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Enough! Soft Skills are not as soft as you think…

Many new and existing leaders roll their eyes when the term “soft skills” is used. This occurs because the term “soft skills” is misunderstood and mistakenly misused. Successful performance of role tasks and achievement of outcomes in a successful organisation require both soft and hard skills. And yet the importance of Soft Skills are often overshadowed or under-appreciated – Why?

Mythbusting Soft Skills

 “Soft Skills” are often the less visible mortar which sits between the highly visible bricks of “Hard Skill” of technical capability and logic which converts individual efforts into measurable team productivity and organisational success. Economic Research commissioned by McDonalds in 2015 found that Soft Skills contribute £88 billion to the UK economy – a contribution that is expected to rise to £109 billion by 2020.

With all the talk about disruption and artificial intelligence, Soft Skills can get overlooked as a nice to have, instead of a need to have when recruiting and developing organisational talent.

The first step is to eliminate the misperception and misuse of the term “Soft Skills” – “Soft Skills” are the gamechangers for the future of work. “Soft Skills” are the difference between good teams and great teams.

Reframing Soft Skills

 “Soft Skills” is often perceived and misrepresented as the warm and fuzzy HR stuff designed to tick a box for someone uncaring somewhere unknown for something unimportant. Examples of incorrect application of “Soft Skills” in organisations are Soft Skills workshop designed and delivered as a band aid solution for problems symptomatic of common talent and performance issues. These issues can’t be “fixed” by training and are often better remedied by investing in other non-training efforts such as coaching, job design, organisational restructures, communication of change to name but a few.

Understanding Soft Skills

Lets take a hard look at Soft Skills to understand how they are critical to success and why we need to find and develop them within our Future Leaders. While many definitions abound, a starting point is defining and separating Hard Skills from Soft Skills.

Hard Skills could be related to innate competence, technical ability or cognitive intelligence while soft skills could include aspects of emotional intelligence, behaviours, motivation and other elements of human interaction.

A recent LinkedIn Business Leader survey provided the following results of the which soft skills they would most like their employees to learn:

  1. Leadership
  2. Communication
  3. Collaboration
  4. Time Management

Attracting Soft Skills

In the UK alone it is estimated over half a million UK workers will be significantly held back by a lack of soft skills by 2020 – using this UK estimate highlights the global need for soft skills development to meet the future of work.

Soft Skills can require more time and effort to assess then the Hard Skills of technical ability, the payoff is greater. Seek to measure the human skills and abilities that candidates bring to the team now and in the future..

When recruiting new Talent, include processes and tools which sit beside the usual cognitive assessments or functional job questionnaires. Emotional Intelligence can evaluated using redesigned interview questions and research-based tests such as the Myer Salovey Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT).

Developing Soft Skills

Individuals and leaders must invest in developing their soft skills. The 2015 McDonalds Economic research quoted 97% of employers as saying they believed that soft skills were important to their current business success, with 75% of them believing there was a soft skills ‘gap’ in the UK workforce.

For individuals seeking to develop their Soft Skills, training workshops and Organisational Development activities can initiate the process, but are usually insufficient without additional opportunities to practice and learn soft skills learned. Continuous practice, with performance feedback gather through, self-reflection or constructive inputs received from others results in higher levels of genuine soft skills development.

For managers seeking to foster ongoing development of Soft Skills, set development goals and provide continuous learning opportunities for team members to develop their human skills and abilities. Provide them with access to develop their human skills, practice these skills and achieve their development goals.

Investing in “Human” Skills

As we move into a world in which work today differs from the work we did a decade ago, the known and unknown concepts of AI and Automation are changing the DNA of work. We are required to focus on the “soft skills” aspects of human interactions both in the qualities we bring to our roles and the talents we develop in others for current and future roles. By doing so we can change current misperceptions of “Soft Skills” and attract and develop future talent more effectively.

Soft skills aren’t soft! They can be hard – hard to learn, hard to find time and hard to put in the effort to develop – within ourselves and others. But….the investment pays hard dividends. So enough with the talk and eye rolls. Let’s stop calling them soft skills and instead call them for what they really are – “human skills” – the human qualities and emotional intelligence abilities which are necessary for the future of work.

Sources and Additional Information

Levasseur: People Skills: Developing Soft Skills Interfaces Vol. 43, No. 6, November–December 2013, pp. 566–571 ISSN 0092-2102 (print)—ISSN 1526-551X (online)

Muzio E, Fisher D (2009) Soft skill quantification (SSQ): Human performance vs. metric. Cost Engrg. 51(3):26–31.

Newell D (2002) The smarter they are the harder they fall. Career Development Internat. 7(5):288–291.