Mark Craemer 1 Comment

There’s a saying in business that you are either selling aspirin (making a customer’s pain go away) or vitamins (by making the customer’s existing situation better).

My work involves helping individuals and organizations with so-called “soft skills,” or things like interpersonal communication, self-awareness, conflict negotiation, collaboration and leadership. These soft skills are typically considered vitamins more than aspirin. But should they?

In my experience, many organizations suffer a great deal of pain because employees lack proficiency in many of these interpersonal areas. This is because most organizations are challenged more by the relationships between people than by technical problems or business issues. The pain may not be as obvious or easy to measure, but that doesn’t lessen its impact on the bottom line.

The downturn in the economy resulted in slashed budgets of training and development departments, and many departments jettisoned altogether. But what is the cost of not focusing on these people skills both now and in the near future?

According to a study by Indiana Business Research Center, they found that while credentials in the form of degrees and certificates are important, development of soft skills (skills that are more social than technical) are a crucial part of a dynamic workforce. The skills projected to be in highest demand for all Indiana occupations through 2014 include active listening, critical thinking, speaking, active learning, writing, time management, and social perceptiveness.

Research conducted by DePaul University concluded that recruiters want business schools to put more attention on people-oriented skills like leadership and communication. However, students complain that those soft skills won’t get them hired, and they pressure business schools to focus more on functional or technical content.

So which is more important: technical skills or soft skills? It seems to me that you need technical skills to get hired, but soft skills are what help you succeed once you are hired. Both are ultimately important, but technical skills get a lot more attention, especially in a poor economy where securing a job is paramount.

This may be changing. According to a 2007 survey by OfficeTeam, and the International Association of Administrative Professionals, two-thirds of HR managers say they would hire an applicant with strong soft skills whose technical abilities are lacking. Only nine percent of those surveyed said they would hire someone who had strong technical expertise but weak interpersonal skills.

“While office technology skills are very important, excellent interpersonal skills are invaluable and usually more difficult to teach,” said Sandra P. Chandler, president of IAAP.

A 2007 Computerworld survey of hiring and skills reported that IT executives are increasingly looking for people with a broad range of soft skills in addition to their technical abilities. The survey respondents said writing and public speaking are two of the most important soft skills they look for when hiring new employees. Additionally, they want candidates who understand business process, work well with a team, know how to get their points across, are inquisitive, use initiative and are willing to take risks.

Further, a survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council found that although recent MBA’s were strong in analytical aptitude, quantitative expertise, and information-gathering ability, they were sorely lacking in other critical areas employers find equally attractive. These areas include strategic thinking, written and oral communication, leadership, and adaptability.

Peggy Klaus, in research for her book The Hard Truth About Soft Skills—Workplace Lessons Smart People Wish They’d Learned Sooner, continually encountered people who were not getting where they wanted to go in their careers. “Their problems rarely stemmed from a shortfall in technical or professional expertise, but rather from a shortcoming in the soft skills arena with their personal, social, communication and self-management behaviors.”

Soft skills are important in entry level or unskilled positions too. In a 2008 Job Outlook survey by the National Association of Colleges & Employers, the top characteristics looked for in new hires by 276 employer respondents (mostly from the service sector) were all soft skills: communication ability, a strong work ethic, initiative, interpersonal skills, and teamwork.

If soft skills are so important to employers, why is there so little focus on fostering them in employees? I would argue that during this time of record layoffs and fewer employees being asked to do more of the work, it is vitally important to make each of them more efficient and productive. Soft skills training can be especially helpful in this effort.

Soft skills should not be considered “touchy-feely stuff that’s nice to have, but can’t afford it right now.” Proficiency in these skills separate organizations who may survive yet another year versus those who grow, adapt and are able to compete in a global economy.

Employees proficient in soft skills demonstrate higher employee engagement, greater productivity, and help make an entire organization more competitive in the marketplace.

Though the benefits of soft skills training may be hard to measure in the short term, organizations need to look beyond simple pain relief from a symptom of a much bigger problem and toward a long term, system-wide wellness approach. Soft skills training is key to a healthy organization.

Mark Craemer

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