August 14, 2023

When Times are Hard, It's the Soft Skills That Will Save Us

In a technology-obsessed world, the ascendance of AI has skyrocketed our obsession with hard skills. It suddenly seems everyone is shilling (or taking) a course on harnessing the power of AI. Add the dizzying pace of workplace change and CEOs are left scrambling to figure out how to equip people for a future no one can quite comprehend.

One thing is certain. The majority of workers will need to be retrained—60% of them by 2027. Predictably, leaders go right for the hard skills like mastering new technologies. But McKinsey predicts that eight of the top ten skills future workers will need are soft skills, such as creative thinking, adaptability and interpreting complex information.

And let’s be clear: “soft” is a bad moniker because it makes these skills seem easy, or dispensable. The truth is, there’s nothing easy about them. It’s much harder to get our heads around soft skills. We understand why coding is required to develop software, why running a spreadsheet is needed to balance a budget. But why is a middle manager’s tolerance for ambiguity and ability to communicate critical to the business?

As problems become bigger and more complex, it’s soft skills that we need to collaborate, innovate, and learn effectively. The messy, magical things that make us human are the very things that will ensure we win the race against machines.

AI can pull and process information faster but it can't synthesize, empathize, or interpret nuance like we can. A cobot can operate a machine but can't work with other robots to balance strength and output for a collaborative effort. A robot can play the piano but can’t make emotive music.

We tend to think that hard skills are the must-haves and soft skills are the nice-to-haves. But the pace of technology has reversed this. Tom Peters challenges us to think about the inherent paradox in our words with his premise, “hard is soft, and soft is hard.”

Soft skills are tougher to define, harder to teach and learn, and require a much more customized approach. But the payoff is immense. Technical skills and expertise become obsolete much more rapidly, while soft skills grow with you throughout your entire career—relevant, transferable, and valuable.

So, instead of doom scrolling about the matrix taking over the workplace and (re)retraining people in technology, here’s why leaders need to take a hard look at soft skills as the key to the future.

  1. Soft skills power collaboration.

    For nearly 200 years, Cambridge and Oxford Universities have each picked their eight best rowers for an annual boat race. Watched by millions, the stakes are high. Ethnographer Mark de Rond sought to understand what goes into selecting a winning team: “The eight best are not necessarily the best eight.” Picking the right team means sacrificing some technical skills in favor of things that help them work better together: listening, problem solving, and communicating.

    The best team players on the water—and at work—have the empathy and social skills that have been found to drive group performance. And leaders and managers set the tone. A supervisor’s level of emotional intelligence nurtures the creativity of their employees. Leaders with social skills are better able to solve problems across hierarchies.

    Collaboration is the single biggest driver of human performance and it requires the interpersonal sensitivity that helps teams respond, adapt and act in the face of a challenge. Like any skill, it takes practice. The best rowers don’t compete without preparing for many hours in the boat - drilling, conditioning, sprinting. Your teams shouldn’t either. They need to build the skills of collective intelligence that let them be at their best. We can’t develop these skills by ourselves—we must learn them together.
  2. Soft skills are the engine of learning.

    The half-life of knowledge is eroding faster than a floodplain. Hard skills, especially in tech, are perishable, with a shelf life of barely two and a half years.

    By 2027, job related skill sets (both hard and soft) are predicted to change by 50%, twice the rate of 2015. We need more digital skills, and new ways to lead complex teams combining on-site, remote and hybrid workers.

    In short, learning new skills is the key to survival. But it’s not enough to learn “how” to do something, we also need to be ready to deeply understand the “why.” As technology and the workplace continue to change, we need to continually reflect on what we do, ask ourselves if there’s a better way and master skills we haven’t even conceived of yet. Learning requires creativity, reflection and a willingness to challenge our assumptions, to admit when we are wrong without feeling threatened or defensive.

    An investment in building these soft skills has a great ROI, ensuring that your people have the resilience and curiosity to continuously improve and grow. Businesses must adopt a “talent incubator” mindset, to double down on learning and development for both employee growth and retention.

    We also have to let go of the idea that these are individual skills. Developing these skills is a team sport. If we don’t learn with others we can’t gauge our progress. It’s like trying to see how you look without a mirror. We are the collective proof of each other’s soft skills.
  3. Soft skills enable innovation.

    Alexander Graham Bell has been widely credited as the inventor of the telephone. But what’s less known is that he didn’t set out to do that at all. Bell’s interest was to develop a way for the deaf to speak without resorting to sign language. His passion for the workings of the human voice and his fascination with the telegraph led him to start to play with a device that could transmit communication. His “harmonic telegraph” became an early telephone and ultimately won him a lucrative patent, inching out several other inventors.

    Bell was not known for his soft skills - in fact he had controversial views and was closed minded about his beliefs. But his story underscores the reality of innovation: every new idea is really a combination of ideas that came before it.

    Despite our historical tendency to subscribe to the romantic Great Man Theory (where our greatest inventions are each the result of a single great male brain) the story of human ingenuity is collective (and far more inclusive). We are culturally adapted to build on the cognitive abilities and experiences of multiple brains. This is also true at work.

    The businesses that are best able to innovate and improve are those that tap into the full breadth of resources and diversity of experiences of their people. Innovation depends on our ability to synthesize - to create new ideas or design new offerings by connecting disparate things that have not previously been considered together. And synthesis depends on critical soft skills: being open to other’s perspectives, reflecting honestly on the status quo to find the holes in our thinking, and staying even-keeled in the face of ambiguity.

You might get hired for your technical skills, but you get promoted for your soft skills. That’s what truly differentiates people and teams. Until we think more strategically about the soft skills we need and how to develop them, they will continue to be hit or miss.

These skills are the drivers of our most important business functions: collaboration, learning and innovation. When times are hard and the stakes are high, it’s the soft skills that will save us. So it’s time to stop dithering about AI and start focusing on learning to work better together—no matter what technology is at play.

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