We may live in a digital world, but soft skills like communication, problem solving, collaboration, and empathy are becoming more valued than technology, says Paul Roehrig, chief strategy officer for Cognizant Digital Business, a business and technology service provider.
“People skills are more and more important in an era where we have powerful and pervasive technology,” he says. “It sounds counterintuitive, but to beat the bot, you need to be more human.”
When evaluating their hiring plans for 2017, 62% of employers rate soft skills as very important, according to CareerBuilder. But a recent survey by the Wall Street Journal found that 89% of executives are having a difficult time finding people with these qualities.
Some blame technology and the emphasis on STEM for the demise of things like communication, but Roehrig, coauthor of What To Do When Machines Do Everything: How to Get Ahead in a World of AI, Algorithms, Bots, and Big Data, believes those skills haven’t diminished; they’re simply needed in larger quantities now. “As machines do more routinized and lower-value-add work, more people are needed to work in context of what automation and AI cannot do,” he says.
If you haven’t upped your emphasis on soft skills, maybe it’s time to rethink your workplace strategy. Teaching employees soft skills boosts productivity and retention by 12%, delivering a 256% return on investment, according to a study from the University of Michigan. Here are four changes to make in your organization that will help employees develop the skills you need to succeed:
1. Evaluate Your Culture
While classes are helpful, the best way to teach soft skills is by making them part of your work environment, says Linda Sharkey, author of Future-Proof Workplace: Six Strategies to Accelerate Talent Development, Reshape Your Culture, and Proceed with Purpose. “Build the behaviors you want into your culture,” she says. “If part of your culture is collaboration, people will learn it, because that’s the expected behavior they see in others.”
For example, custom software creator Menlo Innovations pairs people to work on a project, then rotates them for the next project. “Moving people around helps people adapt and interact better with others, and it gets them out of their comfort zones,” she says.
2. Reward Employees Who Exhibit Soft Skills
Reinforce your values with the people you promote to leadership, insisting on behaviors such as curiosity and relationship building from managers, says Sharkey. “Leaders must act as coaches and developers of their folks so they are, in fact, building collaborative relationships along with those who work with them,” she says.
Make an effort to celebrate and acknowledge human-centric behaviors, says Roehrig. “Use performance reviews as a time to check in,” he says. “Acknowledge behavior you value, such as creativity, curiosity, or analytical thinking.”
3. Strive To Create A Diverse Workforce
Hiring people with other perspectives and backgrounds helps employees build empathy. Matthew Gonnering, CEO of the digital asset management firm Widen, takes a different approach by hiring people with developmental disabilities, such as Down Syndrome and cerebral palsy.
“Empathy increases self-awareness, because the clarity we see in another person’s perspective is often a blind spot in our own worldview,” he says. “In essence, empathy is the soft skill that gives our hard skills purpose. We can code a new product, but for whom? And why? Practicing empathy reminds us to ask those questions.”
Widen’s employees with disabilities not only complete their daily tasks; they create value that goes beyond occupational responsibilities, says Gonnering. “Most notably, they initiate conversations about topics they are passionate about, spread a contagious positive attitude, and demonstrate an appreciation for details,” he says.
For example, Andrew (who is in charge of the company’s indoor plants and popcorn service) often shares his experiences as a Special Olympics coach and player. “He is a fountain of knowledge on horticulture, and before you know it, you’re buying dragon sculptures from his art portfolio,” says Gonnering. “These interactions unlock our highest potential by teaching us to think empathetically, hold our attitudes to a higher standard, and find the lightness in situations that would normally cause stress.”
4. Start A Mentoring Program
If a new employee is lacking in a certain soft skills, pair him or her with a mentor who possesses those skills, suggests Tim Elmore, president of the leadership training and development organization Growing Leaders.
“Mentoring gives younger professionals the opportunity to talk candidly and learn from someone older and more experienced, in a relaxed environment,” he says. “Start small, and with a commonly neglected soft skill.”
For example, making a positive first impression is easy, but creating a lasting impression is much more difficult, says Elmore. “This is a matter of social intelligence—a soft skill business leaders often report is missing in their young team members,” he says. “They’ve succeeded in landing the job, but once they settle into it, they fail to uphold that same level of professionalism and maturity by gossiping about colleagues, showing and displaying their general lack of job etiquette.”
Select a group of influential workplace veterans who can meet with your young professionals on a weekly basis, Elmore suggests. “Discuss one topic each week, igniting conversation on social intelligence,” he says. “Some potential ideas are social cognition, self-presentation, and influence.”
Then let mentees become mentors. “Mentoring becomes a methodical part of your onboarding process, and young employees feel like a valued and needed member of the team,” says Elmore.
Soft skills are more important than you think, says Sharkey. “If you allow people to treat others with disrespect, then your culture becomes highly toxic,” she says. “Today, companies put value statements on the wall, but do they live them? If the bottom line is really profit—doing anything to make that profit—you will ultimately lose customers, talent, and your reputation in the marketplace.”