If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is the importance of knowing what matters most in our lives, personally and professionally. For many business leaders, it is not so much about what we can achieve, but rather how we want to act in the world.
These shifts in perspective elevate the importance of what used to be considered soft skills, such as kindness, empathy, resilience, ethical behavior, and other positive character traits. In fact, as we move forward, these skills should no longer be viewed as “soft”; increasingly, they will be determinants of success.
Consider the personal traits and behaviours that make an effective leader or a competent team member. These talents are more subtle, even low-profile. Companies are starting to recognize the value of these intangibles when assembling diverse, effective teams, particularly in the context of the normalisation of remote work, where cooperation and the means of innovation have altered.
As a result, experts say, companies are increasingly taking into account a candidate’s soft skills in addition to their expertise and clear technical specialties.
Some soft skills, such as the ability to communicate effectively and think analytically, are innate for some employees. However, for certain people, acquiring and polishing soft talents can be more difficult. However, every employee has the capacity to acquire these qualities, polish them, and learn how to exhibit them. According to experts, we should all be doing that.
What are soft skills?
“Soft skills” can be defined as a collection of positive attributes and competencies that can improve work performance and productivity, enhance relationships, and make an individual more marketable in the workplace.
Soft skills are linked to emotional intelligence, but also include skills such as communication and listening, conflict resolution, positive relationships, collaboration and cooperation, likeability, civility and openness to feedback. In contrast, “hard skills” are such things as technical analysis and various machine operations, specific task competencies, administrative details and trainable ability to perform the job successfully.
Within the academic world, a semantic and definitional debate is raging about how to classify soft skills and what to call them. Non-cognitive traits and habits, social and emotional skills, growth mindsets, grit, soft skills—these terms are all slightly different, but often used interchangeably to describe an overlapping set of skills.
According to Eric Frazer, author of The Psychology of Top Talent and assistant professor of psychology at Yale University School of Medicine, the term “soft talents” itself is merely jargon. From a behavioural science perspective, it really relates to a number of mindsets and behaviours. Someone who is constantly learning or someone who is very resilient are two examples of people with soft-skill attitudes. Numerous behaviours, like critical thinking, active listening, and creative problem-solving, are also considered soft talents.
He goes on to say that the word is really just another way of saying “people skills.” It has to do with a person’s sense of self and how they interact with others.
Efficiency, prioritisation, organisation, and time management are just a few examples of very useful soft skills that are becoming increasingly important for remote and hybrid workers. According to Frazer, “great achievers have the discipline to organise their days and to be very productive within a predetermined time limit.”
Soft talents are also generally very valuable, not just in work. The same abilities that allow employees to function well inside organisational hierarchy and get to the top, for example, also foster good interpersonal interactions.
A notable shift
As more and more highly technical aspects of employment are automated or replaced by technology tools, employers are turning to job candidates with problem-solving skills, the ability to manage many tasks, and strong interpersonal skills. Organizations are putting more emphasis on longevity as a result of the ongoing labour scarcity since long-term workers are more valuable and have the interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence to advance into leadership roles.
Additionally, in the post-pandemic, primarily remote work environment, soft skills have grown even more crucial. For instance, when employees don’t see their coworkers face to face, communication can become considerably more subtle and sophisticated. Another soft skill that has been in high demand over the past two years is adaptability. As many of the highly technical parts of work are becoming increasingly automated, or replaced by technological tools, companies are instead looking for workers who can problem-solve, juggle larger responsibilities and work well with others. The ongoing labour shortage also has organisations focused on longevity: employees who have the interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence to grow into leadership positions offer a lot more value.
Additionally, soft skills have become even more important in the post-pandemic, largely remote work landscape. For instance: communication can be much more nuanced and complex when workers don’t see colleagues face to face. Adaptability, too, is a soft skill – and the past two years have called for a lot of it.
Employers are actively seeking applicants who possess these intangibles as a result. In 2021, there were more than 80 million job openings spread over 22 different industry sectors. Nearly two thirds of positions included soft skills among their requirements, according to America Succeeds. Additionally, seven of the top 10 most in-demand abilities across all job postings—including communication, problem-solving, and planning—were categorised as “soft skills.”
