The Importance of Soft Skills in Hard Times

Stephen DeAngelis

October 15, 2021

An oft-heard lament nowadays is that people lack the skills to fill available job openings. Most often, those laments are about the lack of hard skills. However, companies are quickly learning that soft skills are becoming increasingly important. Even workers with hard skills can benefit from burnishing their soft skills. Tech writer Angus Loten (@angusloten) notes, “The surge in remote working and the rapid expansion of digital-business tools driven by the coronavirus pandemic are prompting employers to add a new qualification to enterprise-technology job postings: people skills.”[1] With the Delta variant raging and the Mu variant waiting in the wings, this situation is unlikely to change in the near-term. “In today’s job market,” Freelance journalist Jared Lindzon (@JLindzon) asserts, “what you can do is often less important than how you do it.”[2] Elaborating, Lindzon writes, “Employers may only hire candidates who meet the minimum requirements for technical competencies, but there is a growing appetite for candidates who can demonstrate more advanced soft skills, as those are often harder to teach. Among all the soft skills employers are seeking, however, one stands far above the rest in terms of employer demand.” That skill is communication.

 

The Importance of Soft Skills

 

The medical profession has known for a long time that soft skills are nearly as important as hard skills. Healthcare journalist Patricia Chaney (@TRCWriter) explains, “Bedside manner among all medical professionals is a crucial part of their patients’ recovery. Not only does it affect how patients feel in the hospital, but also how much they learn about caring for themselves at home. This important element encompasses every aspect of one’s interaction with a patient and his or her family member — not only what is said, but how it’s expressed.”[3] Lindzon explains that the need for people skills is now being recognized far beyond traditional fields where such skills have long been appreciated. He writes, “While demand for candidates with strong communication skills was once specific to industries and roles that were public- or customer-facing — such as corporate communications or sales — there is now a growing recognition of the importance of communication skills in almost any corporate setting.”

 

Analysts from McKinsey & Company note, “Accompanying the adoption of advanced technologies into the workplace will be an increase in the need for workers with finely tuned social and emotional skills — skills that machines are a long way from mastering. … While some of these skills, such as empathy, are innate, others, such as advanced communication, can be honed and taught.”[4] Nadia Chen, Talent Engagement Director at Kurrant Talent, adds, “Automation and artificial intelligence will result in a greater proportion of jobs relying on soft skills but their importance is often undervalued in the workplace.”[5] She insists, “Demand for soft skills already exceeds supply by up to 45 per cent.” And she notes, “A study by Deloitte estimates that two-thirds of all jobs by 2030 will depend on soft skills.”

 

The Most Important Soft Skills

 

As Lindzon noted, communication is currently the most desired soft skill being sought by employers; however, it’s not the only skill in high demand. Jay Wright, Developmental Editor at WikiJob, pointed me to WikiJob’s top ten list of soft skills.[6] Not surprisingly, communication tops the WikiJob list:

 

1. Communication: Dan Brodnitz, head of content strategy for LinkedIn Learning, told Lindzon, “Communication is core to how people interact, and therefore it’s core to how people do business effectively. Anything that involves more than one person depends on communications.” The WikiJob team adds, “Able communicators can adjust their tone and style according to their audience, comprehend and act efficiently on instructions, and explain complex issues to colleagues and clients alike. A key, often forgotten, communication skill is listening.”

 

2. Self-Motivation. With remote and hybrid work on the rise, self-motivation is essential. The WikiJob’s team notes, “Having a positive attitude and the initiative to work well without around-the-clock supervision is a vital soft skill for any employee.”

 

3. Leadership. Great leadership requires a person to hone all of the soft skills. The WikiJob’s team stresses, “Those with strong leadership skills will have the ability to inspire others and lead teams to success. This is why it is a particularly sought-after skill.”

 

4. Responsibility. Responsibility is a traveling companion of self-motivation. According to the WikiJob’s team, a responsible person embraces the following qualities: Trustworthiness; discipline; motivation; conscientiousness; accountability; resilience; and adaptability.

 

5. Teamwork. Most successful businesses require teamwork. Headhunter Martha Heller, Chief Executive Officer of Heller Search Associates, told Loten, “The brilliant, introverted developer continues to be in high demand, but we are also seeing an uptick in requirements for relationship building, business acumen and communications in our searches.” At some point, even introverts need to work with others. That’s why teambuilding exercises continue to be a staple in the business world.

