Cultivating Soft Skills: Your Human Competitive Advantage

Cultivating Soft Skills: Your Human Competitive Advantage

Cultivating Soft SkillsDoes anyone actually enjoy doing laundry? That familiar washer-to-dryer dance followed by the chore of folding it all and putting it away. I’m not a fan. In fact, one of the most enduring entries on my “Wish List for the Future” is that blissful day when robots will do my laundry, fold it and put it all away. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll be able to scratch that line item off my list any time soon. But cars that park themselves, autonomous security bots, refrigerators that talk to your toaster and AI assistants with names like Siri, Cortana and Bixby are the kind of tech that’s already making a huge impact on our personal lives.

In the workplace, savvy companies are on the hunt for strategies that generate operational efficiency. Monetization is the process of optimizing the return on every business investment and automation will play a key role in those business monetization strategies. Doing more with less is nothing new from a business standpoint, however, when you combine that thinking with enabling technology, it’s not hard to imagine how roles that once required a human will eventually be done by technology. And let’s be clear. We’re not talking about 20 years from now. We’re talking about big changes that are already underway.

For example, instead of hiring hundreds of people to transcribe tens of thousands of pages of physicians’ notes on patients, healthcare organizations are turning to technology to automate the transcription process. Things like Natural Language Processing (NLP), Speech Recognition and Handwriting Recognition (HWR) are just a few of the existing technologies that will make the automation of that transcription process (and every other business process possible) as close to a “sure thing” as you can get in the business world. Why? Because tech that was once on the cutting edge is becoming mainstream, making those automated solutions available to virtually any company, large or small. And because it can have a tremendously positive impact on every companies financial performance. The bottom line is that unless your career involves folding laundry, it’s likely that some part of what you do today will be automated in the next several years. But the news isn’t all bad. Because you’ve still got an edge.

Robots Just Don’t Get It

While technology is great for some things, there are other skillsets and roles that it simply can’t replace. Even the most intelligent of the AI sisters we mentioned—Siri, Cortana and Bixby—can’t recognize emotion. Or context. For instance, a human ear immediately knows when the word “Please” is used to ask for something versus when it’s used to express frustration–“Puh-leeze!”. Machines can’t do that. Nor can they resolve a conflict between team members. Or use imagination and intuition to solve a complex, multi-dimensional problem. There are many skills that we humans possess that no technology will be able to match or replace any time soon.

For job seekers, understanding and embracing those future needs is the key to ensuring your professional skillset stays current and in-demand. For hiring managers, knowing what skillsets will be needed tomorrow enables you to build a foundation today. In the past, a candidate’s work experience and functional, or “hard” skillset, largely determined his or her value to a potential employer. With companies looking to automate many of these hard and functional skillsets, the workplace of tomorrow will put an increasing level of value on candidates that also possess the soft skills that can’t be automated or handed off to a team of bots.

Soft Skills as a Competitive Advantage

According to Google, soft skills can be defined as “personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.” These skills are highly subjective and are often difficult to evaluate. They represent the unique blend of personality, emotions and insights that each of us bring to work every day and they provide an indication to hiring managers in terms of how effective each of us is likely to be when dealing with coworkers, partners, vendors and customers.

The challenge for hiring managers is that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to identifying the soft skills that are most important to your organization. The ones that actively support and amplify your company’s core values and culture. My advice is to identify what that soft skill set of the future will be and start thinking about how you will integrate that into your hiring and interviewing process right now.

Building Positive Personality Traits

In many ways, soft skills represent positive personality traits that contribute to a successful workplace. So, identifying what those personality traits are is the first step. Here is an example of ten soft skills that hiring managers should look for and job candidates should cultivate:

  1. Adaptability: how do I handle change and volatility?
  2. Computational Thinking: how effective am I at deriving meaningful insights from complex data?
  3. Forecasting: can I leverage my professional knowledge to generate accurate predictions?
  4. Listening: do I actively pay attention to coworkers and customers?
  5. Critical Thinking: can I review, analyze and communicate my findings effectively?
  6. Empathy: do I help create a harmonious workplace and actively support my teammates?
  7. Innovation: do I think outside the box and look for intelligent, creative ways to meet goals?
  8. Negotiation: how effective am I at brokering a deal or generating consensus?
  9. Trend-Aware: do I have a point-of-view on things happening in my industry?
  10. Complexity: how well do I manage complexity and a changing, dynamic workplace?

For candidates, when assessing your soft skills, get feedback from your coworkers, friends and family. Sometimes there can be a big difference between how we think others see us versus how they actually see us. So seek out those with opinions you trust and respect and ask them to help you identify the areas where you are strong, so you can emphasize these during job search, and the areas that represent growth opportunities for you.

For hiring managers, assessing soft skills in candidates can be challenging. One way to approach that assessment is talk to current employees and understand what positive personality traits are most important to them. And which cause the most challenges. This will help you identify the unique set of soft skills that will be most important to the future success of your hiring plan.

There is a tremendous amount of information online about identifying, cultivating and assessing soft skills and I would encourage you to make that an on-going part of your personal career development plan. Unless you’re a laundry-folding robot. In which case I have an immediate opening that’s perfect for you!

Good luck out there!

Jeff Stout and your friends at BlueSky

Jeffrey Stout