In the Future, Soft Skills Will Be Essential Skills

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I see their eyes begin to lose focus or they tilt their chin down and avoid my gaze. Mentioning my educational background and experience in psychology means that only a few will say out loud what many are thinking “Psychology? Don’t bring any of that stuff in here.” When I’m working with leaders and their teams, often there is hesitation in addressing the “softer” parts of business or what I consider the more human or essential aspects. Somehow these are considered extras and aren’t always highly valued. This is a mistake and one that could be costly

I was recently speaking with the founders of a startup about bringing back the humanity in our companies and in our communities. They left their corporate positions because “who they are” didn’t really matter. How they communicate with others, how they care for team members and the fact that they wanted to be inspired, creative and find meaning in their work wasn’t a priority in their settings.

There was lots of  “talk” about values such as community, family, honesty and integrity, but the leaders of this organization weren’t actually living these values in their day to day actions and didn’t see these qualities or skills as important to invest any resources in fostering.

Employees didn’t feel they could say anything for fear there would be consequences. They kept hiding themselves, doing the minimum, calling in sick and yearning for the moment they could break free. It was a typical example of an unhealthy, dysfunctional culture. They were willing to train in a few team building programs, but not with the intention of building a long term sustainable, inclusive and thriving culture.

The two founders I spoke with eventually left because they wanted more meaning in their lives, they wanted to engage with people in healthier ways… and because they felt the culture of ignoring the more human aspects was killing them on some level.

I’m always surprised when leaders and their organizations shy away from investing in supporting qualities that make us better human beings and leaders or think that pretending these aspects don’t belong in the workplace means they aren’t.  What’s the fear? Sometimes there is lack of clarity for what to do about it so it’s easier to ignore it. These are nineQ’s ideal clients because we provide the HOW.

Other times, I wonder if some leaders believe that it isn’t important to the vision, mission and profitability of the organization. Research proves otherwise. For example, research within Google found:

“The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.”

This was a surprise as they expected it to be the hard skills, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) expertise.

Another study, by MIT, found that “the benefits of soft skills training can be hard to measure, but new research reveals that it can bring a substantial return on investment to employers while also benefiting employees.”

More and more research is supporting the benefits of investing in the more human aspects of our organizations. We know this intuitively. When you’re feeling good, supported, heard, connected and enjoy what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with, you have more energy, you’re more creative and you’re more efficient and productive among other things. You’re in the flow.

Recently, several universities (Harvard University, Boston University and the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business) researched the value of investing in “soft” skills training and found a 256 percent return on investment based on an average rate of 12% higher team productivity and retention (UMich). They included several “soft” skills such as interpersonal communication and problem-solving.

Training team members in these skills is good for the company culture, good for the bottom line and good for everyone. This may become increasingly important with the rise of artificial intelligence.

The expansion of and the increased reliance on Artificial Intelligence (AI) will force us to shine the light on the qualities that are uniquely human and how we can expand and  succeed in new and different ways than what we’ve relied on in the past. As AI increases in our lives, our ability to be human, to fully embrace and live these “soft” skills will become increasingly important and essential to team and organizational engagement and activity.

“In an AI age characterized by intense disruption and rapid, ambiguous change, we need to rethink the essence of effective leadership. Certain qualities, such as deep domain expertise, decisiveness, authority, and short-term task focus, are losing their cachet, while others, such as humility, adaptability, vision, and constant engagement, are likely to play a key role in more-agile types of leadership.” (HBR)

Even as the gap continues to narrow between what AI and what humans can detect emotionally, opportunities to continually expand our skills in these areas remain. In fact, AI might even support us in becoming more emotionally aware in the future. (INSEAD)

We, as leaders, have an opportunity now to turn our focus to these Essential Skills, open our hearts to the people around us and invest in bringing more humanity into our daily lives, including our organizations and communities. Well-being, connection, engagement, productivity and profit are only a few of the benefits of focusing on and training in these Essential Skills. 

So what can you do today?

  1. Use the word “essential” when talking about the more human leadership qualities, rather than “soft”. In our nineQ Leadership Essentials Course, we talk about the importance of words and the power of clarity. You will notice a shift in how you perceive qualities such as self-awareness, empathy, communication, agility, engagement, creativity and connection just by calling them essential and you will model this shift to those around you.

  2. Stop talking about it and start embodying it. What’s one thing you can do to begin training yourself to expand in one of these essential skills? Everyone is different and how we best learn is different. Some people can read a book and easily integrate the tools. Some people prefer to be in a learning community. There are so many different tools available, find the one that resonates with you and start building your Essential Leadership skills.

  3. If you enjoy Ted Talks, listen to this one on emotional agility and how you can use your emotions as data, rather than try to hide or deny them. Just one way to boost your Essential Leadership skills.

The more we each take responsibility for expanding and nurturing these Essential Skills, the more we contribute to creating a healthy, thriving abundant team, organization, community and world. 


To learn more about training in our 9Q Leadership Essentials Certification Course, email us at contact@nineqco.com