Soft skills were the most desirable qualities for 91% of management professions, 86% of business-operations roles, and 81% of engineering jobs, according to the same survey. This may come as a surprise given that engineering is typically thought of as a very technically focused field.
According to Frazer, “there’s clearly been a trend away from just having what I would call “tacit knowledge” and “tacit skills,” which basically means you’re just good at what you do. Engineers are skilled at designing or writing code. You’re skilled at analysing numerical data if you work in finance. The change in organisations, according to him, is “a better understanding that people must come first, before performance.” He continues by saying that while technical abilities are still important, businesses are realising that what “drives outstanding results” is a focus on the interpersonal skills that keep organizations cohesive.
As a result, employers are actively soliciting candidates who have these intangibles. In a 2021 of more than 80 million job postings across 22 industry sectors, education non-profit America Succeeds found that almost two-thirds of positions listed soft skills among their qualifications. And across all the job postings, of the 10 most in-demand skills, seven were ‘soft’, including communication, problem solving and planning.
The same report showed certain types of positions prioritise soft skills even more: they were the most desired qualifications for 91% of management jobs, 86% of business-operations jobs and 81% of engineering jobs – a fact that may be surprising, since it’s a field generally considered highly technically focused.
“When we look at today’s workforce,” says Frazer, “there’s definitely been a shift away from just having what I would call ‘tacit knowledge’ and ‘tacit skills’… meaning, you’re just good at what you do. If you’re an engineer, you’re good at coding or designing. If you’re working in finance, you’re good at numerical data analysis.” Where organisations have shifted, he says, is “there is a deeper understanding that people have to come first, before performance”. It’s not to say that technical skills have fallen by the wayside, he adds, but companies have increasingly come to realise emphasising the interpersonal skills that hold organisations together are what “drives great results”.
Global job site Monster’s The Future of Work 2021: Global Hiring Outlook revealed soft skills such as collaboration, dependability and flexibility are among the skills employers most prize in workers. The report showed soft skills were the most desired qualifications for 91% of management jobs, 86% of business operations jobs and 81% of engineering jobs.
Yet, executives report struggling with finding candidates who have well-developed soft skillsets – and have for years according to the Wall Street Journal.l
According to Frazer, part of the problem is that qualities like creativity and adaptability are challenging to measure. The author claims that “inventory and surveys don’t truly capture these traits with any great precision.” And although they may need to, candidates aren’t always emphasising those skills on their resumes or LinkedIn accounts, he adds.
Articulating your ‘moon-shot mentality’
Some employees may feel uneasy about the growing emphasis on soft skills, especially those who aren’t “born leaders” or strong communicators, according to Frazer. Although some people might need to work a little harder, he adds that these are skills that can be learned. “People who wish to improve their work performance, their work ethic, or their work-life balance recognise and respect the need of continually honing these mindsets and behaviours.”
Even though we frequently are aware of our strengths, developing interpersonal skills begins with asking for criticism to determine your flaws and blind spots. It could need pushing yourself beyond of your comfort zone to improve them. Try participating in brainstorming sessions with the company’s creatives if you want to develop your creative thinking or problem-solving skills, for example.
According to study by Margaret Andrews, a former assistant dean at Harvard University and executive director at the MIT Sloan School of Management, you can raise your emotional intelligence by becoming more socially aware, mastering the control of your own emotions, and practising empathy. Additionally, that has advantages because Mora Mikolajczak’s study, which was published in the Journal of Research in Personality, demonstrates that those who have high emotional intelligence are less likely to experience stress and anxiety.
Hiring managers may modify their interview questions in an effort to learn more about a candidate’s soft competence as they look for these intangibles in candidates more frequently. You’re asking someone to demonstrate those mindsets when you ask them to “give me an example of a time you were exceptionally resilient in your work life” or “tell me a tale that demonstrates your moon-shot mentality,” according to him.
Mora says, “let’s imagine you’re asked, ‘What’s your attitude toward continual learning?'” as it relates to the interviewee. This is your chance to convince the interviewer that you have the aptitude for learning and are eager and willing to do so. Saying things like, “Well, I attended this conference last year; I attend this webinar once a month; I just completed reading this book; I subscribe to this industry periodical” is the perfect response.
