HomeThe InfluencersWhy soft skills are the hardest skills of all (and most important...

Why soft skills are the hardest skills of all (and most important for leaders)

When we think of business and success we often think of capability. Can a person do the day-to-day tasks needed for that role? But when we limit our thinking to technical skills, we’re missing the point, says Ambition’s Nicky Acuna Ocana.

It’s soft skills that determine success. The higher you rise through the ranks, the more important they become. But soft skills are often overlooked.

It’s up to the individual to say how good they are at communicating, how well they work in a team and there are limited development opportunities available to help those who struggle.

With Generation Z entering the workforce it’s becoming apparent that we need to do something about soft skills. We need to be proactive and develop all our employees.

It’s those analytical, empathetic skills that set us apart from artificial intelligence, and it’s those soft skills that will determine success on both a business and personal level.

Soft versus technical skills
Think of the last job advert you saw. It probably led with a bit about the role before listing the technical skills necessary. The soft skills were probably buried in a quick list near the bottom.

Even the term ‘soft skills’, which was coined by the US Army to refer to any skill that doesn’t use machinery, implies something warm and fluffy. A nice-to-have. When the reality is very different.

Soft skills are the more influential ones in the workplace. They help you build relationships, work with other people, but because of their subjective nature, they’re the harder ones to evaluate and master.

That means that training budgets are often focused on technical skills, skills that can be evaluated and ticked off as achieved. In doing so, we’re doing our employees a disservice.

Business success is defined by what’s underneath the specific job knowledge needed to perform a role. Research by Harvard University, the Carnegie Foundation, and Stanford Research Centre found that 85% of career success comes from soft skills. 

If we neglect those 85% of skills, then as leaders, we’re holding our teams back, we’re holding our businesses back and we’re holding ourselves back.

Leadership and soft skills
When it comes to leadership, they become even more important.

Leaders need an understanding of technical skills. But most leaders won’t spend the day coding or running financial reports. They’ll spend the day problem-solving, communicating, analysing information, and managing people.

76% of employees say they’re more engaged with highly empathetic leaders. Empathy is the epitome of a soft skill, which is often overlooked or even in some cases seen as a weakness in a leader.

For leaders to be effective, there needs to be a recognition of the importance and a focus on developing soft skills.

The rise of artificial intelligence
It’s estimated that 44% of employee skills will be disrupted over the next five years. With the workplace changing so dramatically the ability to cope with change, to adapt, to communicate change will come to the fore more than ever.

That means those employees who can’t do that will struggle and possibly become disengaged with the workplace. That’s a challenge for businesses at a skills transition level and a challenge for leaders in terms of workforce management.

When you look at the rise of artificial intelligence and the role it will play in the workplace, the differentiator between AI and people are soft skills. AI might be able to automate jobs and reduce processes but it can’t empathise with colleagues, it can’t critically evaluate a decision.

Generation Z
Gen Z might be tech-savvy but when it comes to soft skills, it’s clear they’re lacking.  Anyone who works with new entry-level recruits can attest to their lack of soft skills and work etiquette. For businesses, this can be really damaging.

Younger workers without the necessary level of soft skills to conduct themselves in meetings, communicate with clients, or work as part of a larger team are only going to be able to progress so far in their careers before they hit rocky waters.

The reality is that we aren’t teaching young people the soft skills they need to succeed in the workplace. Combine that lack of education with a disrupted, and isolated, education where for the most part they sat behind a screen on their own at home, and it’s not surprising that they’re lacking the necessary soft skills.

For those coming from more disadvantaged backgrounds, they’re also less likely to have seen parents or family members in roles that require advanced soft skills. Put them in a professional setting and they are going to sink.

The future: a soft skills gap
Soft skills are hard to master because they’re subjective, they’re emotive, they’re hard to define. Shifting the focus from technical skills to soft skills also requires a change in thinking across the business.

Leaders need to decide to prioritise soft skills across all areas of the business. From hiring to learning and development, soft skills have to come first.

Let’s face it, it’s easier to train technical skills, it’s easier to see that gap, and as a leader it’s a far more comfortable conversation to say to an employee that they need training in this piece of software than to say they need to work on their communication skills. Comfort shouldn’t be a reason to avoid necessary training.

When we think about the importance of soft skills and the gap they leave, we need to look across all levels, all positions and all seniorities, not just focusing on entry-level positions.

Training has to focus on building and developing soft skills. Hiring needs to evaluate soft skills. Leaders need to look at their soft skills.

Contrary to their name, soft skills are anything but soft. They’re the backbone of the working world, and something that everyone from your graduates to your CEO needs to have. With the digitisation of work, soft skills are only going to become more important which means we have to start adapting now.

Nicky Acuna Ocana is the Regional Managing Director, UK, Europe & US at Ambition, a specialist professional services recruitment agency. Nicky is passionate about ED&I and regularly writes articles on inclusive hiring and various topics relating to ED&I in recruitment.

Matt Baldwin
Matt Baldwin
Co-founder – Coast Communications

Related articles

The Professionals Newsletter