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Drop the hierarchy: Why people skills are more important than ever

Summer Salomonsen

Head of Cornerstone Studios at Cornerstone OnDemand

After nearly two decades of education and workplace learning experience focused on building meaningful learning opportunities for employees across industries and around the world, I have come to realize that it’s time we remedy the unnecessary bifurcation of what we refer to as “soft” and “hard” skills.

The origins of “hard” and “soft” are muddy at best, but we cling to them regardless, applying them relentlessly to all the skills we expect our people to demonstrate. I’m no big fan of the paradigm — it’s the notion of “soft” that rankles me — with its outdated, insufficient and borderline subversive subtext. These are people skills. There’s nothing soft about them.

It’s these people skills that will represent the new digital currency on the other side of these turbulent times that have brought on rapid workplace evolution. Consider the momentous changes we are experiencing — and will continue to experience — as a result of the global pandemic, exponential technology growth and the influx of Generation Z. Now, more than ever, organizations need to help their people develop the people skills that will empower them to respond and adapt quickly to new environments.

People skills are king

A report from McKinsey estimates that by 2030, between 400 and 800 million global workers will lose their jobs to robotic automation. The hard skills (technical skills) of today are expiring faster and faster, with some experts even estimating their life span at just two to three years. This is precisely why the people skills investment is so important — and making this case for our business leaders will ensure our collective path to success. In the new skills economy, people skills are king.

Our changing workforce and world will require an evolved perspective on skills and a likewise evolved understanding of how different types of skills interconnect. Ultimately, it’s time we move away from the dated, inaccurate and rigid paradigm of soft and hard — which inherently separates the two.

While this may have served us in decades past, as technical skills rose to prominence in the workplace, we’ve all experienced the result of prioritizing one over the other. Great, you can code, but can you exchange ideas, drive a team to results, inspire confidence? A skill like coding (hard) is amplified and illuminated by a skill like persuasion (soft). Together, the two make magic.

However, hard and soft are limited qualifiers that misrepresent the complexity of the skills needed to excel in today’s workplace and expose a deeper reality that there is nothing soft about applying skills like persuasion, negotiation and leadership, and even emotional intelligence and empathy.

Prioritizing the teaching of people skills, such as kindness and resilience, has never been more important to our modern and largely remote workforce. These are the essential skills required of our leaders during times of compressed and constant change — and leading with empathy requires deliberate and — dare I say, hard — decisions to prioritize people over everything else.

In fact, according to an Indeed employer study conducted by Decipher and FocusVision, the top five attributes of top performers were problem-solving, effective communication skills, self-direction, drive and adaptability/flexibility. All of these are skills that are typically categorized as soft. Surprised? I’m certainly not.

Furthermore, a study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce titled “Workplace Basics: The Competencies Employers Want” reveals that the most in-demand skills across the labor market include communication, teamwork, sales and customer service, leadership and problem-solving. These skills aren’t just good for employees; they are good for business too. According to Deloitte, businesses with employees that demonstrate superior people skills have reported higher rates of innovation and productivity.

Working and communicating well with others is the perennial challenge, one we universally struggle with. But it’s a skill that smart employees will spend their entire careers working to master. Consider this: Why does an essential skill, like communication, get grouped into a subset of skills deemed soft?

Arguably, all of the skills listed above are essential for any kind of workplace.

Why does society and the labor market put such an emphasis on hard (technical) skills when they are more easily scoped, taught and assessed? It’s the people skills that require finesse and nuance to learn — and these are skills we will arguably never master. As we look toward a workplace rife with automation, we must not forsake or deprecate the skills that amplify our humanity.

Let’s be human

Persisting in the use of “soft” and “hard” to codify and differentiate essential workplace skills is so last decade. In the spirit of 2021 and all we hope it will bring, let’s inject a bit of humanity into the skills hierarchy and call them what they are: people skills.

After all, it’s the collective “we” — we as people, we as humans — that represent the most challenging and precious aspect of work.

This post originally appeared on Chief Learning Officer.

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