31 October 2019

7 Essential Soft Skills to Develop in the Workplace

Soft Skills / Talent Development


Joanna Smit

Automation is rapidly transforming the nature of all jobs. According to Deloitte, associated changes will tremendously increase the demand for ‘essentially human’ soft skills that machines simply cannot replicate, including creativity, empathy and relationship-building.

However, only roughly half of businesses currently have a plan to cultivate these skills.

There is a window of opportunity for business leaders, HR professionals and talent developers to actively develop soft skills in their workforce today – or risk losing out in tomorrow’s competitive marketplace.

Why should companies develop soft skills?

There are two significant drivers that will accelerate the need for soft skills in organizations:

  • Digital transformation

The massive rise of digital technology is leading to the creation of new work models across many industries. According to CNBC, 70% of people around the world, work remotely at least once a week and Forbes estimates that freelancers will make up 50% of the U.S. workforce by 2027. As a result, virtual communication and fluid, project-driven team structures will become more common place, requiring soft skills like rapport-building, effective communication and flexibility to succeed.

  • Automation

McKinsey reports that while 49% of low-skilled activities currently carried out by humans could be taken over by intelligent machines, less than 5% of jobs could be completely automated by technology. Therefore, organisations need to think about what the key skills are that will be needed and how they will engender skills such as creativity, empathy and critical thinking within the workforce.

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

Seven key soft skills for the future of work

Here are seven essential soft skills that will drive success for twenty-first century organizations:

  • Creativity 

Nancy Andreasen, a leading neuroscientist and winner of the US President’s National Medal of Science (which year?), defines creativity as,

’Recognizing relationships, making associations and connections’.

This suggests that creativity is developed from approaching or re-arranging familiar tasks in a slightly different way.

This ability to tweak familiar concepts to generate innovative yet practical ideas is more easily taught to humans than to machines. A case in point: pizza recipes generated by artificial intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggested combining ingredients like shrimp and Italian sausage with jam onto a single pizza – a recommendation that few humans are likely to make.

In order to benefit from the best creative ideas, organizations will continue to rely on their employees in the years to come.

Tip 1: Get leaders to regularly encourage creativity from their team by providing them with trigger questions like: “What was our most amazing insight this month (or this year)?” “What do we need to invest time thinking about?” “How can we change our perspective about challenge X?” A helpful list of questions is the Phoenix checklist, a toolset for creative problem-solving rumored to have been developed by the United States’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

  • Critical Thinking 

While creativity helps in generating ideas, critical thinking is useful in narrowing things down to only the most practical ones. It is therefore a crucial building block for higher competencies like complex problem-solving, decision-making or goal setting.

A recent HBR article explains that the best critical thinkers anticipate roadblocks and begin working on solutions in advance, and so avoid some of the problems that other people run into. Motivation psychologist and NY University Professor Gabriele Oettingen calls this mental contrasting — thinking about what you want to achieve and what might get in the way of your achieving it. Counter-intuitively her research shows that focusing on “obstacles and deciding to pursue the goal anyway increases our commitment” rather than discourages us and prompts us to take action.

Tip 2: Incorporate the if-then planning technique in your organization’s performance planning or goal-setting guidelines: “In pursuit of my goal, if I am faced with obstacle X, then I will take effective action Y in response”. This encourages employees to explore potential obstacles and remedial actions when setting new goals during their performance review.

Further reading
  • Cognitive Flexibility 

The World Economic Forum identifies cognitive flexibility as a major skill for 2020 and beyond. This skill is our ability to transition from thinking about one concept to another. For example, if a colleague asks you ‘What is our revenue forecast in the United States?’ and then continues with ‘And how about China?’, you’ll likely infer that the second question is about the revenue forecast in China. If after that they say, ‘Any new hires there?’, you’ll know to answer with new hires in China.

This type of concept switching is difficult for machines to achieve. In fact, Amazon’s Alexa only learnt to deal with the above type of questions in 2018. More complex changes in context like adjusting to your company’s changing business needs or customizing a service to a customer’s particular requirements are therefore best left to humans.

Tip 3: Research shows that mindfulness meditation is a great way to enhance cognitive flexibility by making us more aware of contexts and better able to switch smoothly between tasks. Offer mindfulness classes at work, set up a meditation room in the office or provide a corporate subscription to an online mindfulness tool.

  • Empathy 

Empathy is our ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people. This includes understanding their viewpoint and how they feel about this. Researchers at the London Business School find that empathy improves productivity in the workplace by reducing conflict when it arises and by preventing people from entering into conflict in the first place. In short, empathy makes us more collaborative.

