‘Soft’, ‘human’, ‘flexibility’ – whatever they are called, these skills are powerful. They are firm foundations for any career.
Has it taken a global pandemic and a tipping point in the capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI) for organisations – perhaps all of us – to care more about what binds us, what makes us human?
This question may read as an emotive introduction to a business-related article, but it is relevant to our understanding of skillsets in the modern workplace. So-called soft skills are now critical. Actually, these very human modes of interacting are more accurately called ‘flexibility skills’, or, even more appropriately, ‘power skills’.
Intuitively, it makes sense that having good interpersonal skills will improve how we get things done, whether involving productivity, efficiency, or quality of outputs. After all, in almost any field collaboration is either necessary or it leads to new ideas, synergies or scale. “Many hands make light work,” goes the age-old proverb. More expressively, the Native American Hopi tribe’s saying is that “One finger cannot lift a pebble”.
Converging megatrends have contributed to the realisation of how important these skills are. The globalisation of industries over the past few decades means that business dealings are now increasingly cross-cultural. Workforces are more diverse, requiring nuanced management. The widening of stakeholder groups has raised the bar for environmental, social and governance (ESG) compliance which, broadly, necessitates a more empathetic approach to organisational leadership.
Digitisation, too, has influenced how soft skills are perceived. As newer generations of employees have entered employment, so digital capabilities have evened out. Learning and training opportunities – less formal and often online – have opened up. Employers are now routinely saying, ‘Hire for attitude, not aptitude’. Talent leaders will further emphasise this approach as AI applications take root in how jobs get done in the future.
So, the assessment of a promising candidate, the definition of a successful employee, and people’s career progression, is already strongly tied to the skills that differentiate us – the soft skills.
What are these so-called soft skills?
Generally, soft skills are those human-centred qualities that enable us to interact effectively and, usually although not always, harmoniously with others in a work context. They encompass, among many others, attitudinal attributes such as positivity, social advantages like good communication, collaborative ease and cultural competence, a propensity for leadership, and emotional intelligence (EQ).
How do they manifest? Consider a few common workplace scenarios
Walking back to your desk after a meeting, you find yourself wondering why a particular colleague’s idea or viewpoint always seems to hold sway. Often, everyone initially agrees that someone else’s is excellent, and consensus starts to build around it – but then Sarah pipes up and inevitably her angle soon receives near unanimous backing.
Is there someone in your company who is the go-to person to help solve difficult problems? Like Mpumi, for instance, who is the procurement department deputy but who also has a knack of cutting through complicated issues whether they relate to sales strategy dilemmas, IT systems incompatibilities, risk analysis, or talent policies.
Or perhaps a longstanding interdepartmental disconnect has been hampering new product initiatives? For 18 months senior management has been unable to synchronise developers’ workstreams with the market research team’s insights. Jonas has been flown in from regional HQ. Within a month he has everyone on the same page, and the new product launch schedule is back on track.
In these examples, Sarah, Mpumi and Jonas apply important soft skills to their workplace interactions – respectively, persuasion, critical thinking, and conflict management. These snapshots of real situations illustrate why soft skills are also called power skills: they help to achieve results. And people who cultivate these skillsets gain personal brand status – and power – in the organisation.
Intelligence is not enough
There is another reason for acquiring wider knowledge and fostering interpersonal skills. Authoritative projections about the future nature of work and how fast it will change agree that stability and predictability will fall away. In a recent survey of 10,000 corporate leaders and employees, 60% believed that ‘few people will have stable, long-term employment in the future’. Even computer scientists are having to face up to the reality that their technical skills are no longer in demand by the technology sector’s innovative giants.
What will be in demand are skillsets that cut across the forces of change. In its recent mammoth The Future of Jobs report, the World Economic Forum highlights a range of employee attributes within its definition of high-demand skills over the decade ahead, specifically mentioning critical thinking and analysis, problem-solving, aspects of self-management such as resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility, and active learning.
