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The Hard Reality of Soft Skills

The skills most urgently needed by organizations are not the easiest to develop—and for too long have been discounted or dismissed altogether as fluff in some corporate circles.

But beyond the growing global demand for tech skills—which we know already outstrips supply, employers recognize that they need workers with soft skills—those who are critical thinkers, emotionally intelligent, and capable problem solvers.

Of the more than 1,000 HR and business professionals who participated in the Institute for Corporate Productivity’s (i4cp) research on workforce readiness, most acknowledged that their organizations need to develop or hire people who have the skills to connect with, develop, challenge, motivate, and inspire others.

In fact, nine of the top-10 skills cited as those in most urgent need of developing or hiring for are at their core about relationships—and those skills one could argue are based on innate attributes or personality traits.

Skills in most urgent need at your organization chart

This isn’t new news—rather, it’s reinforcement of what many of us have known all along—and what others finally acknowledged when the COVID-19 pandemic hit (because they were forced to): soft skills matter. A lot. That well-worn cliché that people don’t leave their jobs—they leave their managers—has been around so long because it’s true. And it’s about soft skills.

Thought leader Patti Phillips, Ph.D. (CEO of ROI Institute and Chair of i4cp’s People Analytics Board) noted a year ago: “Pre-COVID projections placed the soft skills training market on a path toward immense growth. According to Transparency Market Research, the global soft skills training market will reach a value of US $38 Billion by 2027.”

And recently published research conducted by Catalyst found that empathy is a powerful driver of innovation, engagement, thriving at work, and retention—of the nearly 900 people surveyed, 67% of those who described their managers as highly empathic reported often or always being engaged at work, compared to only 24% of people with less empathic managers.

In contrast to hard skills—generally understood as job or role-specific and/or technical competencies, the question of whether soft skills can be learned is one that can fuel energetic debate depending on whom you ask, but most of us probably agree that it’s a more straightforward undertaking to teach someone to master Excel than it is to teach the nuances of empathy, creativity, or resilience.

And culture has a great deal to do with it—the behaviors that are consistently modeled and reinforced (for better or for worse) are clear indicators of whether organizations place value on soft skills and expect their leaders to develop and demonstrate them.

When we talk about soft skills at i4cp, what we mean for example, is:

  • Reading the room—literally and metaphorically, both internally and externally, and in matters large and small—truly understanding the climate in terms of perceptions and opinions, most especially when those are counter to one’s own. There’s nothing more demoralizing and potentially damaging than a leader who simply doesn’t get it. And there’s nothing more powerful and inspiring than leaders who do get it.
  • Mindfulness—being in the moment, committing to staying in the moment, giving full attention to the person, event, or activity one is involved in.
  • Self-awareness—understanding one’s own strengths and the willingness to set ego aside and acknowledge where and when help is needed from others.
  • Awareness of others—and the basics. The things workers need beyond a regular paycheck commensurate with their contributions and the equipment they need to perform their jobs are very simple: they need to feel seen, heard, understood, included, respected, and recognized. If they aren’t getting those things in their organizations, they will look elsewhere.

Talent loss is an indictment of the culture, period.

If your organization is losing talent, the most pressing question is this: what’s happening with the culture?

Organizations that can be described as having cultures of control and micromanagement (zero trust) are probably those that have higher rates of attrition. The same is true of organizations that haven’t put in the work to build cultures of trust.

This became glaring after the pandemic forced many people to work from home; the success of this transition for many organizations is due in part to the fact that people already had established relationships with one another before the move to remote work. But employees who came on during the pandemic who did not make it past the first few months were likely hired into organizations that have work to do on their cultures (and the soft skills of leaders). Organizations with healthy cultures are seeing a lot less turnover

What makes a good leader (especially in these strange times)?

What is key to talent attraction and retention this minute and will remain so in the years ahead? It’s pretty simple: Leaders who prioritize employee experience, make genuine investment in developing employees, understanding their interests and aspirations, and shaping and sustaining cultures in which everyone can do their best work.

Our research at i4cp has long found that leadership is about influence, and it’s a matter of choice, not a rank or a title. But while everyone has the capacity to be a good leader, not everyone is suited to or aspires to leadership, and that’s okay. Where organizations sometimes get into trouble is when people who are not constitutionally suited to be leaders are nevertheless elevated to those roles.

What can influencers do in these situations? Leverage their soft skills, that’s what. Rather than complain about the shortcomings of ineffective leaders (who probably lack mature soft skills), this is an opportunity for others to choose to be leaders, which at its most basic simply means taking the time to invest in the people around us every day in whatever forms that may take—coaching, empathy, allyship, etc.

If you’ve had the good fortune during your career of having an exceptional leader, reflect on the attributes that made them a good leader. Their soft skills undoubtedly come to mind first.

If you have yet to have an exceptional leader, aspire to be the leader you wish you’d had.

Resource: The Soft Skills Upskilling Planning Guide, co-developed by Upskill America and i4cp, is a tool created to help employers conceptualize programs for soft skills.

Lorrie Lykins is i4cp's Vice President of Research