Candidates should identify their strongest soft talents in advance and be prepared to demonstrate them, he advises, in order to be best prepared for situations like this. Although the technical knowledge and experience you list on your resume will always be significant, they are no longer sufficient in the modern workplace. You still need to persuade hiring managers that you have the soft skills necessary for success.
Employers are constantly stressing the need for workers who possess emotional intelligence and who can collaborate and communicate on teams. While hard skills are relatively easy to quantify and measure, soft skills are far more difficult, but no less important.
Why Soft Skills Have Become More Important
Hiring employees with advanced soft skills can have a significant impact on an organization’s ability to function effectively, within its own structure and as part of their industry. While hard skills” such as technical knowledge and computational skills used to be the prime requirements for jobs, the possession of soft skills are now considered essential, and in some cases even more important than technical knowledge.
The look and feel of our workplaces have dramatically changed over the last few decades. We see a variety of workspaces including breakout spaces, remote offices, social areas, and quiet spaces. Computers, smartphones, and virtual meeting applications have revolutionized the world and enabled us to achieve balance and flexibility within our personal and professional lives.
However, to achieve success in this flexible workplace, more sophisticated communication skills, collaborating with others, and interacting with others in more social way are all highly valued and necessary
Technical skills aren’t necessarily hard to acquire. With time, they can be easily taught and perfected. Soft skills, however, are more challenging to develop and learn since they have little to do with traditional education an training and more to do with character, relationships and personality.
Business schools are increasingly becoming aware of the need for soft skills for today’s workplace. For example, the Yale School of Management recently introduced “Global Virtual Teams” to teach the fostering of relationships across different time zones and cultures. At Stanford University, the Graduate School of Business offers a course called Interpersonal Dynamics, which students affectionately call the “touchy-feely” course. Don’t shy away from courses or personal development networking because it feels squishy; these can potentially make your resume stick out amongst the rest. And companies like Google have as their centerpiece of training programs such as “Search Inside Yourself” which focuses on training people to become more aware of their emotions, more compassionate toward others, more able to build sustainable relationships, and, ultimately, able to contribute to world peace.
With the introduction of Artificial Intelligence, the job market landscape is changing, and job seekers need to be aware of the shift. While A.I. will continue pushing forward with automating tasks that humans once did, these machines are incapable of replacing soft skills. It is important for candidates to invest in the skillsets such as creativity, empathy, and conflict resolution should they wish to land in a secure, lucrative position. Companies know they cannot replicate these skills with technology and are looking for viable candidates to fill these leadership positions.
Alexandra Levit, author of “Humanity Works,” wrote for Training Industry.com, “In a business climate dominated by human/machine collaboration,” the skills that make us human are more important than ever. Similarly, Doug Harward and Ken Taylor of Training Industry, Inc. wrote last winter, “While technology is helping lead innovation, developing our soft skills is necessary to stay relevant, communicate value and supplement those important technical skills.” Unfortunately, Levit says, many organizations are still focusing on technical skills, and ignoring or minimizing soft skills, especially if they feel their technical talent isn’t competitive with other organizations in their industry.
A Compelling Reason for Hiring Leaders with Soft Skills
Study after study shows that the failure rate for CEOs and senior executives is very high; many executives exhibit more overconfidence than competence; and the main reasons why they fail are due to hubris, and a lack of emotional intelligence. Calls for leader humility have intensified in the wake of corporate and political scandals attributed to the unbridled ego, sense of entitlement and self-importance of the leaders involved. Multiple researchers have identified leader arrogance and narcissism as the reasons why leaders make bad decisions.
In my work with CEOs and other senior leaders in organizations over the last 35 years, I’ve found invariably it’s the over-the-top charismatic extroverted leader who gets into trouble either personally or gets the organization into difficulty. So while there is a natural and historical attraction to the charismatic leaders who can inspire others with an emotional vision and connect with charm, the long-term impact in terms of relationships and execution becomes questionable.
In the past two decades, 30% of Fortune 500 CEOs have lasted less than 3 years. Top executive failure rates are as high as 75% and rarely less than 30%. Chief executives now are lasting 7.6 years on a global average down from 9.5 years in 1995.
