Soft Skills Predict Employee Effectiveness and Success

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In the last decade, the corporate world has moved from a numbers-obsessed machine with an almost-exclusive focus on hard skills and core competencies to a place where soft skills (e.g. leadership, communication, time management) are recognized and even emphasized.

Learning and training leaders who teach these soft skills are seeing executive buy-in because numerous studies point out that soft skills are actually much more predictive of effectiveness and success.

Chris Malone, author of The Human Brand: How We Relate to People People, Products and Companies, led a discussion of soft skills at Corporate Learning Week 2013, in Orlando, Florida.

We sat down with him before he took the stage to discuss soft skills and the people side of performance management and learning and development.

Check out our  interview with Chris below.

CLN: Can you explain to our readers what you spoke about during your keynote?

Chris: The title of my presentation was "Back to the Future: Achieving Peak Performance in the Digital Age." And the interesting thing about it is why actually achieving peak performance moving forward will be much more about understanding our distant past than it will be about technology moving forward.

CLN: The second day of the conference was focused on soft skills. When we're thinking from an employers perspective or from a learning and training person's perspective, how do you help foster and develop those soft skills?

Chris: One of the first things I think is to understand how humans are perceiving interacting and building relationships with one another. Our soft skills are only one part of the equation.

In the work that we've done, we've been able to show that there's actually two parts of that equation. Whenever we're interacting and collaborating with another person, there is kind of warmth, which you might consider the soft skills side of it, but there's also competence.

And the fact that we have sometimes thought of the soft skills as something we could work on in isolation from the competence, I think is where we get a little bit disconnected.

It turns out that the way we interact with each other is really rooted deeply in our evolutionary past and that humans, in every interaction, are assessing one another, first on warmth: What are your intentions toward me? And then on competence: What is your ability to carry out those intentions?

Those are so deeply intertwined with one another that we can't really separate them and work on them separately, and so much of what we do in the workplace is focused on the competency side, the skill, the expertise, the task and accomplishments and so forth and we need to recognize our soft skills are deeply intertwined with that and we need to work on both of those together.

CLN: Have you seen a shift in the way corporate America has looked at soft skills in the past?

Chris: I think what's coming about is particularly as executives move to higher levels in their career, there's a greater and greater recognition that the soft skills are actually much more predictive of effectiveness and success.

And so as much as early in our careers, we needed to be competent at achieving certain tasks and handling certain responsibilities, those will only get us so far and more often than not, particularly for more senior executives, the challenge comes in our their ability to connect, interact and form relationships with one another.

And so that's why I think soft skills are becoming so much more of a focus, but we have thought of them so separately that we've been missing half the picture.

CLN: One thing that a lot of companies are dealing with is this idea of doing more with less. From your perspective, looking at the soft skills side of things, how does that affect their people and their performance?

Chris: One of the things we learned in our research is that the way that people, whether they be employees or customers, interact with companies and brands is simply an adaptation to the way we interact with one another as people.

And so we talk about doing more with less and companies kind of cutting back or downsizing or streamlining, we need to take a look at and understand what is the message that is being sent to employees but that action.

We're processing it with the same warmth and confidence that we do with all of our other interactions and very often the employees are getting the message that the company is seeking to benefit at their expense and the company may not care as much about their best interest.

So if it's the case that they perceive that the company simply wants to get more done with fewer people so that they can generate greater profit, the employee may perceive that's not really in their best interest and the company does not have good intentions toward them.

On the other hand, if the company takes the time to explain what's happening and point out the upside for employees, perhaps that there's greater opportunity for those employees moving forward because there are fewer people in the organization or that additional training and development will be provided to help them with additional responsibilities, that can help advance their development as well.

So I think we always need to be cognizant of the message we're sending when we're trying to do more with less and reinforce and explain and demonstrate to employees that we do have their best interest in mind and we're doing things to demonstrate that.

CLN: Keeping on this track, looking at the people part of performance: What do you think are the things that companies typically overlook in that sort of vein and how can companies improve upon that?

Chris: One of the things that we've found is there is a tremendous lack of awareness about how the business practices and policies that implement are coming across. In the business world, reducing staff, managing of expenses to manage profit and deliver shareholder value is standard operating procedure.

We all recognize that is what businesses are expected to do. At the same time, we don't always think about what is the message that is being sent. Very often unintentionally, we suggest to either customers or employees or other stakeholders that we don't have their best interest in mind, and we don't demonstrate that we've taken precautions to protect their best interest.

We've worked with companies that, for instance, have implemented price increases because their costs go up. And if they go to the extent and say, you know, these are things that are out of our control, but look, we've identified these ways that we can help you save and mitigate those cost increases, whether you need to shift to a private label product or a different type of delivery schedule or things of that nature.

That message comes across very differently and we are demonstrating that we have their best interest in mind, despite that there are some changes that are necessary from the business standpoint.

So I think the headline is that becoming more self-aware about how our policies and practices are coming across to our employees and other stakeholders is the first step.