The Role of Soft Skills in a Challenging Environment

Table 1

Lower oil prices have evoked a level of stress in the industry not only for those involved in a slowdown or cancellations of projects, and potential staff reductions, but also for those who may be buffered from the business cycle swings. These times of scarcity of operating cash flow and capital resources can create substantial anxiety because of an internal conflict among employment needs, a company’s survival needs, and corporate and professional conduct.

In such times, the human tendency is to hunker down so as not to lose ground and to survive. When we do that, we often lose sight of what ensures resilience for the individuals and their organizations. Humans under stress do not always do what is intuitive or logical, and in times of high stress, the engagement of the larger community, namely the value chain teams within and outside of our workplace, is essential. We need to maintain a balanced focus on the long term while managing short-term demands. This obviously is not an easy task, but self-awareness of our internal conflicts is an excellent starting point.

To maintain a focus on the long term, our capacity to engage others and enable their mutual needs to be met, while maintaining the viability of the systems in which we operate, is indispensable. Stress management, resilience, self-awareness, and engagement are all important competencies for surviving challenging times, and these skills are grouped under the general category called “soft skills.”

Having realized the importance of soft skills to SPE as a professional society, in 2011, a group of SPE volunteers created the Soft Skills Committee (SSC), proposing that SPE could be the catalyst for the improvement of soft skills within the petroleum industry to enhance the quality and the quantity of technical results (Fattahi et al. 2012, 2013, and 2014).

The 2015 members of the SSC are

  • Susan Howes, 2015 SSC Chair, SPE, Chevron Global Upstream
  • Behrooz Fattahi, 2011–2014 SSC Chair, SPE, EnerTrain Institute
  • Narandja Milanovich-Eagleson, SPE, GriffinWorks Consulting
  • Giovanni Paccaloni, SPE, Paccaloni Consulting International
  • Ford Brett, SPE, PetroSkills
  • Betty Shanahan, SPE, Society of Women Engineers
  • Duane McVay, SPE, Texas A&M University
  • Ruben Caligari, SPE, Instituto Tecnologico de Buenos Aires
  • Lori Darlymple, SPE, Architecture of Communication

Importance of Soft Skills

During times of prosperity, we have a greater capacity to include others in understanding the longer-term implications of our decisions, and to creatively identify a broader variety of options (Goleman 1995 and LeDoux 1996). However, stakes become higher when we feel threatened by a given environment, and the perceived risk is high. In this situation, a strong sense of survival ensues, and our tendency is to engage in certain patterns of behavior to preserve our position. When threatened, we naturally tend to minimize risk by attempting to control the outcome.

When a threat is perceived, the first steps include confirming our perception and taking conscious action to reduce the potential threat, followed by conscious action to mitigate the impact if the threat cannot be eliminated. Some of us have a tendency to look at the downside of a situation, while others note that with risk comes opportunity, so they look at both the upside and downside scenarios.

As technical professionals, we strive to assess and resolve uncertainties, and mitigate the risks. Focusing on the downside may blind us to other possibly better alternatives, cascading into actions that limit options instead of expanding the possibilities over the long term. Not only does stress impact and, to a large extent, drive the way in which we interact with others, but it also severely diminishes our capacity to perform. Anxiety weakens our ability to think and act clearly, and also truncates our capacity to perceive opportunities for effective actions. It also decreases our capacity to solve problems. When under stress, we tend to repeat actions that minimized risk in the past similar situations. The reality is however, that most situations are different, and each may demand a broader and more innovative response. Engaging ­others effectively not only creates possibilities for longer-term partnership-based relationships but also tempers our tendency for automatic reactions that we retrieve from solely our memory banks. Skills such as emotional management, effective inquiry, and advocacy are key. Having the capacity to observe and seek out what is not clearly obvious is also essential.

Our ability to reliably assess uncertainty can affect decision making. Because of our almost universal overconfidence and optimism, we make poor decisions and underperform, in general. If underperformance in soft skills amplifies underestimation of uncertainty, then decision making and overall performance will be even worse. Being overconfident causes us to use a range of outcomes that is too narrow, which will impact our decision making. We tend to anchor on the outcome we want to see during stressful times, rather than gathering sufficient data to test our hypotheses of a range of potential outcomes (McVay 2015).

Self-awareness can be a particularly important soft skill, particularly during stressful times, as it can help us determine when stress and anxiety are affecting other aspects of our performance. Self-awareness in the moment is a critical capability for emotional management and other relevant soft skills.

