the university system. More training in soft skill development, as well as skill awareness, would be highly valuable. As not all roles involve practising the full range of skills, other potentially useful opportunities for training could include:

  • Active participation in collaborations. Senior academics can help foster these skills in their students and post-docs by providing opportunities for them to actively participate in collaborations, and be involved with strategic meetings and decisions.
  • Mentoring. Whether this occurs formally or on an ad hoc basis, trusted seniors can provide guidance and advice on how to successfully manage professional relationships.
  • Online courses. Many universities, including ours, provide online training for staff, and providers such as Coursera also offer courses on leadership, conflict management, emotional intelligence, appreciative inquiry, and many other soft skills.
  • Workshops. At the next QAECO retreat, we plan to run an expert-led session on conflict resolution and peoples’ behavioural and learning styles.

Effective teamwork and collaboration are key to a successful and fulfilling career in ecology and conservation.  However, developing these soft skills can require sustained effort and self-analysis, as well as much empathy towards other people.

Which soft skills do you value most highly?  Find most challenging?  Look for in others?