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Why Soft Skills Are Harder Than They Look

Move over, cloud computing and mobile development. The skills that matter most today are the ones we mistakenly call “soft.”

But there’s nothing soft about them.

In fact, soft skills are quickly becoming the difficult skills to recruit for and develop in our organizations. And they’re the ones that turn our everyday work into hard dollars.

It’s time we take a fresh look at these soft skills to understand why they’re more difficult to find and more valuable to build than ever.

The Soft Skills In Demand

Each year, recruiting giant LinkedIn uses its vast bank of data to create a list of the 10 most in-demand skills employers will be looking for in the year ahead. Trainable tech skills like “data mining” consistently rank high on the list.

But in an April 2018 CNBC interview previewing the data, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner said that “somewhat surprisingly, some people may not realize [that] interpersonal skills is where we’re seeing the biggest imbalance.”

In fact, LinkedIn’s data, covering 100 major cities and surveying over 2,000 business leaders, identified these four critical people-focused skill gaps:

1. Leadership

2. Communication

3. Collaboration

4. Time management

Weiner goes on to quote Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who after cutting back on his production expectations after automation efforts failed, said, “It turns out human beings are underrated.”

Why Soft Skills Are So Hard To Find At Work?

It isn’t the need for more humans that’s getting in the way of our progress. It’s the need for more of us to feel it’s safe, acceptable and desired to combine these human talents with our learned, technical or professional skills. In short, it’s not the skills that are lacking. What we lack are workplace cultures that allow those skills to shine.

Based on my professional coaching work with leaders and teams, I’ve identified three cultural expectations that are getting in the way of more people applying their much-needed soft skills to today’s hard work. Until we tackle these reasons, we’ll continue to limp along believing we have a skills gap, when the talents may already exist in our people right now.

1. Soft skills require we make decisions — and be wrong.

In a world overwhelmed with choice, we’re under more pressure than ever to make the “best” decision we can.

But we mistakenly assume that the “best” can only be measured in terms of future results, and so we postpone and procrastinate, waiting for more data to tell us the future. If we make a decision now, there’s a chance we’ll be wrong. And so, we don’t decide.

In cultures where good communication and open leadership are practiced, people operate differently. They make faster decisions because their culture accepts that they might be wrong. The consequences are anticipated, whether they be good or bad. And being wrong doesn't lead to being unemployed.

When leaders encourage frequent, faster decision making and create safety nets for the future, they stimulate people toward more collaboration and better overall communication.

2. Soft skills require we take risks.

In his eye-opening TED Talk on “How to Start a Movement,” Derek Sivers analyzed the spontaneous dance of a man at an outdoor event.

First, a shirtless man dances alone — happy, but alone.

But then, someone joins in. That person, Sivers says, is underestimated. “The first follower is what transforms the lone nut into a leader,” he notes.

She’s the one who takes the biggest risk, often even a bigger risk than the lone nut took. She could be laughed at. Embarrassed. But the first follower turns the tables and makes it OK for others to join in too.

In our companies, our culture needs to accept that risks are part of our work — that supporting a contrarian point of view or pushing back against how things have been done is not only acceptable but desirable.

3. Soft skills require time.

As the cycle of work churns faster, we’ve mistakenly set expectations that people should operate like computers: independent, quietly churning, plugged in 24/7.

Those requirements work for machines, but they’re wrong for humans.

“Always on” expectations and fatigue are costing U.S. employers over $136 billionin lost productivity, according to National Safety Council data. And doing too much too fast doesn’t allow space for human beings to apply their humanity — their natural abilities to connect, build relationships and care for something bigger than themselves.

Doing more is no longer the route to success. Investing time to listen, learn, create and lead now is vital. If you want more soft skills in your organization, you must be willing to give your people time to be human.

What You Can Do Now

If you want to see more human skills in your workplace, stop calling those abilities “soft.”

It’s hard to make decisions that will occasionally be wrong. It’s hard to take risks knowing that we might follow the wrong person or dance the wrong dance. And it’s hard to let work take the time it needs to take, especially when our work involves the delicate handling of customers’ and coworkers’ needs, personalities and goals.

But the good news is: It’s all possible.

The soft skills you need may already live inside your own organization. It’s time to make sure your culture allows them to come out.

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