Are soft skills the elephant in the room?

Are soft skills the elephant in the room?

Soft skills are not fluffy or namby-pamby but, emerging as vital links to high-performance, growth mindset and future business success. This article explores why businesses can’t afford to ignore the ‘soft-stuff’ anymore.

Despite the snappy-catchy header and graphic, this is a serious and wide-reaching blog. So, I’m delighted to have joined forces and co-write this blog with Aubrey Wall, director of content development at Engineering Leadership Institute – a talented young lady, of whom I’m sure we will all benefit so much from in the future. This article builds on Aubrey’s recently published blog, about the soft skills gap in Engineering.

Let’s start with a definition of soft skills:

Soft skills is an umbrella term for a cluster of productive personality and relationships traits that drive high performance. They are essential skills for leaders to master. In short, it’s a term for professional, social, and career skills. Soft skills include emotional intelligence, communication abilities, collaborative skills, personal habits, cognitive and emotional empathy, time management, teamwork and leadership traits.(Wikipedia - abridged)

The elephant in the room

In the 90’s so-called soft skills were seen as a fluffy set of nice-to-have qualities. I’ve even heard them termed, ‘namby-pamby’. Whereas traditionally, the big career prizes of one’s competence were mainly represented by hard-technical skills. This view is sadly still prevalent in our many businesses and workplaces today. Aubrey believes this is true particularly in engineering for example.

But, all that’s old-hat now - it needs to change. Why? Read on.

Yes, I know, KPI’s, hard-measures and scorecards and so on benchmark and drive efficient business processes. Yes! That will always be true. However, today they are at best marginal gains and just a given now - been-there-done-that. But, the real money is now on soft skills to make significant differences in high performance, profit growth and business success from now on.

The reason for this is the shift in global economics, the technology and upcoming IA revolution as well as the new attitudes and expectations of the millennials generation now arriving in our workplaces. Things are rapidly changing - at a seemingly dizzy pace too.

By 2030, for example, many of our day-to-day jobs will have already been superseded by technology.

(See fast forward to 2030 by Sally Fuller – Director at Vodafone.

Therefore, many experts are arguing that this will soon point to an exponential demand for people with well-developed soft skills. It follows too that there will be an increasing demand for businesses to invest in developing its people. We’ll cover these points in more detail later. For now, I believe, that the people-factor directly links to high-performance, which in turn, is a key to future business success.

People with outstanding soft skills will matter more and more.

Aubrey’s research has led her to conclude that over the past few decades alone, an increasingly large gap in soft skills competency has continued to emerge in the engineering sector. And I think that this is probably applicable to all business sectors today. There is indisputable evidence that endorses the need to urgently develop soft skills for careers success in today’s workplaces. Furthermore, as we’ve just touched upon, this is likely to grow in the future exponentially.

So, we can’t keep ignoring the soft stuff – it’s the elephant in the room.

Still not convinced?

Here are some statistics on the growing demand for soft skills for today’s workforce:

It’s all about the numbers – Duh!

Aubrey’s research reinforces the importance of soft skills development:

According to a Wall Street Journal survey of about 900 executives, 92% of respondents stated soft skills are as important as technical skills. However, 89% also stated they have trouble finding candidates with adequate professional skill competency.

The global Talent Shortage Survey, conducted annually by the Manpower Group found that one in five employers globally cannot fill positions due to a lack of necessary soft skills.

And, according to Pew Research, employment in jobs requiring soft skills has increased by 83% since 1980! And, when asked about the skills most relied on while on the job, employees placed soft skills, critical thinking, and communication at the top of their list.

Also, a recent study conducted by a US economic research group - The Hamilton Project pointed out that in the last 30 years the impact of social skills on success and high performance at work increased more than 15%, while the success associated with technical skills remained stable. The Future of Jobs Report points out that, in 2020, emotional intelligence, creativity and people management will be on the top of the list of the skills required. (found via a link from

If an organization is merely a collection of people doing business together and, as companies adapt and evolve to survive, then surely, isn’t it evident that its people need to adjust as well to follow suit?

Soft skills hey…why so serious?

So, the research all points to an escalating demand for soft skills (also often referred to as work readiness or professional skills). That will continue to grow in significance in the future as business becomes steadily more diverse and dynamic.

Furthermore, the global and technology-based economy, mentioned earlier, means that business will grow more and more complicated. Therefore, collaborative problem-solving approaches will be the way we will find innovate and create new solutions together. And, soft skills lay at the foundation of this approach.

Moreover, as more technical jobs become automated, it means that soft skills will fast become essential qualities for career and business success. Crucially, it also follows that these professional skills will quickly supersede technical skills!

From Aubrey’s involvement with the Engineering Leadership Institute she knows all too well that soft skills are complex and multifaceted to learn, as they include:

Communication – both verbal and written, including to precisely and simply communicate complex subjects with others.

Teamwork cohesion and Collaboration - to build trust and work with others, handle conflict and effectively give and receive positive and developmental feedback.

Time Management and problem-solving - to prioritize and manage complex projects, issues and tasks completing them to agreed deadlines.

Adaptability – to deal with change and flexibility to learn new skills and incorporate them into your daily routine.

Emotional intelligence– self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, social skills.

Coaching - to listen and have guided conversations that encourage others to get the best from their unique strengths.

Presenting and speaking - to engage and guide groups is fast becoming a staple of professional life.

