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Why every leader should teach soft skills

Close up of rowing team race
Close up of a rowing team.
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Sometimes the value of soft skills feels almost secretive—like some scrap of knowledge handed down through an ancient society of corporate recruiters. Of course, that’s not the case or that’s one loose-lipped ancient society.

Consider LinkedIn Learning’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report. Its researchers scraped data from a network of more than 660 million professionals and 20 million jobs to discover that soft skills such as creativity, persuasion, and emotional intelligence are in demand.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020 similarly argues that the relative importance of soft skills has begun outpacing hard skills. Its findings show that companies increasingly desire soft skills more than technology development, core literacies, and physical abilities.

“The top skills and skill groups which employers see as rising in prominence in the lead up to 2025 include groups such as critical thinking and analysis as well as problem-solving, and skills in self-management such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility,” the Future of Jobs Report’s authors state.

Given this overt demand, why do soft skills still feel like something of a dark art? It’s because we aren’t teaching them.

A 2019 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management found that 51 percent of respondents felt the education system was not addressing the skills gap, and a Cengage/Morning Consult 2018 survey (cited by SHRM) found that nearly 3 in 4 employers had difficulty locating graduates with the soft skills their companies required.

“Pressured by businesses to produce graduates with up-to-date technical skills, colleges could be relaxing their standards for requiring liberal arts classes—precisely the types of classes that research has shown develop the soft skills businesses also want,” SHRM argues.

But maybe business leaders need a different tactic. Rather than hunting for qualified candidates in the wilds of the job market, they should be the ones teaching these career-propelling skills.

Why leaders must capitalize on soft skills

When pundits predict the future of the workplace, emerging technologies can have an outsized influence within their crystal balls. That makes sense from a hot-take perspective. We’ve all marveled at the technological transformations of the last two decades. Not only is it reasonable to assume those trends will continue—and when you’re in the prophet or pundit game, safe bets are gold—but it also makes for an interesting read.

But this overemphasis has led parents, schools, and businesses to view only tech-related skills as future-proof. If the future is written in code, then the guarantees will belong to those who write it. A passing glance at the parade of books, games, camps, clubs, and afterschool programs designed to teach preschoolers to code bears out this mindset. Yet, this fretful forecast misses two vital points: First, A.I. and automation will require human mediators well into the future, and second, even coders need soft skills to succeed.

To elaborate on that first point, A.I. and automation are simpleminded. By that, we mean that these systems thrive on repetitive tasks that have clear rules and predetermined states of success. It also doesn’t hurt to have oodles of preselected, human-tagged data to work with.

For example, you can train a chess engine to dominate any human player. It will learn by playing millions of games against itself, pruning mistakes and developing strategies toward the unambiguous goal of checkmate. However, ask that same engine to create a new game based on its experiences, or even a new variant of chess, and it will stare at you with the spinning wheel of colorful bewilderment.

This is why, even in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, soft skills such as innovation and problem-solving will remain indispensable. Technologies will be able to onboard many of the routine tasks that siphon our time, but to develop something new or find creative solutions, organizations will require that uniquely human element.

As David Epstein, author of Range, told Big Think in an interview: “[There are work environments] where not all information is clear. Rules don’t necessarily repeat. People aren’t waiting for each other to take turns. Feedback may be delayed. If you get it at all it may be inaccurate. And human behavior is involved. Those are areas where computers don’t do as well. They require a lot of the so-called soft skills and will be for a long time to come.”

Even where technology already dominates, organizations must still supplement with people sporting strong interpersonal skills.

Interactive voice response systems have become commonplace today, yet none have successfully passed a customer satisfaction yet—let alone the Turing test. Surveys have shown that customers loathe being placed in “voice jail” and will actively avoid such systems by taking their business to organizations that allow them to interact with a competent representative.

Similarly, telecommute technologies became a boon for organizations looking to stay productive as the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered their doors. But making use of those technologies required workers to tap into their self-management skills to overcome the communication and work-life challenges these technologies pose. 

The in-house advantage

Another reason leaders should teach soft skills is what we call the “in-house advantage.” While recruiters seek out candidates who have proven their capabilities in past positions, the truth is such skills aren’t always transferable from one position to another.

To pick an obvious example: communication. Communicating scientific findings to other scientists is a different endeavor than communicating those same findings to policymakers or a popular audience. Each context requires a separate set of skills that, while not mutually exclusive, access distinct tones, goals, lexicons, presentation styles, presumed audience knowledge, and more to create effective messaging.

The same holds for other soft skills. As Carl Hendrick, co-author of What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?, writes:

“Of course, critical thinking is an essential part of a student’s mental equipment. However, it cannot be detached from context. Teaching students generic ‘thinking skills’ separate from the rest of their curriculum is meaningless and ineffective. […] Instead of teaching generic critical-thinking skills, we ought to focus on subject-specific critical-thinking skills that seek to broaden a student’s individual subject knowledge and unlock the unique, intricate mysteries of each subject.”

Leaders already do this with technical skills. It’s a matter of course for onboarding periods to adjust new team members to the intricacies of computer applications, production cycles, management systems, etc., within the context of the organization’s practices. Yet when it comes to the mindsets surrounding teamwork, adaptability, and emotional intelligence, we too often employ a hope-for-the-best strategy.

By teaching soft skills in-house, leaders create that context. They can provide a subject-specific sandbox for their team to learn and experiment in, upskilling their soft skills to meet the organization’s needs.

Soft skills as a path to success

According to Abbie Lundberg, president of Lundberg Media, and George Westerman, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, leaders need to revamp their organization’s learning goals and methods with an eye for mindset transformation.

“Instead of narrowly focusing on job- or compliance-related training for all but their high-potential leaders, organizations should cultivate every employee’s ability to explore, learn, and grow. The objective is not only to train people but also to position the company for success,” the pair write in the Harvard Business Review.

Unfortunately, along with parents and schools, businesses too have fallen into the trap of investing heavily in technical skills while hoping that the soft skills they desire will simply be delivered to them by recruiters.

As noted in the Future of Jobs 2020 report: “[F]ormal upskilling appears to be more closely focused on technology use and design skills, while emotional intelligence skills are less frequently targeted in that formal reskilling provision.”

This is a mistake. Not only are soft skills already proving more relevant than ever, but the dissimilar needs of every business will necessitate those skills to be adapted to a specific context. By letting soft skills languish, leaders are missing an opportunity to build strong teams ready to tackle the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Transform your organization’s upskilling capacity with lessons ‘For Business‘ from Big Think+. At Big Think+, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs have come together to create a curated library for career development and lifelong learning. Teach your team in-demand soft skills with video lessons such as:

  • The Art and Science of Relating: Empathy 101, with Alan Alda, Actor and Author, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?
  • Communicate Across Cultures, with Chris Hadfield, Retired Canadian Astronaut and Author, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
  • Collaborate Intelligently: Energize Yourself and Others, with Angie McArthur, CEO, Professional Thinking Partners, and Co-Author, Collaborative Intelligence
  • A Navy SEAL’s Guide to Winning the Fight for Change: Foster a Team-First Mindset, with Brent Gleeson, Business Consultant, Former Navy SEAL, and Author, Taking Point
  • The Psychology of Happiness and Feedback, with Sheila Heen, Author, Thanks for the Feedback

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