January 31, 2024

Why Soft Skills Should Be Your Top Priority Now

Editorial Team
Why Soft Skills Should Be Your Top Priority Now

As technology transforms workplaces, the skills that make us human will be irreplaceable.

They might be called soft skills, but don’t be fooled by the name. Soft skills like critical thinking, empathy, emotional intelligence, and adaptability are the new core skills that workplaces across the world are prioritising, even over hard skills that were once the prime requirement for career growth.

Soft skills – also called social skills or interpersonal skills – have grown and continue to grow in importance due to the rapid changes transforming the modern workplace, from the move to more flexible ways of working and the swift adoption of technology to growing diversity within our ranks. Many are calling soft skills the skills of the future, and there’s a good reason for this. According to research, technical skills have an average shelf life of two and a half years while soft skills like effective communication and leadership remain relevant for at least seven and a half years if not more. But beyond their durability, soft skills will provide us with the foundational dexterity we need to navigate the intricacies and instabilities of future work processes and practices. As a 2017 Deloitte report says, “soft skill-intensive occupations will account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030”.

Given their growing influence, this article takes a deep dive into soft skills and discusses how individuals and organisations alike can develop these essential skills. Also included is a list of the most in-demand soft skills today.

What are soft skills?

Soft skills are personality traits, habits, and behaviours that help people succeed at work and in life. Being a good communicator, showing great teamwork, being resilient to change, or having a mindset for continuous learning are all behavioural characteristics that can get you ahead in a workplace that is constantly evolving.        

Many say the term soft skills is misleading as it gives the impression that these abilities are less important than hard skills (technical skills). However, Eric Frazer, assistant professor of psychology at Yale University School of Medicine, dismisses the term ‘soft skills’ as jargon and explains the deeper meaning behind it: “From the standpoint of behavioural science, it [soft skills] really refers to a series of mindsets and behaviours. Some examples of soft-skill mindsets might be someone who’s a continuous learner, or someone who’s highly resilient. Many behaviours – critical thinking, active listening, imaginative problem solving to name a few – are also soft skills.” Calling soft skills another phrase for ‘people skills”, he continues, “It’s about a person’s sense of self, and how they relate with other people.”

Compared to hard skills, soft skills are less tangible, making them difficult (but not impossible) to measure, assess, or quantify. “Inventories and questionnaires don’t really capture these attributes with any great precision,” says Frazer. Soft skills are usually innate. But that’s not to say they cannot be learned. We do know that it is possible to fine-tune a behaviour or mindset. Importantly, hard skills and soft skills complement each other. While you need the former to carry out a task and the latter to do it efficiently and successfully.

The growth of soft skills

Soft skills are increasingly occupying the top spots in an organisation’s skills inventory. Their growing popularity has a lot to do with the major changes shaping our workplaces today:

1. Automation

Machines are replacing people. This is the most common interpretation of the rapid spread of workplace automation. However, it can also be said that automation demands that we become more ‘human’ and polish the skills that make us human. While machines take over routine and repetitive tasks such as data entry or emailing customers, activities that cannot be replicated by bots must still be performed by humans. In fact, organisations where automation is widespread often have a greater need for these human skills. As technology optimises manual processes, organisations need people with strong social skills to effectively manage the teams working the machines, take decisions, develop strategy, and solve conflicts. Let’s not forget that with multiple organisations using the same technology, it is the company whose employees and leaders show strong judgement, creativity, and innovation that will hold the competitive edge.

For more on this subject, read our previous blog here

2. Flexible work

The way we work has changed drastically. Where once people worked solely from the office, there are now remote and hybrid work models. With the use of gadgets, apps, and technology, you can attend a meeting or get your work done from any location. But it takes resilience to thrive in a flexible workplace, which holds the danger of being extremely lonely and isolating at times. In fact, remote work is a leading cause of employee burnout. Strong collaboration skills are a must to work well with colleagues and managers who are physically disconnected from you. Similarly, communicating in a remote landscape is daunting, complex, nuanced, and for the most part in writing. This calls for excellent communication skills and familiarity with communication tools. The importance of forming social connections is as important in a remote setting as it is in the office. Also, personal and professional lives are bound to clash in a flexible setting. Rather than berate a fellow worker for letting their personal obligations get in the way of their work, colleagues and, especially, managers would be wiser to display empathy. Showing a team member you care about their life experiences and taking the trouble to help them overcome difficulties will make them more productive while reprimanding them will just add to their misery and lack of engagement.

