What comes to mind when you hear the term ‘soft skills?’

We often hear this term in relation to what it’s not. Soft skills are the opposite of hard skills. Soft skills are not technical. Where a technical competency can be easily and clearly defined and communicated, it’s not so demonstrably easy with a soft skill.  For example, Tom knows how to program in JavaScript, but Anton doesn’t. Tom has the skill; Anton does not.  Is Tom a creative and agile thinker?…it’s not quite as easy to see or measure.

Certainly most businesses and people today would agree that soft skills are important, but perhaps labelling them as ‘soft’ inadvertently positions them as a little ‘less than’— as optional. In a job advertisement, the soft skills are often the second or third list down. When we think about upskilling, we lean towards learning a new computer programme, or gaining that technical certification, rather than refining our problem-solving abilities or brushing up on innovation.

Soft equals success

Perhaps in your particular business, you need people with a forklift licence in your warehousing operation. Or your workforce includes Fullstack developers who need to know how to design, develop test and deploy code for your app development. These technical capabilities are what you need to deliver your core business. However, whichever sector or industry you operate in, it would be a struggle to succeed if you didn’t have employees with technical skills who also have the ability to understand your business goals, or customer needs, who can work in a team and collaborate effectively, who’re able to solve problems on the fly, to be flexible and adaptable. It’s these latter skills that have a powerful impact on business success.  Research backs this up. A US University study clearly demonstrated that soft skills training in communication and problem solving boosted productivity and retention, and delivered a 250% return on investment for the business at the centre of the study.

Growth mindset

There is a common misconception that the possession of certain soft skills is more heavily weighted towards genetics than is actually the case. Whereas in fact, while individual humans may have natural strengths in some areas, soft skills can (and should!) be learned. It’s perhaps not as straightforward as the pathways to learning technical skills, but it can be done. Soft skills can be improved with coaching, training, practice and time.  

Meet today's needs

We’ve recently passed the two year anniversary of the beginning of the global pandemic. Whilst not a fun milestone to celebrate, it does also mark a substantive change in the working landscape that many see as an overall positive. Along with the shifts in the way we work, there has been an increasing need for a range of soft skills which is becoming ever more pronounced. One such skill that may spring to mind is resilience—of course, collectively we have all that had that particular skill tested in recent years!  But others that frequently make the in-demand skills list are creativity, critical thinking and problem solving, flexibility and adaptability, and drive, and self-motivation.  Can you see the potential benefit of these skills in your workplace?  How do your employees perform in relation to these skills?

Channels to use

If your business is able to identify the soft skills integral to great performance, and you’re also able to uncover the gaps in your existing workforce, then you’ve got two channel options for adding essential soft skills into your organisation; hiring them in, or training them up. It’s definitely not practical or cost effective to hire a whole new workforce (though hopefully you’ll be recruiting any new employees with both soft and technical skills in mind) so the sensible approach is coaching and training.

Where, and when to start

It's tempting to put off investing in so-called soft skills, in what are challenging times for many businesses. Learning and development tends to slip down the priority list when the market is unstable.  However I’d argue that it’s in these uncertain times that our people, and our businesses need these skills the most.  

Beginning this process can be made simple. A quick brainstorm exercise with your leaders to identify the technical and soft skills needed to succeed will yield valuable information. If you are a smaller or mid-sized business, change can be made and felt at a faster pace, and you will be able to quickly proceed to considering individual roles, and the skills sets needed for each.  To uncover the gaps between where you want to be, and where you are now, as a starting point you can turn inwards, and engage with your employees. Your people will have a sense of the skills – both technical and soft —that they need, and where they may need developing.  

Formalising this approach is a process that The People Place completes on a regular basis with our clients.  A Capability Development Strategy is a tool that will give your business a road map towards supporting your workforce in gaining the skills they need to perform at their best, to achieve business objectives, and to build a positive workforce culture.

A new name?

As a commonly used phrase, perhaps the term ‘soft skills’ needs a rebrand.  To demonstrate the real value and impact that these attributes can add to a business, perhaps soft skills needs a new name: Essential skills? Core skills? The fundamentals?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

And of course, if you are considering adding some essential skills into your workforce, The People Place can help you work through developing a plan of action. Get in touch at hello@thepeopleplace.co.nz