The following excerpt illustrates the impact of soft skills:

“A training and research center that teaches executive and management best practices, conducted a study of more than 20,000 employees that tracked the success and failure of new hires. After interviewing 5,247 managers, the study’s researchers concluded that only 11% of employees failed because they lacked the technical competence to do the job. The remaining reasons new hires failed were issues such as alienating coworkers, being unable to accept feedback, lack of ability to manage emotions, lack of motivation or drive, and poor interpersonal skills.”—(Lynn 2008)

We must remember, however, that effective engagement with others involves a unique balance of managing emotions, productive conversations, and systems thinking. When stakes are high, the tendency to rationalize our actions dominates our reasoning and the primal aspects of our emotional mind. We may even overlook the implications of the larger system and, more importantly, our relationships with others, as our focus turns inward. The critical skills of emotional management and reflection allow for the surfacing and awareness of deeply held and shared individual and business priorities when stakes are high, thus creating the moment for more conscious actions and decision.

So, it is imperative for us to be conscious of the workplace environment and to include the views of relevant stakeholders, particularly when the stakes are high, to be able to gain a clear understanding of the perceived and actual risks. Such awareness allows us to weed out information that may not be relevant to a situation, and efficiently deal with only information that impacts the results. We cannot always predict the unintended consequences of our daily actions, and under difficult workplace environments (such as one that our industry is facing today), we are particularly vulnerable to this dilemma. Paying special attention to how we interact with our peers, managers, and subordinates, as well as the people from nontechnical disciplines, and the customers and contractor communities can lead to better information and sustainable relationships.

In a dynamic price environment, we tend to spend less time developing our employees when product prices are high, because we are so busy trying to get all the work done. When the product price drops and our activity level is reduced, we have more time for employee development, but the constraint may become lower cash flow. Soft skills development and application is a shared responsibility between technical professionals and their managers, and a long-term commitment to develop soft skills is needed to enhance and maintain high-performing business results.

Soft Skills Committee Vision

The vision of the SSC is for SPE to be the professional society that provides opportunities for members to enhance their technical and professional competence including soft skills to enable them as professionals to meet the world’s energy needs in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.


Soft Skills Committee Charge

The charge of the SSC is

  • To identify gaps between the nontechnical skills members need and those currently provided by SPE, and make recommendations to fill these gaps.
  • The Committee’s recommendations should leverage existing committee structures and programs where possible.
  • To pilot and deploy initiatives in collaboration with sections, student chapters, SPE publications and program committees for SPE events such as conferences, workshops and training courses.


SPE Mission

To collect, disseminate, and exchange technical knowledge concerning the exploration, development and production of oil and gas resources, and related technologies for the public benefit; and to provide opportunities for professionals to enhance their technical and professional competence.


SPE Vision

Enable the global oil and gas E&P industry to share technical knowledge needed to meet the world’s energy needs in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.


The SSC insists that technical professionals, by the virtue of their role, carry the responsibility for the decisions and analyses they make. These decisions have long-term and systemic implications for their team or company. Personal career aspirations of technical professionals consciously and unconsciously guide and bring focus to ideas and tasks that promote movement toward the individual’s short- and long-term objectives. Effective interactions with others to develop ideas and innovations, in pursuit of individual and team objectives, serve to enhance the individual careers and business results.

And finally, systems thinking—seeing system interdependencies and employing viable vehicles (structures and processes of the organization) to realize desired results—must become a fundamental practice to ensure sustainable individual, team, and organizational successes.

Initial Efforts

Since 2011, SSC has focused its efforts in the following areas:

  • Responding to the industry young professional (YP) members’ demand for recognition of soft skills as a fundamental tool for personal and organizational success
  • Acting as a catalyst to translate sporadic discussions of soft skills into an effective and continuing dialogue throughout the industry
  • Leveraging existing SPE committee structures and programs (and not displacing them) where possible to promote soft skills development
  • Nominating speakers on soft skills topics to the SPE Distinguished Lecturer program
  • Publishing articles in the Journal of Petroleum Technology (JPT) and The Way Ahead (TWA) and providing content for articles regularly to be published in local SPE sections’ newsletters
  • Advocating a unified vision that aspires toward gaining soft skills to enhance professional competence in tandem with technical skills, in line with the SPE mission and vision
  • Developing guidelines for an SPE section director role to coordinate local events on soft skills
  • Encouraging SPE International Board’s regional directors to act as regional advocates for soft competency
  • Encouraging colleges and universities to incorporate soft skills training into their undergraduate engineering programs
  • Encouraging creation of conferences/workshops/forums solely dedicated to discussions of soft skills
  • Generating new and creative ideas to bring about the integration of soft and technical skills