Perhaps most importantly, employer organisations will weigh their hiring and promotion decisions towards growth mindset candidates – people who embrace the acquisition of all forms of new skills, including flexibility or power skills.
Here are 5 ways to approach developing yours and those of your team:
1. Start with yourself. One of the foremost thinkers on EQ and its importance in the workplace, author and Harvard psychologist Daniel Goleman, models EQ around five elements: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Taken together, these mean that high-EQ people understand themselves and have a sense of purpose, possess an awareness of the situational or organisational culture, and manage their interpersonal behaviour accordingly – in alignment with their goals.
EQ is multifaceted, but it boils down to knowing one’s self, trying to know others, and using this knowledge to act fairly and responsibly.
2. Focus. The significant range of interpersonal, power skills makes it difficult to know where to start. Listing all the various skills before choosing which specific ones should be prioritised based on their personal appeal or general popularity, may be the wrong way to approach this area of skills development.
Think about your current position, your ambitions, strengths and weaknesses. Although it will be beneficial to build capability in any aspect of soft skillsets, consider focusing in two ways. First, capitalise on your existing strengths, so that your power skills are fostered to next-level advantage. Second, identify weaknesses and aim to develop these skills so that you are not at a significant disadvantage in those areas.
To illustrate, maybe your line manager has noted in performance appraisals that she appreciates how you help colleagues rise to even the most challenging tasks. Understanding how to inspire and motivate others is an important leadership skill, and developing your expertise in this ambit will stand you in good stead for career progression.
However – and partly tied to your strength of motivating others – is a reluctance to let go of tasks. You insist on rolling up your sleeves and immersing yourself in even the less complex parts of projects where your experience and expertise add no significant value. Evidently, delegation is a weakness. To advance into a management role will require you to improve; knowing when and how to delegate is an important part of leadership.
3. Accept that soft skills involve hard work. Not only are there many power skills to improve upon or master, but they also require practise, because they must be adapted according to circumstance. For example, Goleman segments emotionally intelligent leadership into six different styles. On one end of the spectrum is the coercive style, which may be necessary to implement a turnaround strategy. A coaching style is more appropriate once the ship is steadied and the enterprise is able to shift towards longer term thinking. The ability to bring these varying leadership approaches to the business is a sign of a power skill – and it is difficult.
4. Read. ‘Critical’ comes from the Greek word ‘kritikos’, meaning the ability to discern and judge. Critical thinking is one of the most difficult power skills to develop. Essentially, it is the ability to reason, to analyse confusing and even conflicting sets of information. Objectivity is important, but sentiments can be brought to bear as long as this is done consciously.
Techniques can be learned to better understand mental processes. But one of the best tools is a bank of knowledge, continuously expanded through curiosity, involving both general topics and areas specific to your discipline.
5. Organise for power skills to be unleashed. If you are in a management or leadership position, besides developing your own relevant skills, consider how you can encourage these among your teams. Acknowledging the need for empathy and understanding – among co-workers, and of clients’ and consumers’ needs or situations – ask whether your workforce is adequately diverse. Is there genuine inclusivity? Does the company’s culture allow space for creative thinkers to indulge their curiosity, for introverts to find their voice?
Mind your P’s and Q’s – and A’s and C’s, etcetera
Interestingly, Goleman’s work on EQ has spun out relatively recently into catchy initialisms. AQ is one’s Adversity Quotient, CQ is for Cultural (or Curiosity), DQ covers digital aptitude, the ability to respond to one’s internal physical messaging is PQ, and leaders need to develop inspirational vision (VQ).
It’s easy to lose sight of what we should be trying to do in boosting all these ‘Qs’. Deeper understanding of self, of others, and the world around us is the template for a well-rounded person. This is enabling in almost all situations, whether by creating calmness under pressure or seeing the wood from the trees, getting to the nub of a tricky issue, or grasping how to sell big ideas. Individually and together, these powerful human-centred skills help us to be better, and do better work.
Isn’t that what any skill is for?
In partnership with Dave Gorin