Follow the Data: Make Soft Skills Your L&D Super Power

Article4 min read

November 19, 2019

In a surprising study, Google discovered that its highest performing teams aren’t those stacked with scientists, but interdisciplinary groups heavily benefitting from employees bringing strong soft skills to the collaborative process. Further, additional research found that it’s these soft skills, like good communication and empathetic leadership, not hard skills, that comprise the top predictors of success within the company.

Research from MIT Sloan echoed Google’s findings, showing that soft skills training, even in more hands-on, technical roles in a factory setting, can improve work productivity. Initiated at five Bangalore factories, a controlled, twelve-month trial revealed that training in problem solving, communication, and decision-making yielded a 250 percent ROI in eight months.

Time and time again, industry data, market trends, and insights from top business leaders highlight soft skills as important, and yet they’re still often overlooked.

The Opportunity for Investing in Soft Skills

“Many believe that the term “soft skills” is a misnomer,” said edX founder and CEO Anant Agarwal in an article for Forbes. “Critical thinking, persuasive writing, communications, and teamwork are not fluffy, nice-to-have value-adds. They’re hard-won and rigorously maintained abilities that are better referred to as “power skills.” A term favored (and perhaps pioneered) by Philip J. Hanlon, President of Dartmouth College, who is an avid advocate for use of the word power over soft.”

In a rapidly changing digital economy and labor market where hard skills present the challenge of a moving target, soft skills are a universal, addressable, and impactful area that more and more businesses are building into corporate learning and training programs, and identifying as must-haves for job applicants.

“The next generation of workers, executives, and leadership will need to have a hybrid skill set balancing an understanding of hard skills, like programming and analytics, with power skills,” Agarwal said.

What Are Soft Skills? Shifting Your Perspective to Power Skills

Soft skills are the interpersonal skills or “people skills” that, while often overlooked and under resourced in terms of training and learning, have the potential to be game changers for professional growth and business impact. Google’s study of its employees’ most impactful skills resulted in a list of the seven most important skills the company looks for in prospective employees, all of which are soft skills:

  1. Being a good coach
  2. Communicating and listening well
  3. Possessing insights into others (social awareness)
  4. Empathy and support toward colleagues
  5. Critical thinking
  6. Problem solving
  7. Connecting complex ideas

Essentially, Google’s list of important soft skills translates into the categories of communication skills, collaboration and teamwork skills, critical thinking and problem solving skills, and leadership skills.

Learn more about key soft skills companies are looking for as they develop and hire their leaders of tomorrow in our article Soft Skills: What Every Manager Needs to Know.

It’s clear soft skills are no longer a “nice to have,” and in fact are power skills that can drive organizations forward.

Teaching and Learning Soft Skills vs. Hard Skills

It can be a challenge for workers to gain soft skills in today’s traditional higher education or corporate learning environments.

Soft skills are not typically taught as a hybrid skill set with hard technical skills. Learners often find themselves on one segmented track or another; e.g., computer science disciplines tend to focus solely on programming and hard skills, while liberal arts curricula fosters critical thinking and creativity, but often leaves graduates with non-linear career-paths.

“There is a misconception that technical studies offer more employment options,” Agarwal said. “Combined with the misconception that employees naturally pick up soft skills, this has led to a general overemphasis on STEM-related concentrations. We are now realizing that this is not necessarily effective, but some people still question: can technical people develop soft skills?”

Soft Skills Can — and Should — be Taught

“It will take two fundamental changes in mindset to help workers at large achieve this hybrid skill set: 1) unified recognition of the value that strong soft skills bring to a team and 2) the will and resources to foster this valuable skill set in employees,” Agarwal said.

Companies, like Google and beyond, are discovering the value of soft skills, and turning that insight into action. In addition to hiring managers looking for these skills in applicants, corporate learning leaders are taking note of Agarwal’s second point: identifying and building resources and pathways for employees at all levels to learn and use these important skills across work environments.

Soft skills present an enormous opportunity for corporate learning and development programs. Learn more about how you can empower your employees to develop these power skills sets: Visit our Professional Skills Corporate eLearning Course Page for more information on critical soft skills courses for employees.

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Whether you’re a business leader, L&D executive, or other professional, we offer compelling data and insights for why an outcomes-based skills program is key to succeeding in tomorrow’s workplace.

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