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Soft Skills are Really the Hard Ones

Soft Skills are Really the Hard Ones

20th April, 2020

Surprisingly for some, in the age of AI and algorithms the demand for soft skills is increasing more than ever. Why is that the case? And in view of this increased demand, how can modern organizations equip their people with such skills? Is it easy to measure the ROI of soft skills' training? These are the questions this article attempts to answer.

I start by highlighting the findings of a famous Harvard study conducted few years ago. It specifies that in today's modern organizations an employee's success is 15% determined by his/her technical (hard) skills and 85% by his/her people management skills (soft skills). Although the study focused on the necessary conditions for managers' success, yet its conclusions apply to all employees whether senior or junior. Soft skills are also called people skills, durable skills, power skills, and human skills or EQ (emotional intelligence).

Soft sounds weak or not so important compared to hard skills which are technical in nature. Engineers for examples have a disdain for soft skills believing that they do not matter when it comes to performance. I do not blame them; this is how they are groomed by educational institutions where they receive their degrees. This is an observation that I have personally derived throughout my experience as management consultant in the Middle East. However, to consider soft skills as weak or unimportant is totally wrong. They are in fact power skills without which hard skills will simply fail to deliver results and what is more important, sustain results over time.

In my opinion there are at least three reasons that make soft skills really the hard ones in terms of their importance and impact upon the business:

  • The average lifespan of a technical skill is now around 18 months. Soft skills are durable skills like leadership, collaboration, perseverance, embracing change, communication, problem solving, creativity, etc. These skills never get obsolete. You can take them with you anywhere inside the business and outside it.
  • The impact of these soft skills upon the business cannot be underestimated or overlooked. The proof is very clear; it takes the form of the core competency frameworks (behavioral competencies/soft skills) that the most successful companies have crafted for themselves over the last 30 years or so. These company specific core competencies are a common denominator among all highly successful businesses (Google, Microsoft, GE, Proctor & Gamble, Toyota, J.P. Morgan, Unilever etc.). They are derived from the companies' visions and strategic goals and are considered critical success factors.
  • Various studies have shown that people with both technical expertise and strong durable/behavioral/human skills not only can have their pick of good jobs or are highly and quickly promotable, but they also earn higher salaries because they are looked upon as high potential people that companies would strive to develop fast and retain.

For all those reasons, soft skills are indeed in great demand these days. That is why companies recommend that you would hire for attitude rather than for only technical skills or university degrees. However, this presupposes that your company has already established a strategy related core competency framework and consequently, all HR functions, including training and development, are competency based.

Even if your company has a good competency framework, it is hard to tell if soft skill training helps people change their behaviors. As a matter of fact, no scientific method has so far been established to assess those skills before and after training. In other words, measuring the ROI of soft skill training is very difficult. Yet we can maximize the impact of such training by meeting the following four conditions:

  • Design and develop soft skill training programs that are linked to a company's competency framework and strategic goals.
  • Deliver interactive training with the objective of maximizing learning. This can be done through role plays, case studies and real-life examples.
  • Allow for failures in applying the lessons from the training, otherwise people will be hesitant to apply what they have learned. More specifically, make sure that the feedback about employee learning and their development efforts are entirely separate from performance appraisals.
  • Encourage managers and peers to coach and mentor individual trainees offering them continuous passionate and constructive feedback. Coaching plays a big role in improving or building soft skills, as a matter of fact, coaching is now considered as the primary tool for developing future leaders.

If you have any questions about the subject matter of this article, please do not hesitate to get in touch through email. Just send me a message to [email protected]

About the Author
Fouad Awad

He holds a bachelor of arts in economics from the American University of Beirut and a master of arts in development economics from the University of Leicester, UK. Fouad is a certified teaching practitioner (CTP) by the Institute of Performance and Learning in Canada.

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