Recent Work

Recent accomplishments of the SSC in 2014 and 2015 include

  • Developing a vision statement, a supporting organizational structure, and a shaping curve for the SSC’s members and adjunct resources to reach the vision over the next several years
  • Enlisting the support of the SPE regional directors for soft skills programming in their respective sections and student chapters, and facilitating discussion within the SPE International Board about the impact of soft skills
  • Supporting soft skills events in sections, student chapters, and the larger conferences such as the SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition (ATCE), SPE Latin American and Caribbean Petroleum Engineering Conference (LACPEC), and the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) with workshops, training, facilitators, and content providers
  • Aligning with SPE marketing staff to promote soft skills via the SPE website, social media, and other promotional efforts
  • Recommending and receiving approval for SPE funding to support travel expenses for volunteer content providers, provide soft skills content to members via webinars, and cover SPE staff efforts to promote professionalism to SPE members

Mission for 2015 and Beyond

The key focus areas for 2015 and beyond for the SSC are

  • Working with SPE sections and student chapters to designate a leadership role to coordinate soft skills programming
  • Identifying global experts to deliver soft skills content globally
  • Identifying both opportunities to deliver content and local expert resources who are familiar with traditions, culture, and the practice of soft skills
  • Nominating multiple candidates for Distinguished Lecture tours on a variety of soft skills topics
  • Expanding offerings to provide content on soft skills in workshops/posters/panels to the “Big Four” conferences that SPE is involved in (ATCE, OTC, Offshore Europe, and the International Petroleum Technology Conference), the larger regional conferences (Middle East Oil and Gas Show and Conference, LACPEC, and Asia Pacific Oil and Gas Conference and Exhibition), and the major discipline-level conferences (IADC/SPE Drilling Conference and Exhibition and SPE International Conference and Exhibition on Health, Safety, Security, Environment, and Social Responsibility
  • Providing content to SPE sections and student chapters
  • Providing advice to the SPE training department on development of short courses
  • Publishing articles in JPT, TWA, section and student chapter newsletters, SPE social media and industry publications to raise awareness about the need for soft skills development
  • Ensuring that SPE members are recognized both within SPE and externally for their technical and professional competence including demonstration of soft skills
  • Developing soft skills workshops for the ATCE by collaborating with the Young Member Engagement Committee and the Talent Task Force. At the 2015 ATCE, SPE members will have an opportunity to
    • Learn to expand their paradigm by boosting their soft skills to include an understanding of diversity in all areas of global business in the workshop on “Diversity: Focusing on the Value and Relevance in Global Business.”
    • Raise their ethical awareness and understanding of the 12 canons in SPE’s Code of Professional Conduct in the workshop titled “SPE Professionals Exemplify Integrity and Ethics.”
    • Sharpen their communication, presentation, and negotiation skills. Members will become better at listening and giving positive feedback at the workshop on “Effective Communication: Gaining an Edge in the Industry.”
    • Experience exercises that focus on problem definition, tacit knowledge, and hypothesis development at the workshop on “Critical Thinking for Effective Problem Solving.”

We have developed a shaping curve (Table 1) for 2011 to 2017 that charts our progress on these topics, including the current state of soft skills programming within SPE. It includes a 3-year plan to reach our aspirational vision for each element in the future.


We expect the soft skills initiative to enable future generations to sustainably carry out the mission and function of our industry, and to help members reach SPE’s vision to “enable the global oil and gas E&P industry to share technical knowledge needed to meet the world’s energy needs in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.” Soft skills, the primary vehicles for the application of technology and technical knowledge to deliver sustainable business results, are complex. SPE offers workshops and training courses on a variety of soft competency issues.

Through advocating for the recognition of soft competency as a critical enabler for our industry professionals, the SSC is working to expand and influence our global industry to continue to deliver extraordinary results, and continue to meet the increasing challenges and opportunities faced by our industry today and in the future. We work in an industry with a dynamic and unpredictable product price, so soft skills are important in both challenging and prosperous times.

Facing challenges well with the soft skills of professionals will determine our capacity to maintain our license to operate within the social, political, and environmental complexities on a regional, national, and global scale.


Fattahi, B., Howes, S., Milanovich, N., et al. 2012. Soft Skills Council: A New SPE Initiative. J Pet Technol 64 (8): 52–55.

Fattahi, B., Milanovich, N., Howes, S., et al. 2013. The Elements of a Soft Competency Matrix. J Pet Technol 65 (10): 92–102.

Fattahi, B., Milanovich, N., Howes, S., et al. 2014. Soft Competency Development as a Global Challenge. J Pet Technol 66 (10): 136–141.

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The Role of Soft Skills in a Challenging Environment

Narandja Milanovich-Eagleson, SPE, GriffinWorks Consulting; Susan Howes, SPE, Chevron; and Behrooz Fattahi, SPE, EnerTrain Institute

21 August 2015

Volume: 67 | Issue: 9


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