Over the last several decades, our economy has shifted from one with lots of rote work, whether blue-collar or white-collar, to one in which routine tasks are automated. This means that tasks still dependent on human input are more complex and nuanced, requiring employees with excellent social skills, agility in responding to new situations, and strong written and oral communication. Unfortunately, recruiters find it difficult to identify and hire people with these skills. Too many potential employees center their efforts and their resumés solely on their hard skills, like coding, analytics, or accounting, and ignore the soft skills that will help them stand out from the pack and ultimately end up in a desired leadership role.
Lack of soft skills affects business at all levels
According to a seminal 2016 study conducted by LinkedIn, “58% of hiring managers believe a lack of soft skills is ‘limiting their company’s productivity.’” The same study identifies the most crucial soft skills—across all levels of the org chart—as communication, teamwork, and critical thinking. When these soft skills are lacking, the effect ripples outward from the individual employee to include:
- How leadership is perceived: Does management appear trustworthy? Does a company’s leadership seem like they are listening to employees? That they can manage effectively through a crisis?
- How a company performs financially: Work environments in which soft skills are a low priority have problems with employee retention and job satisfaction, which leads to increased HR costs and lower productivity.
If you think about it, soft-skill deficiencies can affect how whole sectors or industries are perceived. How many DMV or used-car salesman jokes have you heard in your lifetime?
Here’s how to start working on your soft skills
So how do you begin to improve your soft skills, and what will be the impact when you do?
- Start by listening. There are specific techniques for the practice of active listening that you can look into further, but the main idea is to keep your focus on the person speaking—their content plus their tone, body language, and demeanor. Active listening also means that you don’t start formulating your reply until you’ve listened to everything the speaker has to say.
- Practice empathy and work to improve your EQ. The idea of empathy as a business skill may strike you as too soft and mushy, but it has a powerful practical effect. By putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, you will have an easier time figuring out how to help them achieve their goal, whether it’s learning new software or dealing with conflict. Applied empathy not only makes work more pleasant, it increases the efficiency and productivity of teams and individuals.
- Agility and adaptability help you stand out. In the rigid world of old-school assembly lines, doing something the exact same way every time was a strength. In today’s business world, people are expected to pivot and change tactics in response to unexpected circumstances without missing a beat. Agility is a combination of (1) your own positive, proactive outlook (“This challenge can be an opportunity” vs. “We’ve never done it this way before”) and (2) your ability to problem-solve using the tools at hand—those in your head and in your physical environment.
Of course, soft skills as a business need are more complex than these three points, but if you want to achieve career success for yourself and profitability and growth for your organization, start working on your soft skills now by practicing listening, empathy, and agility.
Don’t forget to check out our resource section for articles on strengthening your presentation and communication skills.