In order to develop empathy we need to listen actively. This means giving others your undivided attention and putting your own concerns and ideas ‘in a box’ while you listen. This behavior is so powerful that leaders who listened to others em-pathetically performed more than 40% better than others in overall performance. Active listening also has the benefit of driving up inclusion.

Tip 4: Fostering a culture of listening and inclusion starts at the top. Schedule virtual coffee chats or virtual lunches between management and staff. Request that leaders practice active listening by holding back their own comments and using open-ended questions to gather feedback and improve empathy. It will also help ensure there is undivided attention, rather than the constant switching between tasks and screens that we are all guilty of.

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
  • Building Relationships 

The digital economy has completely transformed the way we work. It is estimated that by 2020, 50% of US and British employees will be working remotely. In the virtual world, there is a tendency to skip building rapport and to get down to business straight away.

This could be a costly mistake, as outlined in a paper by Nobel Prize winner Mark Granovetter on the power of weak ties. In it, he distinguishes between strong ties (family, friends and colleagues) and weak ties (acquaintances). Having a large network of weak ties is crucial in reaching many people and accessing valuable opportunities. While digital tools such as LinkedIn or Twitter can greatly help in developing a large following, it all starts and ends with human beings and our ability to build relationships with them.

Tip 5: Organize frequent relationship-building and team-building events, both face-to-face and online. The monthly virtual café outlined in tip 4 can also be set up for catchups between colleagues. Incite more virtual dialogue by garnering staff member’s contribution to internal or external company blog posts

  • Using Emotions 

Despite the increasing use of robot authors in journalism, the ability to use emotions to communicate real sentiment continues to be hard to automate and empathy and understanding will remain sought-after skills in employees.

According to Adam Gutstein, former Vice Chairman at PwC US, the most compelling story tellers,

‘Intertwine personal anecdotes and fact, rhetoric devices and analytical statements, to enlist the emotions of others to take action on a topic or an initiative’.

Persuasive communication is beneficial for almost all types of interactions at work, whether it’s a manager energizing their team to exceed quarterly goals, a marketing team authoring a powerful pitch for a client conference or an employee boosting a colleague’s morale after a challenging day.

Tip 6: Nurture social learning in your organization where employees informally teach others about work-related topics. It gives every employee the opportunity to practice effective communication as they learn to share their knowledge and expertise in a simple and inspiring manner. The initiative is also of obvious benefit to the recipient and can be organized via physical meet-ups or through social technologies like virtual calls, blogs, wikis, discussion forums or videos.

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
  • Purpose 

Having a clear purpose that is communicated to the whole workforce and mapped to learning and development and talent management plans is key. Increasingly, employees are looking for a clear vision, mission and values when considering for whom they will work as highlighted by Forbes.

Expressing a clear mission and demonstrating strong values can have a far-reaching impact on an organization. Ernst & Young reports that a purpose-driven business strategy promotes employee engagement and customer loyalty and boosts financial outperformance by 42%. And it will be a long time in the future before machine learning can develop ethical standpoints. In 2016, Microsoft’s self-learning “chatbot” named Tay learned to repeat racist and sexually charged messages sent by Twitter users and had to be turned off within 24 hours of launching. Artificially-intelligent machines inherently lack an ethical compass and companies will have to look to their human workforce to embody their values and moral standards.

In order to reap these benefits, authenticity is key: business leaders must themselves behave consistently with the mission and embed purpose into the organization’s DNA across all areas.

Tip 7: Help employees find purpose in their work through reflective questions that incorporate their values and strengths. “What do you believe are your core strengths, and why? Looking back, what has been your greatest achievement?” Link these to a sense of mission by asking “What do you find energizing about your work? What are you looking forward to next year?” Answers can even involve personal life goals – what matters is to elicit authentic and personally relevant responses.

Further reading

Soft Skills are the Currency of the Future

Digital transformation and automation have already brought about rapid changes and will continue the trend towards new ways of working in the years to come.

Practices such as flexible team structures, virtual collaboration and a shift in job duties away from automatable tasks will bring an even greater need for teams and leaders with softer competencies like being adaptable, collaborative and inventive.

It is therefore vital for business leaders, HR professionals and talent developers to identify the upcoming gap in skills in their workforce and proactively manage the transition to a new future.

Investing time and resources to develop soft skills for the workplace of tomorrow helps to ensure that your organization has plenty of dividends to come, no matter what the future of work brings.

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