That isn’t an exhaustive list either. For example, a contributor mentioned a sense of humour as being a useful people skill as well to diffuse stressful situations.

Growing the soft stuff in your business

Firstly, a lot of Learning and Development professionals in my network state that merely sending people out to open external soft skills training courses is a distinct and easy solution - yes, it can tick the box in certain circumstances as a tactical solution. But, often, longer term, it’s a cop-out. That’s because learnings of this nature tend not to stick from one or two days training. So, to implement something more serious requires a strategic approach.

An effective process is to develop a series of ongoing work-based soft skills programmes. The intention of which blends practical experience of working in teams, alongside tailor-made development to suit your companies nuanced needs. Lead by external (or internal) expert facilitators, such programmes include a mix of interactive team workshops, individual coaching and online training too (see the link to ELI at the end). Such development programmes may require a leadership commitment also to change company culture to more align with people-based values.

Also, according to Peoplematters and their blog - 3 things to remember in soft skills training, the process should be continuous, interactive and based on active learning.

Strategic planning and budgeting by the leadership team are vital to getting the best from such development programmes but, they are compelling ways to help organizations to embed such skills effectively.

Show me the ROI dude!

Importantly, significant returns on development investment (RODI) can be calculated concerning hard cash savings for well-designed programmes and these can be substantial numbers too! I bet that surprised you? Well, it’s true. So, this stuff is not woolly or fuzzy at all – far from it! Logically, it makes such investment compelling for leadership teams.

Before I move on, in the future, many careers will be portfolio based, where people will move from project to project following the demand. Working collaboratively in teams will be the name-of-the-game. So, both individuals and businesses will need to invest in helping that team to cohere and work effectively together. That is where the need for bespoke soft-skills and development at the source, where it is needed will come into its own. The returns on investment (ROI) and pay-offs will be seen directly in the project success. I also believe, that in the future, people seeking recruitment will only select employees that actively invest in their ongoing development.

Oi-oi! Ignoring the soft stuff equals troubles ahead

Are soft skills the elephant in the room?

Despite being well known that a lack of individual and team development ultimately leads to dysfunction, astonishingly, businesses still continue to ignore these sorts of massive issues.

Here are a few examples:

  • distrust
  • toxic individuals with poor behaviors
  • low team morale
  • ego, manipulation, over-control
  • lack of commitment and accountability
  • internal conflict
  • resistance to improvement or change
  • lack of vision, and ruthless pursuit of profit without purpose

Recognise any of those?

These are just some typical symptoms of dysfunction that lead to low performance and resolving any of these isn’t trivial. But, so much time and effort and bottom-line profit is wasted through mediocracy and low performance. It’s also true that high performing people will leave companies because of toxic bosses and/or dysfunctional cultures. That’s a genuine waste of talent and money, not to mention the time, effort and cost of recruiting replacements.

While these issues were absorbable in the past, we have already covered why they can’t in the future. There’s just no place for poor interpersonal skills.

Developing peoples’ soft skills along-side high performance and growth mindset completely avoid these unnecessary pains.

Tips and tools for you to consider

It is hard enough to impart a lifetime of knowledge and experience to a recent graduate or a new hire. So, how do companies ensure all their people are not becoming just another statistic?

Here are Aubrey’s and my top tips to help you think about an organizational culture that puts soft skill competencies uppermost among your people:

  1. Download this easy questionnaire and quickly check out your conversation skills. You could do it with your whole team too.
  2. Encourage an open and honest organizational culture in which employees can communicate and collaborate freely! Giving and taking feedback can be intimidating so, it is imperative your employees feel safe to communicate openly with both co-workers and supervisors. A no-blame culture creates a trusting, collaborative environment where everybody matters and contributes. An open working environment also boosts creativity and innovation and builds relationships.
  3. Provide tools and opportunities for employees to pursue continued education – even if it does not directly relate to their field! As technology pushes our economy forward at an exponential rate, prioritizing a strong learning and development orientation among your people will drive success. So, provide learning tools and resources to encourage people to pursue learning that interests them, both in and out of the workplace (see ELI link at end). When you make people accountable for their own learning, you ensure your organization is equipped with the skills to adapt to our dynamic economy.
  4. Talk the talk AND walk the walk! Bottom line – think about the benefits of creating a learning-based culture that is grounded in communication, collaboration, trust, and accountability that requires leadership that matches these qualities. Leaders must not only clearly communicate company values and vision but, they must also embody these qualities in every facet of their life too. If leaders don’t take these seriously then how can you expect everybody else too? Providing 1-2-1 coaching senior leaders is helpful here.
  5. Focus on success from the inside-out! An internal drive for personal and professional development, one that is not motivated by comparison with others, is fundamental to success. By adopting a career-enabling learning and development culture will nurture success in personal careers. For example, an intrinsic desire to excel, honest self-assessment of strengths and weaknesses, as well as to close personal skills gaps.
  6. Start developing your top teams to become high performing consider putting in place a budgeted strategy to implement a soft skills programme for your people.

Final thoughts

With technology moving forward at an exponential pace, so will the demand for soft skills in the workplace - is that the elephant in the room? You bet! (Randy Wall)

For individuals, highly-developed soft skill competencies will become essential to career success.

The more we develop our soft skills, the more our company cultures will need to adapt too, for long-term success.

Get stuck into reading some great books on soft skills - you’ll learn a lot.

Read this and more from Andrew Jenkins.

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