According to the Harvard Business Review, 2 out of 5 new CEOs fail in their first 18 months on the job. It appears that the major reason for the failure has nothing to do with competence, or knowledge, or experience, but rather with hubris and ego and a leadership style out of touch with modern times. David Dotlich and Peter C. Cairo, in their book, Why CEOs Fail: The 11 Behaviors That Can Derail Your Climb To The Top And How To Manage Them ,present 11 cogent reasons why CEOs fail, most of which have to do with hubris, ego and a lack of emotional intelligence.
According to Michael Jarrett, INSEAD Professor of Organizational Behavior, writing in the INSEAD publication, “the prevailing arguments used to explain success or failure mostly concern the CEOs’ personalities, especially transformational leadership characteristics, such as passion, risk-taking and tenacity. The failures are believed to be due to simple incompetence, rigidity, hubris or narcissism, traits that made the CEOs deaf to the changing world around them.” He goes on to say that a string of success or a good early start can fuel CEO narcissism and hubris. According to Sydney Finkelstein, author of Why Smart Executives Fail, researched several spectacular failures during a six year period. He concluded that these CEOs had similar deadly habits.
Other Research on the Importance and Value of Soft Skills
- A study by researchers from Boston College, Harvard University, and the University of Michigan found that soft skills training, like communication and problem-solving, boosts productivity and retention 12 percent and delivers a 250 percent return on investment based on higher productivity and retention.
- According to Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends report, executives now consider soft skills important to fostering employee retention, improving leadership, and building a meaningful culture. In fact, 92 percent of Deloitte’s respondents rated soft skills as a critical priority. They noted that an HR leader’s mission has shifted from that of “chief talent executive” to “chief employee experience officer.”
- Afascinating study by Deloitte Access Economics, predicts that two-thirds of all jobs in Australia will rely on soft skills by 2030.
- LinkedIn’s2019 Global Talent Trends report showed that 92% of talent professionals and hiring managers say that soft skills are just as important–or more important–than hard technical skills. The report concluded that 57% of talent professionals struggle to assess soft skills.
- According to a survey by Talent Q,“nine in 10 employers believe that graduates with soft skills will become increasingly important.”
- Automation anxiety reached new heights in 2013, when Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, researchers at the Oxford Martin School, published apaper estimating that 47% of all U.S. jobs were “at risk” of being computerized over the next two decades.
- A newNBER working paper , “The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market,” suggests jobs that require strong social skills something that has proven to be much more difficult to automate, will give prospective job seekers an edge. The report shows that nearly all job growth since 1980 has been in occupations that are relatively social skill-intensive; and it argues that high-skilled, hard-to-automate jobs will increasingly demand social adeptness.
- Google,for example, identified eight key skills of successful leaders at the company, noting that while technical skills are certainly important, these leaders most often demonstrate inherently human qualities, like listening and asking questions.
- Greg Muccio, director of people at Southwest Airlines,says soft skills are actually “essential skills.” Top soft skills at Southwest include communication, teamwork, relationship building, balance, and reliability.
In an article “The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market,” in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, David J. Deming, argues the following:
- The labor market increasingly rewards social skills. Between 1980 and 2012, jobs requiring high levels of social interaction grew by nearly 12 percentage points as a share of the U.S. labor force. Math-intensive but less social jobs—including many STEM occupations—shrank by 3.3 percentage points over the same period.
- Most important, the fastest growing cognitive occupations—managers, teachers, nurses and therapists, physicians, lawyers, even economists —all require significant interpersonal interaction.
- Human interaction requires a capacity that psychologists call theory of mind—the ability to attribute mental states to others based on their behavior, or more colloquially to “put oneself into another’s shoes.”
- Workers with higher social skills can specialize and “trade tasks” with other workers more efficiently.
- When surveyed, employers routinely list teamwork, collaboration, and oral communication skills as among the most valuable yet hard to find qualities of workers. Employers surveyed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) listed “ability to work in a team” as the most desirable attribute of new college graduates, ahead of problem solving and analytical/quantitative skills (NACE 2015)There is a positive labor market return to both cognitive skill and social skill.Intuitively, social skills are relatively more valuable when a worker is more productive overall, because she has more of value to “trade” with her fellow worker.
