What are soft skills and why are they so important?

Who is your dentist? Hairdresser? What about sparky, plumber or car mechanic? Of course, I don’t really want to know who they are (well, maybe the car mechanic - it’s really difficult to find a good one)… I just want you to bring them to mind. Why do you use them?

Let’s assume that they are good at what they do. (If not you need to be reading a very different blog.) Why then have you chosen these particular individuals?

I have lived on the outskirts of London for several years now but still travel back to South Wales to get my hair cut and my car checked (told you I’m struggling to find a decent mechanic). This isn’t just because Welsh people ‘rock’ but because not only do I like the individuals, I trust them.

Back to my earlier question then… What are soft skills? Well we can start with trustworthiness, honesty and empathy to mention but a few.

Why are soft skills so important? Because no matter what role we play in our working lives, we work together. We are human, and humans are social animals that thrive when united and suffer when conflicted. That applies to the workplace as much as any other situation.

Whilst ‘soft’ skills have previously held a stigma for displaying ‘weakness’, they are now being seen as fundamental to working effectively, productively and, some might say, profitably. Especially as the future of work will be almost alien to what we experience today.

Why does the future of work look so different? The fourth industrial revolution – in a nutshell. Who knew it would fit? Well with nanotechnology, anything’s possible!

I digress.. As Klaug Schwab of the World Economic Forum describes it, it’s ‘a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.’ The age of artificial intelligence and the rise of the machine means that a lot of today’s roles will disappear because robots will be able to do them better. However, it’s still very difficult to pinpoint what exactly work will look like in the future.

One thing’s for sure though, change is, and will continue to be, inevitable. For us to remain successful we need to become accustomed to that change and adapt accordingly. It just so happens that the skills that will enable us to do so, are the ones we describe as ‘soft’.

What then are the ‘soft’ skills we need in order to adapt?

The conclusions from the World Economic Forum in 2016 were that by 2020 creativity would be one of the top three required working skills, with Emotional Intelligence (E.I.) at number six. E.I. didn’t even feature on the list at the time.

In his TED talk from the same year, ‘Jobs we’ll lose to machines and the ones we won’t’, Anthony Goldbloom tells the story of Percy Spencer. Percy was a physicist who in World War II, realized that the magnetron radar he was working on was melting his chocolate. This sparked his curiosity and thus the idea of the microwave sprang to life.

Goldbloom describes how machines are great at ‘reducing frequent high-volume tasks but not so great at tackling novel situations’. This reinforces the suggestion that creativity is crucial to progress.

According to Forbes in February of last year the top ‘10 skills for the future of work‘ also included communication skills, conflict and stress management and story-telling. All of which are described as soft.

So what are the top skills we recommend to equip yourselves with?

Growth Mindset – In order to be flexible, creative and innovative you need to challenge your thinking, almost constantly. A growth mindset enables us to develop these qualities by applying curiosity to the situations we find ourselves in and prevent us from getting stuck by self-limiting beliefs.

Playfulness and Innovation – Einstein believed that imagination was more important than knowledge. “Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere” and he was known for his playful attitude. In Stephanie Davies’s book about the science behind Laughology, she references the term ‘psychological neotony’ (Bruce Charlton, Professor of Theoretical Medicine, University of Buckingham). It is used to describe the study of childish traits in adults. People who demonstrate these traits are more likely to ‘adapt quickly, make friends, think outside the box and come up with new and exciting concepts’

Social and Emotional Intelligence – In Shawn Achor’s book, ‘Big Potential’, he describes how our own success, as well as that of others, depends on how well we work together. Collaboration! To do this effectively, we must be able to identify and manage our own emotions, as well as those of the people around us. We should also try to accurately read the environments we’re in, so we can better judge the most suitable responses and behaviours.

Communication and Relationship Skills – Good communication skills are essential to anything working well. Bad communication skills invariably cause the failure of relationships, teamwork and inevitably progress.

A Positive Mind – This doesn’t mean being positive all the time. A positive mind experiences all emotions but is more resilient, because it enables you to focus on what’s within your control to do, rather than being at the mercy of how you feel.

Back in 2010 Brene Brown’s TEDTalk ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ went viral and today it has received over 45 million hits! Before Brene, a word such as ‘vulnerability’ was almost taboo and to describe it as a soft skill would have been unheard of.

However, in order to be courageous, we need to be vulnerable. In order to apply a growth mindset we need to recognise when we have wonky thinking or have made an error. In order to make relationships work we need to demonstrate humility and empathy. All of these require courage and vulnerability.

All of these attributes have historically been perceived as ‘soft’ but thankfully that is changing. Now they are values which display gravitas and are respected and admired.

So if you want to flourish in the future I strongly urge you to ‘lean in’ (as Mrs Sandberg would say) to your softer side. Then you’ll be ‘hard’ to overlook! See what I did there…?