3. Diverse workforce

As more and more organisations prioritise diversity and inclusion, they need effective skills management and upskilling to create harmonious interactions between employees from diverse backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, genders, and regions with vastly different values and experiences. One of the most important skills for building compatibility and respect in a diverse group is empathy. Empathy allows you to confront unconscious bias – your own and that of others around you. If you are an empathetic individual, you’ll be less likely to give in to stereotypes and generalisations, which are hurtful and offensive. Strong leadership is also crucial. Managers leading diverse teams must always be on the lookout for microaggressions – actions or statements, often unintentional, that are derogatory and demeaning to members of marginalised groups. By combining empathy with the ability to influence, they can increase awareness of microaggressions and show that it is unacceptable in a fair and inclusive workspace. Similarly, communication and active listening skills are integral to building a truly inclusive workplace that makes all its employees feel heard and valued.

Six soft skills you need to succeed at work

Whether you’re a business or an individual, these are the soft skills your skills matrix should include:

1. Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It involves putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand how they feel. It is different from sympathy, which begins and ends with feeling sorry for someone. How can you tell if you are an empathetic person? Some tell-tale signs are:

  • You listen attentively to others
  • You can tell how someone is feeling
  • You can feel what they are feeling
  • People come to you to share their troubles or to ask for advice.

Being empathetic at the workplace means showing kindness and compassion for colleagues who are going through a rough time (professionally or personally), listening to their concerns, and taking an active interest in helping them out. Empathy makes you a capable communicator and improves your interpersonal relationships. What’s more, empathetic leadership is a force against employee burnout, which has remained at alarming levels for the past two years and more. According to a 2020 survey, 29% of employees wished their organisations would act with more empathy as a means to prevent burnout. This is just one reason why empathy – and not technical prowess or administrative capability – is considered the most important leadership skill today.

2. Emotional intelligence

Linked closely to empathy is emotional intelligence, which is the ability to recognise and manage one’s own emotions as well as understand and influence the emotions of others. For a better understanding, let’s take a look at the five components of emotional intelligence according to psychologist Daniel Goleman:

  • Self-awareness, which is the ability to identify your own emotions in different situations.
  • Self-regulation, which is not just understanding how your emotions work but knowing how to manage them.
  • Motivation, which means doing something (completing a task, participating in a project) because you choose to do so and not due to external factors (money, promotion, etc).       
  • Empathy, which, as we mentioned earlier, is awareness of others’ emotions.
  • Social skill, or the way you form and manage relationships and handle social situations. For example, the way you manage a team, deal with conflict, or present your ideas to colleagues.

A high emotional intelligence helps you communicate flawlessly, build harmonious relationships, deal with conflict, reduce stress, and achieve personal and professional goals. It’s also a great leadership trait. Employees with emotionally intelligent supervisors are happier and more creative and innovative, according to a 2020 Yale University study.

3. Active listening

The best communicators are good listeners. It is no surprise then that one of the most important communication skills is active listening. Active listening involves focusing on the speaker, understanding and comprehending what they are saying, and responding thoughtfully. If you practise active listening, you will be able to recall details from a conversation even after considerable time has passed. Active listening is a valued skill because it helps you improve your knowledge, build connections, and solve problems. Active listening works on both verbal and non-verbal cues. A verbal cue could be paraphrasing what the speaker has said, allowing them to clarify or add to their message. This facilitates complete understanding. Non-verbal cues include maintaining eye contact, nodding, and smiling to assure the speaker that you are attentive to what they are saying. Showing empathy is intrinsic to active listening. This shows that soft skills complement each other and possessing one makes you more likely to develop another.