- The decline of routine employment is widely known. However, jobs requiring social skills have also experienced relative employment and wage growth in the United States over the past several decades.
- The data show that social skill tasks grew by 24% from 1980 to 2012, compared to only about 11% for math-intensive tasks. While the latter has declined since 2000, the importance of social skills has grown by about 2% through. And jobs characterized by routine work have continued to decline.
Nicole Torres, in her article in the Harvard Business Review, “Technology Is Only Making Social Skills More Important,” argues: “What’s most surprising is that jobs involving a lot of math, but less social interaction, have shrunk in terms of total share of the U.S. labor force over the past three decades. So it still pays to be good at math in today’s labor market, but it’s often no longer enough.”
The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report concluded: “AI will radically reorient the nature of all work. The emotional economy that emerges will be dependent on workers who have the skills to utilize their unique “human” talents. Moreover, those specific talents, broadly encompassed by the idea of soft skills, will become the most sought after abilities by employers over the next half decade. In fact, our economy is already tilting more toward a reliance on social and service skills.”
These abilities will be vitally important to competing in the future economy, yet the United States is in the back half of OECD nations when it comes to soft skill proficiency. That’s a problem, because 44% of executives say a lack of soft skills is the biggest gap in the U.S. workforce.
Examples of Desirable Soft Skills
- A growth mindset.Being able to view any situation, especially challenging situations, as an opportunity for you to learn, grow, and change for the better. Focusing your attention on improving yourself instead of changing others or blaming anyone.
- Self-awareness. Knowing and understanding what drives, angers, motivates, embarrasses, frustrates, and inspires you. Being able to observe yourself objectively in a difficult situation and understand how your perceptions of yourself, others, and the situation are driving your actions. Being able to see yourself as others see you.
- Emotional regulation.– Being able to manage your emotions, especially negative ones, at work (e.g. anger, frustration, embarrassment) so you can think clearly and objectively, and act accordingly. Instead of being reactive, you intentionally respond in a calm, rational manner.
- Stress management. Being able to stay healthy, calm, and balanced in any challenging situation. Knowing how to reduce your stress level will increase your productivity, prepare you for new challenges and support your physical and emotional health.
- Resilience. Being able to bounce back after a disappointment, setbacks and adversity.
- Being sensitive to others pain or difficulties and taking action to help.
- Feeling the emotions of another person.
- Proactive communication skills. Being able to actively listen to others and articulate your ideas in writing and verbally to any audience in a way where you are heard and you achieve the goals you intended with that communication. This includes active and empathetic listening skills.
- Teamwork skills.Being able to work collaboratively and effectively with others who have different skill sets, personalities, work styles, or motivations to achieve a better team result.
- Conflict resolution skills. Being effective dealing with difficult people and taking positive steps to resolve conflicts with others.
- Influence and persuasion skills .Being able to influence others’ perspectives or decisions without resorting to power, position or aggressive manipulative behavior.
- Negotiation skills.Being able to understand the other side’s motivations and leverage and reach a win-win resolution that you find favorably, satisfies both sides, and maintains relationships for future interactions.
- Creative thinking skills.This is different than critical thinking or problem solving skills. It involves the ability to tap into one’s imagination, and a wide spectrum of ideas and thoughts.
- Overall emotional intelligence. In a nutshell, emotional intelligence refers to the ability to identify and regulate our own emotions, to recognize the emotions of other people and feel empathy toward them, and to use these abilities to communicate effectively and build healthy, productive relationships with others.
A Guide for Employers
For existing employees, soft skills can be developed and nurtured and become an integral part of development and training programs. In addition, employers can consider the following elements to incorporate into a structure, and hiring processes:
- Institute soft skills assessments into the interview and hiring processes.Limiting the recruitment and hiring process to traditional reviews of resumes and technical skills, education and knowledge will not sufficiently deal with the need to assess potential employees who have the desirable soft skills.
- Incorporate soft skills into onboarding programs.Help your employees succeed on day one by including soft skills acquisition and development in your onboarding programs. Work with them to understand the skills they’ll need to lean on most in their role and identify the areas where they could use improvement. Pair them with a mentor who they can lean on to work on skills gaps.
- Incorporate soft skill goals in performance assessments.Don’t just set performance goals around business or task objectives that focus on technical knowledge and skills. Implementing 360 assessments that provide feedback on soft skills is critical.
