By Ray Williams
March 14, 2020
“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.
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.
Defining Soft Skills
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.
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 TrainingIndustry.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 Organizaitonal 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.
The Research on the Importance and Value of Soft Skills
- A new 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 2016 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.”
- A fascinating study by Deloitte Access Economics, predicts that two-thirds of all jobs in Australia will rely on soft skills by 2030.
- LinkedIn’s 2019 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 a paper estimating that 47% of all U.S. jobs were “at risk” of being computerized over the next two decades.
- A new NBER 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. In 2015, 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 growing importance of social skills can be described as: 1) social skills are valued in jobs across the entire wage distribution (as seen in the chart), 2) social skill and cognitive skill complement each other, and 3) jobs that require low levels of social skills are also likely to be routine jobs (filing clerks, factory jobs) at high risk of automation.
- 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 lack of soft skills is the biggest gap in the U.S. workforce.
The chart below from the World Economic Forum shows exactly which of these skills will be most important for the future of work. In general, soft skills encompass creativity, problem solving, collaboration, empathy, and flexibility.
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.
- Emotion 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.
- Being able to bounce back after a disappointment, setbacks and adversity.
- Giving attention to others’ unspoken cues and developing cognitive or emotional empathy of other people’s situation and perspective.
- 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.
- Interpersonal relationship skills. Beingeffective at building trust, finding common ground, having emotional empathy, and ultimately building good relationships with people at work and in your network.
- 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.
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.
- Model the right traits and behaviors. – “If [your company’s] leadership values skills such as a positive attitude, strong work ethic, teamwork and collaboration, the newer employees will naturally start to inherit these very important traits,” says marketing executive Ed Mitzen. Mentorship programs pairing younger employees with more seasoned pros are a good way to pass along valued skills.
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.
Two excellent resources that describe in detail soft skills and how to implement them in the workplace are: Soft Skills: Your Step by Step Guide to Overcome Workplace Challenges to Excel as A Leader, by M.S. Rao and Soft Leadership: An Innovative Leadership Style to Resolve Conflicts Amicably through Soft Skills and Negotiation Skills to Achieve Global Stability, Peace and Prosperity, by M.S. Rao.
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