The workplace is a living system that helps us create meaning, find connections, build new skills, solve interesting problems, and contributes to our identity. This system relies upon the unique abilities, motivations and guiding principles humans bring into these spaces and how these factors impact workplace experiences, productivity, self-worth, and ultimately business outcomes.
Key capabilities that determine individual and team success are often referred to as soft skills, and are usually addressed in the recruitment process when looking for “culture fits” or “culture adds”. When it comes to soft skills however, we are asking:
- Is it constructive to call soft skills “soft” anymore?
- Are we really assessing and rewarding these key skills in the recruitment process, performance reviews, leadership succession and our day-to-day work?
- Does the label “soft” mean that leaders and teams are not prioritising and internally reflecting on these skills? Or understanding how to develop them in their organisations?
- How do we create more resources, accountability and a full understanding of these skills needed to build flourishing workplaces?
In a rapidly shape-shifting work environment, leadership relies on soft skills that transcend managerial checklists and processes as they are vital to the success of organisations both big and small. In this article, we’ll explore more about:
- How these skills are uniquely human and will be positive drivers throughout your life and work.
- How soft skills will become increasingly valuable as technology encroaches on the work and tasks we have traditionally valued.
What are soft skills?
Before starting to discuss the importance of these skills, let’s clearly define what soft skills are. Soft skills are those that shape how you interact with others, internally reflect and handle situations. Traditionally, soft skills have been identified as many things including:
- Effective communication skills
- Teamwork and collaboration
- Conflict resolution
- Creative thinking
- Work ethic
Soft skills are often placed alongside skills known as hard skills. These sets of skills relate to the technical knowledge a person brings into their specialty and role. These include skills like data analytics, marketing, copywriting, software engineering, graphic design, etc.
It is believed that this concept of hard and soft skills first sprouted in 1936, when Dale Carnegie’s famous self-help book How to Win Friends and Influence People was published. Since then most leaders and organisations have understood that while both types of skills are necessary, soft skills have historically been thought of as an additive set of skills to those of the more important hard skills.
Recently, there has been an explosion of articles and training courses focusing on the importance of soft skills and changing the narrative around them. As new generations step up to lead, there is an understanding of how soft skills can impact more than just a person’s emotions, but also contribute to a better way of working and living in this era of connection and change. An IBM skills gap report from 2019 reveals that soft skills now dominate the top four core competencies global executives seek in their people, a shift away from digital and technical skills dominating the top spots.
Soft skills = Human Skills
Strong leaders now understand that to succeed in this rapidly evolving world they need people who can communicate effectively, apply creative problem solving and critical thinking skills to drive innovation and act on insights they are receiving in the flow of work. To do all this individuals need empathy and adaptability so they can change course quickly and seek out personal growth for themselves and those around them. As you can see, categorising these ideas as soft doesn’t talk to their importance, and others agree.
Claude Silver, Chief Heart Officer at VaynerMedia suggests that soft skills are better identified as life skills — after all, they can assist us in navigating all different types of interactions and relationships. “They are necessary life skills. We use them every single day… they are what we need to be human beings.” Vayner also adds that if we’re actively working on these in order to be a better human, they will inevitably translate into our workplace interactions.
Josh Bersin has also been redefining soft skills explaining: “Hard Skills are soft (they change all the time, are constantly being obsoleted, and are relatively easy to learn), and Soft Skills are hard (they are difficult to build, critical, and take extreme effort to obtain).”
Bersin has suggested we rename them as “power skills, because in reality they are the skills that give you real “power” at work.”
The term we most like to use for these skills at Team & Work are Human Skills as they are innately ours. As we can see from the lists above, these are the skills that are not routine or predictable, they are difficult to break into small units and cannot be easily codified. And once developed in a person, definitely have a longer shelf-life than technical skills.
They are also the skills we need to continually hone as we design and work alongside digital technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, high-tech robotics and the Internet of Things that are already disrupting and displacing human labour.
Human skills and the future of work
It is becoming obvious that Human skills are the key to succeeding in our future workplaces and should become a core focus in the educational and development programs of schools and organisations. Paradoxically, our focus in recent years on developing machine capabilities in people to perform routine cognitive work has partly distracted us from building our human skills and our need to place human-kind at the centre of our products and technological advances (e.g. Facebook are not facing issues of technological strategies but instead problems of ethics, wisdom and values).
As a society we have undervalued professions that provide care, ignite learning and drive creativity in unpredictable and interactive roles for those that structure data for computers and rote learn information for recall. Equally, leadership styles we have previously admired — such as command and control – have trained employees to operate in alignment with top down decisions, processes and structures; like cogs in a machine. However leaders who demonstrate humans skills are the ones that encourage us to continuously learn and disrupt ourselves — which is at the core of what it takes to innovate and solve problems in a complex world.
Our human skills will be essential in working with others so connections are made and tacit and explicit knowledge flows across teams, customers and stakeholders. And with the rise of remote work and distributed teams the ability to develop next level human skills that you can amplify across digital platforms with people you know and more importantly with people you don’t, to achieve goals and drive change, will be our next challenge.
Success in the workplace of the future will require us to have enhanced human skills combined with the right mindset that embraces risk-taking, ambiguity, agency, continuous learning and curiosity to create value. This combination will also allow us to move on from the notion of T-shaped, multidisciplinary thinking to X-shaped thinking where humans and machines collaborate from discipline-agnostic perspectives to find and solve complex challenges. Human skills, with the right mindset and higher level cognitive skills augmented by technology will get us there.
In our next article on this topic we will move onto the other questions of human skill assessment and recognition, how we develop human skills and how we build them into capabilities for our organisations.