- Allow time for reflection. Humans are not machines. We need time to reflect and process new information. Give your employees ample time to internalize new lessons and think critically about their own strengths and faults. Research shows that adequate reflection and alone time improves productivity.
- Support continuous learning. The mastery of soft skills, unlike some technical skills has no finite end because we are dealing with the personal development of individuals.Give your employees access and space to learn new skills and expand their minds.
Implications for Leadership Style
Many leaders share these views about the importance of soft skills. For example, Charles Fadel, founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign, emphasizes character as part of 21st century education. He categorizes character in six areas: courage, curiosity, mindfulness, resilience, ethics, and leadership.
An example of resilience is “grit,” which researcher Angela Duckworth describes as passion and perseverance, to see failure as a learning experience. Resilience will be crucial for business reinvention, throughout every stage of the crisis, which Deloitte defines as respond, recover, and thrive. In the recovery stage, Deloitte notes, leaders must be resilient as they shift their mindset, navigate uncertainties, establish trust, define the destination or end point, and learn from the successes of others.
Whatever soft skill leaders want to develop, the process starts with self-awareness and the knowledge of how they are perceived by others. This allows them to receive feedback and engage in deliberate practice: a concept coined by the late K. Anders Ericsson, the Swedish psychologist and researcher, and applied broadly to skill development.
I have written extensively about the importance of leaders showing kindness to employees, colleagues and others. Within the business world, kindness supports a culture in which people feel valued and respected.
Kindness can be shown in trivial ways, such as paying a compliment or engaging in light conversation with someone. Working on kindness does not making me any less decisive nor do I avoid difficult conversations. Indeed, as I have found, working on character development should be an integral part of each person’s learning journey—with a deliberate practice approach.
The Importance of Empathy
Hand-in-hand with kindness is empathy. This emotional skill allows us to identify with others and the problems they face. In addition, empathy may be an antidote to burnout that’s becoming endemic in the workplace today. In a Harvard Business Review article, author Jennifer Moss cited a survey of 3,900 employees and business leaders in 11 nations that found nearly one-third of respondents expressed the desire that organizations act with more empathy.
Empathy takes on greater meaning today as the pandemic continues to take a toll, in terms of people’s physical and mental health and their economic well-being. These deeply felt impacts likely will be long-lasting. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, one-in-four adults have struggled to pay their bills since the Covid-19 outbreak; among lower-income individuals that struggle is faced by nearly half of adults (46%).
Business leaders I have spoken to recently are acutely aware of the economic struggles felt by so many, including employees who have been laid off or furloughed. In a recent conversation, the leader of a global organization wrestled emotionally with the inevitable decision to lay off thousands of workers. This wasn’t just cost-cutting; it was a matter of survival for the company that will go out of business unless it reduces capacity. At the same time, this executive wanted to ensure that people would be treated decently and receive as much support as possible. In this conversation and others like it, I’ve heard one question asked repeatedly: How can we prepare people who are going to lose their jobs?
The Learning Science Solution
Empathy, kindness, resilience, and other soft skills will make business leaders more acutely aware of the problems and their complexity—and help them find the courage to pursue solutions. From my perspective, based on more than two decades of research into how people learn, I believe careful learning engineering must be part of any solution.
For one, business leaders need to address the ongoing need to reskill and upskill workers to increase their employability in the future. In addition, organizations need to be more systematic in the development of soft skills across the workplace (including among leaders) to help build communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.
Gone are the days of relying on the tacit learning that traditionally happened in the workplace almost by osmosis, as people interact. Today, as people continue to work remotely, organizations need an “active transport” method that will convey knowledge and skill development widely, as part of ongoing corporate learning and development.
This is how business leaders can help people prepare for the future and their part in it: with greater development of an array of skills—both technical know-how and the soft skills that will increasingly determine success.
We’re rapidly entering a world in which the work we do looks radically different than what we did a decade ago, a year ago, or even yesterday. AI and automation are rewiring the nature of work to focus more on the very qualities and talents that make us human. To succeed in the future, we’ll need to embrace those abilities, seek them out when hiring, nurture them as managers, and hone them as individuals.