4. Adaptability

Adaptable individuals are open to workplace shifts and can reinvent themselves to fit into different environments. They find it easier to take on new priorities and responsibilities, work with new technology, and adapt to the changing needs of team members. They are also comfortable in unfamiliar environments. Other important soft skills such as resilience, agility, and flexibility are all tied to adaptability. Without it, it is impossible to be successful in a future where the only constant is change. A great way to test your adaptability is to ask yourself how you handled a stressful situation in the past and what its outcome was.

5. Cultural intelligence

With workplaces becoming more diverse, it is important to work effectively with people from different backgrounds. Cultural intelligence is the ability to relate to and interact with people from diverse cultures and respect their opinions, which might be different from your own. It is a must-have quality in a global multicultural organisation where you work with colleagues, customers, and clients from around the world. Cultural intelligence can be as simple as pronouncing your colleague’s name correctly. Culturally sensitive people do not judge others by their accent or physical appearance. They are open to observing and understanding their culture and experiences and learning from it. With cultural intelligence, you can improve your communication style, become adept at conflict management, and easily interact and build a rapport with people from diverse backgrounds.

6. Continuous learning

Continuous learning is about constantly working towards acquiring new knowledge, skills, and competencies to expand your skill set and create new opportunities for self-improvement and professional development. This ability is gaining in importance as skill sets change swiftly. Its relevance is also defined by the fact that the skills and competencies you need as a new entrant to the workforce are not the same as the skills you require to take on a leadership role in the future. Continuous learning demands a curious mind, self-motivation, and a growth mindset – which is in itself a valuable soft skill that allows you to view adverse situations as an opportunity to learn from, grow, and improve.

Interested in how a skills matrix works? MuchSkills’ skills visualisation feature is a simple way to view all the skills in your team or organisation.

Can soft skills be learned? The answer is yes

Although soft skills have more to do with character and behaviour, they can be learned like technical skills. The learning process is just a little bit different. The good news is that employees are eager to learn – 94% of them would stay at a company longer if it offered upskilling opportunities, according to LinkedIn’s 2019 Workforce Learning Report. This means employers have a duty to invest in their employees’ soft skills training. The payout would be an impressive soft skills database any organisation would be proud of.

Here are some ways to go about it:

  • Provide learning experiences: Learning a soft skill is different from learning a technical skill. Take problem solving, for example. An employee who has never had to solve a problem at work before will struggle with it at first. But given time and experience, they will learn to come up with workable and even great solutions. Soft skills are honed over time. It is, therefore, important that workplaces give employees the opportunity to gain experience. This means allowing them to make mistakes and learn from them.
  • Offer learning opportunities: Workshops and training sessions for soft skills do exist. A company can organise a workshop on, say, time management, active listening, or teamwork where a manager or mentor walks participating employees through various situations and assesses their response. This can be followed by a meaningful discussion. Employers and employees can pick from a variety of learning methods, from classroom teaching and group training to mentoring programmes and on-demand training. The growing need for soft skills education is acknowledged not just by businesses but business schools as well. The Yale School of Management, for example, teaches a Leading Global Virtual Teams online programme that helps participants develop skills to work effectively in a remote setting.
  • Practice makes perfect: Like hard skills, soft skills can get dull if unused. It’s important to practise your soft skills regularly instead of attending a one-off seminar or workshop and thinking you’re done.
  • Make it part of company culture: The starting point can be the recruitment and onboarding processes. Interviewers can be trained to ask candidates well-defined questions about their soft skills. This will ensure that the right people with the right skills are hired and any skills gap in the organisation is addressed. During onboarding, new recruits can be provided some form of soft skills training right away. There is a direct correlation between soft skills and successful hiring with 89% of recruiters surveyed by LinkedIn  saying a failed hire is usually due to a lack of soft skills. In the next stage, employers can make sure that learning opportunities aren’t wasted by giving managers and mentors the specific responsibility of nurturing soft skills in employees who show promise. Upskilling efforts will also show greater results if self-improvement is directly linked to performance assessment, higher pay, and promotion. Finally, if a company expects its workers to embrace and practise the skills it values, then it must send a clear message that is heard by all.
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