Interviewing is full of uncertainty. What set of skills are really the most important? What does it take to rise above the rest?
The answer: "Soft skills."
Soft skills are what enables someone to get along with other people. From technology companies to law firms, every organization recognizes people who are functional experts. However, soft skills that complement these hard skills are what make a job candidate or employee a prize. A 2014 CareerBuilder survey indicates that 77% of employers seek candidates with soft skills. Sixteen percent of these respondents considered such qualities more crucial than hard skills.
While hard skills, such as computer programming proficiency, are teachable qualities that are easy to quantify, soft skills are—or are not—part of an employee’s nature. In other words, an employee’s personal qualities, habits, attitude, and temperament determine how successful (or unsuccessful) they will be when it comes to problem-solving, delegating, or working with a team. Employees that lack soft skills can undermine the overall success of the organization.
Presenting ideas, listening to coworkers, resolving conflict, and building a workplace that values communication-related transparency are all skills that are connected to building and maintaining relationships that work.
According to a 2014 Multi-Generational Job Search Study conducted by Millennial Branding, employers in today’s modern workplace are looking for:
- Communication skills and "emotional intelligence"
- Solving problems
- Positive attitude and ability to work in a team
- Being dependable and getting the job done
- Coaching coworkers
- Being creative and innovative
- Developing new work processes
- Taking initiative
One quality that all of these have in common is listening, specifically active listening. Active listening involves being present in every conversation you have. Listening with undivided attention communicates respect for the person with whom you are speaking. When you are actively listening to another person, ask yourself what the person is trying to say versus what they are actually saying.
Notice the emotion in the message. Is the person anxious, defeated, or upbeat? And most importantly, don’t jump to conclusions. A workplace environment should encourage participation as well as speaking up (and speaking out).
Job candidates and employees aren’t the only ones who should practice active listening—leaders should be their company’s best listeners. Real leadership is about listening and asking the right questions, and it involves a "sense and respond" approach rather than "command and control."
The sense and respond leadership style is fueled by democracy within the workplace. Companies that outline democracy as a key value communicate that employee participation is a prerequisite to innovation. And part of innovating is working within teams to both ask the right questions and, from there, arrive at the right answer.
Ernest Hemingway once said, "I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen." Innovative companies in every sector—from technology to retail—do a great deal of listening. They listen to customers, product development staff, product testers, executives, administrative assistants, and everyone in between.
Listening is the precursor to discovering new markets or new product enhancements that will solve a potential customer problem. Meanwhile, ineffective listening is often the precursor to unmotivated staff and high turnover.
The modern workplace is nimble and collaborative—a real-time, multi-generational and ever-changing environment. Its key ingredients: participation, alignment, awareness, and innovation. Agile learning is the ability to actively listen, make sense of random bits of data/information, and make solid decisions.
For example, picture a product manager going into his boss’s office. The latest version of the company’s flagship product is receiving poor reviews among beta testers. The release date is scheduled for two weeks out, and the product manager knows adhering to that release date will spell disaster. He fidgets and appears nervous, telling the boss that the team could use some "more time" to "fine-tune" some features.
The boss actively listens and hears the message behind the words. She asks the product manager for specific beta-tester feedback and gathers that the early users dislike the user interface. The two then work together to devise a new product timeline, complete with a new product user interface team. The new product plan also takes into account a number of other variables, including the two partners they are working with, three beta customers, and another smaller company product scheduled for release that month. The revised plan is the result of active listening and agile learning in action.
Most importantly, soft skills—particularly listening—fuel a company culture of respect. I often ask people, "What type of people do you respect?" The answer comes down to the fact that we respect people who respect us. If you respect other people and listen to them, they will respect you. This is how you manage innovation. Innovation is created with people you respect—and it will never happen in a group of people who don’t listen to one another.
—Avinoam Nowogrodski is founder & chief executive officer at Clarizen. He has over 20 years of experience in sales, engineering, and business management.