25 January 2019

5 Key Soft Skills to Drive Business Success in 2019

Soft Skills / Talent Development
key soft skills


Gabriela Weglowska

Research from Harvard University shows that 85% of job success comes from soft skills and only 15% from technical skills. However, one in three recruiters believes job candidates’ soft skills have gotten worse in the past five years. So why is finding candidates with the key soft skills to succeed in today’s world of work such a challenge?

One of the reasons is that historically soft skills have been undervalued by many organizations. The misconception that technical studies offer more employment options has led to a general overemphasis on STEM-related subjects. Fortunately, this is now starting to change.

According to CNBC, organizations are shifting their focus towards the skills potential employees can bring rather than emphasizing titles and experiences. There is plenty of research illustrating that soft skills increase overall business performance and that investing in developing employees’ soft skills brings a clear return on that investment.

soft skills
Soft Skills Development
Building the critical skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace
soft skills
Soft Skills Development
Building the critical skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace

For example, a study from MIT Sloan found that soft skills training can improve individual and organizational productivity. Similarly, in an internal study, Google discovered that their highest performing teams were those that consisted of individuals with strong soft skills, including good communication, collaboration, and empathetic leadership.

Here are five key soft skills that will drive workplace success in 2019:

1.  Creative and critical thinking

Creativity and critical thinking are top of most lists of skills crucial for success in the 21st century. They rank second and third on the World Economic Forum’s top ten list of skills employees will need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Unfortunately, according to a report from the Society for Human Resource Management, 84% of HR professionals report a deficit of key soft skills (or ‘applied skills’), which include critical thinking.

However, with the fast development of artificial intelligence, creative and critical thinking will increase in demand.

William Bryant, CEO of Better Rhetor, a company dedicated to closing the college-readiness gap, explains that “creativity is associated with generating ideas, while critical thinking is associated with judging them”.

These complementing skills are human abilities that robots are unlikely to learn anytime soon, but remain crucial for any high-performing team.

Not surprisingly then, creativity is the number one soft skill in LinkedIn’s analyses of the five key soft skills needed the most by companies in 2019.

Further reading

2.  Collaboration

In order to deliver a project successfully, team members need to collaborate. But effective collaboration is not a strong point for many businesses. According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report, the majority of employees “believe that their organization’s project performance would improve if their teams worked more collaboratively.”

In addition, another report from Gallup revealed that collaboration is the key soft skill to help B2B organizations solve their main challenge – achieving organic growth.

This is because collaboration enables true partnership based on transparency, trust and working towards mutual benefits instead of focusing on individual objectives.

Successful collaboration is also linked to effective communication skills. This includes active listening and active engagement in conflict resolution so that miscommunications can be solved quickly, and the project can stay on track.

There is one more reason why collaboration is a key soft skill for organizations to focus on in 2019.

Employees used to socialize at the water cooler or coffee machine, but nowadays there is a lot of pressure to put your head down and be productive. Remote working and self-employment are on the rise, limiting the number of face to face interactions with co-workers.

These changes in the way we work actually make us feel lonelier, warns the American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health, adding that “loneliness can contribute to mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, and addictions.”

3.  Coaching

When given the opportunity to learn and grow, people thrive. But how much time do organizations really invest in developing and empowering their employees?

Further reading

According to a Global Leadership Forecast, conducted by the Conference Board and Development Dimensions International, only 25% of managers spend more time coaching, communicating and fostering creativity than they do managing their staff (e.g., delegating).

However, adopting a coaching mentality and approach is a win-win for employees and organizations alike. Something that is recognized by GAFABeing a good coach tops Google’s list of the 7 key characteristics of a successful Google employee.

Perhaps it’s time for more organizations to shift from managing to coaching to increase employee engagement and boost productivity and innovation.

Good coaches can help create a supportive company culture where talent is encouraged to realize their potential.

This leads to a higher level of satisfaction at work and enhances talent retention.

Being an effective coach is a complex competency that involves mastering additional soft skills, such as relationship building, empathy, active listening, and positive thinking. It is a competency that can be built through training.

4.  Cultural Intelligence

Cultural intelligence, as defined by David Livermore, author of Leading with Culture Intelligence, is “an individual capability to adapt and function effectively in different cultural environments and situations characterized by cultural diversity.”

In today’s interconnected world the number of organizations which operate globally increases by the day.

Diverse teams are becoming the new norm, and have been proven to have a positive impact on both organizational and individual performance.

According to McKinsey, embracing different cultures and viewpoints drives innovation, improves decision-making, increases employee productivity and retention, and leads to higher profitability.

Unfortunately, when it comes to working in culturally diverse teams, most people struggle to communicate and work effectively. This is because most of us, from an early age, learn how to do things with people who are just like us. As a result, we find it challenging to adapt to unfamiliar styles.

But cultural intelligence is gaining a higher profile. 90% of business leaders from almost 70 countries named culturally intelligent leadership as the leading priority for the 21st century.

The latest McKinsey report found that “overall, companies in the bottom quartile for both gender and ethnic/cultural diversity were 29% less likely to achieve above-average profitability than were all other companies in our data set. In short, not only were they not leading, they were lagging.”

soft skills
Soft Skills Development
Building the critical skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace
soft skills
Soft Skills Development
Building the critical skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace

It’s probably fair to say that investing in developing the cultural intelligence of your employees is the wisest investment your organization can make in 2019.

PwC is already ahead of most organizations in recognizing the value of cultural intelligence. Robert Mortiz, Chair of PWC US, says that “cultural intelligence is a critical capability for navigating today’s increasingly global and diverse business environment. It’s so important that we made it one of our core behaviors at PwC.”

5.  Compassionate leadership

Compassion has been gradually gaining recognition as an important aspect of leadership. Research shows that organizations with more compassionate leaders excel at collaboration – already identified as one of the key soft skills for 2019.

Furthermore, teams headed by compassionate leaders are more trusting of one another, have more effective working relationships with colleagues and are more committed to the business.

It also turns out that 80% of leaders would like to enhance their compassion but do not know how, so compassion is clearly a neglected skill when it comes to leadership training.

But what do we mean by compassion? Is it the same as empathy – the skill we often hear that leadership lacks?

The authors of a recent HBR article explain that “while empathy is the tendency to feel others’ emotions and take them on as if you were feeling them, compassion is the intent to contribute to the happiness and well-being of others.”

Therefore, compassion is a proactive action which leaders can turn into a habit. This will enable better leadership and human connections at work. Teams thrive when the members trust that their leader cares about them.

A Chinese proverb says, “There is no way to compassion; compassion is the way.” As a global leader, you can choose compassion to be amongst your key soft skills to focus on in 2019.

Further reading

Rethinking the value of soft skills

In 2015 McDonald’s UK led a campaign to highlight the economic value of soft skills. Mr Langhorn, Chief People Officer for McDonald’s in the UK and northern Europe, said that soft skills “improve productivity and that is a key thing the UK economy needs.”

The Development Economics research group revealed that soft skills are worth £88bn per year. The economic value includes the analysis of the negative factors for business associated with a lack of key soft skills – namely:

  • increased operating costs
  • losing business to competitors
  • problems meeting quality standards
  • delays in introducing new products or services

McDonald’s campaign was strongly backed up by Tesco. Judith Nelson, Tesco UK Personnel Director, believes that “soft skills have a vital role to play in any workplace, helping individuals to realize their potential, building great teams and helping us deliver great service for our customers.”

It is now becoming clear that soft skills are not so ‘soft’ after all but rather a business ‘essential’. They are in fact the ‘power skills’ (Philip J. Hanlon, President of Dartmouth College) that will differentiate you from your competitors.

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