Let’s start with a little word association. When we say soft, what other words does that conjure? Balmy, benign, bland, delicate, gentle, light, mellow, mild, nonabrasive, soothing, tender. Hardly the types of words we people use when talking about building up their strength. Now let’s look at what we mean by soft skills – they are the personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people. There is a huge disconnect here, and it is only growing as the skills defined as soft are now so critical in the current talent market.
I am taking part in Brené Brown’s read along with her new book Dare to Lead – each week she posts a 10-minute video of her answering readers’ questions about a specific chapter. During one of these sessions, someone brought up the subject of soft skills and wondered why we don’t rename them as the name suggests they are not as important as hard or technical skills. In typical Brené fashion, she answered, “If I put a team of technical people in a room and asked them to choose between working on soft skills – curiosity, vulnerability and shame or hard or technical skills, invariably they’d select hard every time.” In other words, “Things with sharp corners are easier.”
However, this raises a good point. Since the inclusion of soft in the title somewhat diminishes the importance of these skills, is there a better, more satisfying name? Brené suggests courage building skills. While I don’t think our corporate customers are ready for us to put a courage skills collection together, I do think we need to change how we talk about soft skills and why they are now more relevant than ever.
The hard role soft skills play
A lack of good communication, collaboration and conflict resolution are holding people back. West Monroe Partners research shows that 98% of HR leaders believe soft skills are important for candidates looking for technology roles, so important that 67% say they withheld a job offer from a talented IT candidate due to a lack of soft skills. Yet, an incredible 40% of employers do not provide training in soft skills.
A 2018 Bloomberg Next and Workday study found that four in ten corporations and almost half of the academic institutions believe new hires lack the soft skills required to perform at a high level.
In the future, soft skills will also take on even greater significance as artificial intelligence, and other technologies transform the workplace. According to a report by PwC, as many as 30% of existing roles in the UK could be automated by 2030; however, there are still crucial, “human” if you will skills that robots cannot perform.
Are soft skills the hard skills of the future?
In its Future of Jobs report, the World Economic Forum looked at current employment, skills and workforce strategies to identify the top 10 skills that everyone will need in the fourth industrial revolution. What might surprise some is that creativity, critical thinking, people management and emotional intelligence, skills we call soft, are all on this list.
Original image source: World Economic Forum
A few years back Google tested its hiring algorithms and found that “among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.”
The hard role soft skills play
The lack of good communication, collaboration and conflict resolution skills are holding people back. A 2018 Bloomberg Next and Workday study that found a whopping four in ten corporations and almost half of academic institutions believe new hires lack the soft skills required to perform at a high level. Elsewhere, West Monroe Partners research shows that 98% of HR leaders believe soft skills are important for candidates looking to be hired into technology roles, so important that 67% say they withheld a job offer from a talented IT candidate due to a lack of soft skills. Yet, an unbelievable 40% of employers do not provide training in soft skills.
Why soft skills training is difficult
Okay, so we’ve established there is nothing “soft” about soft skills, that they are essential and in some cases a deal breaker. So why are we not simply providing the necessary training? Part of the problem is that many people continue to believe that, like leadership, “soft” skills are inherent – you either have or you do not, that you are either a good communicator or you a bad one.
This is a myth. These skills are as teachable as any other skill. Researchers from MIT Sloan have the data to prove that not only can you teach soft skills, they also bring a substantial return on investment to employers. The issue is the way we traditionally approach this training. For example, relying on a talking head to instruct and guide learners through the maze that is effective communication is ineffective.
So what sort of training does work?
Skillsoft has invested both time and money to understand the most effective way to teach soft skills. We redesigned our soft skills training and now use professional actors and scriptwriters to illustrate key concepts through real-world situations. By having the actors role-play, users experience the learning in a more engaging way which leads to better learning, retention, and overall experience. For example, take an area like emotional intelligence which experts agree can determine who will climb the corporate ladder and who stays on the bottom rung. We’ve created a whole program around how to increase emotional intelligence both professionally and personally. Included in this are a selection of resources from books and videos like this one about manager anger the right way.
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Tara O’Sullivan is the Chief Marketing Officer at Skillsoft.