‘Soft skills’: a term as deceptive as a ‘fun-size’ label on a chocolate bar. The adjective implies a lack of durability and ease of procurement that does an injustice to the great worth of these qualities and reflects the condescending manner with which they have previously been regarded in industry. ‘Soft’ also holds gendered connotations with the contribution of these ‘feminine’ qualities, often being downplayed by patriarchal structures in the workplace. Several alternative labels have been proposed including ‘essential skills,’ ‘people skills,’ and ‘emotional intelligence quotient,’ offering new empowerment to these abilities that reflect their shifting reception in the workplace.
The boundaries between hard and soft skills can be difficult to define. Hard skills are those that can be learned through teaching and practice and tend to be specific to a particular industry: from till use, to computer coding, to financial forecasting. Soft skills are qualities that can be universally applied in almost any role, such as good leadership, strong work ethic, negotiation, and compassion. They are often naturally inherent to character, yet they can also be gained through experience as one navigates harmonious and successful teamwork. While hard skills are often foundational to recruitment in key industries, it is becoming increasingly apparent to employers that a worker meeting these requirements is not necessarily adapted to the challenges of the workplace. A 2018 study by LinkedIn found that 57% of employers now view soft skills as being more important than hard skills. This may strike us as an unusual result, but this recognition of the immense value of adaptable, likeable characters in the workplace is a welcome and justified change. Businessmen lacking collaborative and cooperative prowess can quickly evolve into the kind of egotistical characters whose autocratic management style we see humorously portrayed on The Apprentice. Similarly, a solicitor could have all the necessary legal knowledge and academic qualifications, yet if they cannot communicate effectively and compassionately with their clients, they will be ill-suited for the job.
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The same can be said for the importance of soft skills on the part of the employer. Businesses run with a sole focus on hard skills, often fail to play their part in providing a positive and productive environment for their workers. Industries valuing soft skills will place greater significance on effective leadership; helping to maximise the full potential of their employees by rewarding good work and when necessary and offering criticism in a constructive, non-confrontational manner. Not only is it ethical practice to treat employees as useful, respected individuals rather than machine parts, it is also economically beneficial. Researchers Ipsos, conducting a study for US company Steelcase, found that in the UK, 1/3 of workers have a negative opinion of their office environment and this directly contributes to their annual number of sick days. Company, PWC, calculates that sick leave and subsequent production loss costs UK employers approximately £29 billion a year. A high employee turnover rate is another massively costly repercussion of a negative workplace atmosphere. Studies by the Society for Human Resource Management found that the replacement of a salaried employee costs managers an average of 6 to 9 months’ salary. The profit losses resulting from poor working environments, therefore suggest that cost-cutting in areas of worker satisfaction is actually counter-productive and investment in soft-skill leadership is essential for business sustainability.
In personal reflection, the difference in employment under soft-skill oriented management is profound. In my first job at home, I worked for a fudge company run by three sisters whose leadership was encouraging and inspiring. Their enthusiasm for the business and its customers was contagious, creating a workforce that was passionate and diligent in its promotion and selling of the product. My student job in First Year on the other hand, saw me plate running at events and functions under the management of a large, impersonal company that clearly sought to extract the greatest efficiency from workers for the minimal pay. Fellow employees were therefore disgruntled and unproductive, their justified lack of care for the company reflecting in the low effort they invested in their work.
Soft skills in industry are essential for both employees and management. Work efficiency requires more than just the relevant hard skills; it is borne out of a positive work environment, effective leadership and a passionate enthusiasm for the role. With a new empowerment of qualities such as dependability, emotional intelligence, and creativity, it’s clear that the working world is moving away from a battle of the biggest egos, towards an embrace of the softer touch.