Why soft skills are the new hard skills

Why are soft skills desirable and gaining in importance?

Hard skills were once the main focus of the training professional, but approaches and attitudes to talent development have changed greatly over the years. As responsibility for decision making becomes more devolved, and as our world becomes ever more complex, the importance of collaborative attitudes and effective team and leadership skills has become more apparent.  We can look, for example, at Lencioni’s ‘five dysfunctions of a team’ to see how fundamental trust is to team performance, or read ‘the young and the clueless’ by Harvard Business Review for reports of how bad interpersonal skills in an otherwise very promising leader can wreak havoc in an organisation.

But there’s a more fundamental question that needs addressing first.

What are soft skills?

There is a danger, when we talk about ‘soft skills’ or explore ‘emotional intelligence’ that people do one of the two following things:

  1. Glaze over, because we are talking about something woolly and intangible which they neither understand, nor see a need for.
  2. Nod and read on, assuming that we and they understand each other perfectly, although we might not.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines soft skills as:

Personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.

But I would qualify this further. Everyone has some ability to interact with other people with varying levels of effectiveness and harmony. Nobody, however, can please all of the people all the time. We can all improve our chances of interacting effectively by increasing our self-awareness, trying to understand our impact on others and developing personal skills that give us a better chance of interacting effectively and harmoniously more of the time.

Why are such interpersonal skills important?

Time for an example, to bring this all to life.

Imagine you have a choice of two financial advisors you could use. Both charge the same commission, both are equally qualified and advise on the same investment products… which one would you go to? The one who meets you cheerfully, puts you at ease, explains things at your level, neither patronising nor blasting you with trade terminology… or the one who talks at you in a monotone script and ends the meeting abruptly, never stopping to smile (or even check you’re still awake)?

I’m making an assumption here, but I expect you would choose the former, not the latter, because being put at ease means feeling relaxed, like this person is on your side and you can trust them. It surely wouldn’t be logical to choose the advisor who is oblivious to your needs and feelings unless you knew they could get you better results.

But it’s not just in customer-facing or sales scenarios that soft skills matter. Another example:

You hire a brilliant developer to work on your ecommerce website. There’s no doubt she has the hard skills required for this job. You give her a new project to improve the customer journey on the website. She receives a requirements document from the project manager, spends 2 months developing pages which meet those requirements and you wait for the enhanced sales figures to pour in…. but they don’t.

Any number of things could have gone wrong in this example which could have been prevented if your new recruit had demonstrated better interpersonal skills, for example:

  • Clarifying the brief, asking questions and reflecting requirements back to ensure clear understanding
  • Recognising and querying requirements which did not align with customer needs
  • Proactively communicating progress and requesting sign off as plans progressed

As you can see from this example, it’s not just the developer’s hard and soft skills which are important to the organisation’s performance, but also her personal attitude and behaviour. This is the difference between a candidate who delivers brilliant results and one who under-performs.

Tired of examples?  Let’s look at opinions then.  According to 44% of US corporate executives, there is currently a soft skills gap in the US workforce.  64% believe this will result in less investment in the US economy.  If they are right, this issue needs to be taken seriously.

What about the future?

The modern work environment is evolving at a terrific pace.

Forecasts in the Future Work Skills report by the Institute for the Future predict several factors determining which skills will be needed. Huge technological breakthroughs in data crunching, artificial intelligence and global interconnectivity are changing the working environment, likewise new communications media and extreme longevity and diversity in the human workforce. Technology is advancing so quickly, it seems, that it’s increasingly hard to predict what the next change will bring.

You might think we’ll all be replaced at work by machines before too long. This is true, but only partly. While many jobs will be lost to machines, many more will exist which we cannot yet envision. The bit we can predict is a new enthusiasm for lifelong learning, and a greater need for soft skills which computers cannot provide.

As the key differentiating factor between us and machines is our ability to interact, build relationships with, and influence each other, this is largely reflected in the ten key skills identified for the future workforce (researched and reported by British Universities 2018); they read like a ‘soft skills must-haves’ list, including communication, decision-making, team-working and leadership skills.

Implications

Rather than soft skills being something woolly, unnecessary or shortly to be replaced, we find that they are quite the opposite: critical to both personal and organisational performance and set to become even more significant and valuable.

It therefore makes perfect sense to invest in effective soft skills development programmes if you want your organisation to thrive now and into the future.

Gemma Nightingale

MTa Learning are experts in experiential learning, an ideal methodology for delivering effective soft skills learning programmes. We have many kits of off-the-shelf activities to choose from.