 

6. Problem Solving. Frankly, I’m surprised problem solving is so low on the list. A survey conducted by McKinsey & Company back in 2018 found that problem solving, critical thinking, innovation, and creativity were the top skills desired by employers. The next most desirable skillset involved the ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity.[7]

 

7. Decisiveness. The WikiJob’s team notes, “Decisiveness is characterized by the ability to make quick and effective decisions. It does not mean recklessness or impulsiveness.” According to Chen, decisiveness could also include “cognitive flexibility, business empathy, perspective-taking or focus, and self-control, which is sometime seen as missing among millennials.”

 

8. Ability to Work Under Pressure and Time Management. The WikiJob’s team writes, “Many jobs come with demanding deadlines and, sometimes, high stakes. Recruiters prize candidates who show a decisive attitude, an unfaltering ability to think clearly, and a capacity to compartmentalize and set stress aside.” Setting stress aside, however, can be difficult. Lynda Gratton (@lyndagratton), a professor of management practice at London Business School, explains, “It turns out that the development and use of soft skills such as empathy and creativity are highly sensitive to how a person is feeling. Studies show that when people feel under pressure, like they’re being treated unfairly, or otherwise feel under stress, the hippocampus — the part of the brain’s limbic system that is associated with emotion — is much less able to engage in empathic listening or appreciating the context of a situation. The brain, in a sense, closes down to learning or performing soft skills. The challenge is that many workplaces have practices and processes that, often unintentionally, result in high levels of stress. Moreover, the antidotes — such as more flexible working conditions, collaborative cultures, the institution of fair processes — are not adopted quickly.”[8] In other words, companies can unintentionally undermine the development of the soft skills they desire to foster in their employees.

 

9. Flexibility. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution asserts that the species best able to adapt to changing circumstances have the best chances of survival. In today’s ever-changing business world, agile companies have the best chance of survival. Agile companies, however, depend on having flexible employees. The WikiJob’s team notes, “Flexibility is an important soft skill, since it demonstrates an ability and willingness to embrace new tasks and new challenges calmly and without fuss. Flexible employees are willing to help out where needed, take on extra responsibilities and can adapt quickly when plans change.”

 

10. Negotiation and Conflict Resolution. Conflict within an organization can create a toxic environment. That’s why a person who can deal with conflict is so valuable. The WikiJob’s team explains, “To be an adept negotiator is to know how to be persuasive and exert influence, while sensitively seeking a solution which will benefit all parties. Similarly, conflict resolution depends on strong interpersonal skills and the ability to establish a rapport with colleagues and clients alike.”

 

Concluding Thoughts

 

Chen concludes, “Unlike hard skills that are learned, soft skills are similar to emotions or insights and allow people to interact intelligently with others. You don’t learn them in a typical classroom setting and they are much tougher to evaluate and measure.” Gratton agrees we have a lot to learn about how to teach people the soft skills they will need to succeed in the years ahead. She writes, “The World Economic Forum report on future skills argued, it is human ‘soft skills’ that will become increasingly valuable — skills such as empathy, context sensing, collaboration, and creative thinking. That means that millions of people across the world will have to make the transition toward becoming a great deal better versed in these soft skills. But that’s far from easy. The paradox is that while we understand a lot about how to develop the ‘hard skills’ of analysis, decision-making, and analytical judgment, we know a great deal less about the genesis of soft skills.” That’s why, when an employer finds a person blessed with these soft skills, they are considered a business treasure; and, that’s why soft skills are so important for hard times.

 

Footnotes
[1] Angus Loten, “People Skills a Plus for Tech Job Seekers,” The Wall Street Journal, 19 November 2020.
[2] Jared Lindzon, “This is the most in-demand skill on job listings right now,” Fast Company, 30 September 2020.
[3] Patricia Chaney, “The Importance of Bedside Manner to Trust and Patient Engagement,” UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine Search Campus and Health News, 18 July 2016.
[4] Jacques Bughin, Eric Hazan, Susan Lund, Peter Dahlström, Anna Wiesinger, and Amresh Subramaniam, “Skill shift: Automation and the future of the workforce,” McKinsey & Company, 23 May 2018.
[5] Nadia Chen, “Soft skills for better business and future employability,” SmartCitiesWorld, 18 September 2020.
[6] Staff, “Soft Skills List,” Wikijobs, 26 August 2021.
[7] Staff, “Soft Skills for a Hard World,” McKinsey & Company, 2018.
[8] Lynda Gratton, “The Challenge of Scaling Soft Skills,” MIT Sloan Management Review, 6 August 2018.