Wanted: Human Skills

/ Christine Andrukonis

Often, what really makes the difference between employee success and failure are the skills that don’t appear on a resume. But can these “human skills” be taught?

Over the course of my career, I’ve learned that there are key skills that consistently contribute to employee success, no matter what the employee’s level. They are the softer skills – skills that make us better people and give us a high “get-it factor.” They are skills like listening, empathy, creative thinking, focus, a solution orientation, accountability, stakeholder management, self-motivation and the ability to take risks and fail better, again and again.

These skills have always been sought, but are now more desirable than ever, as companies begin to ask every employee to behave as a leader. The market is craving soft skills because they are a necessary complement to the skyrocketing need for STEM experts. In fact, in a 2018 study by LinkedIn, 57% of leaders said “soft skills are more important than hard skills.”

Soft, or what we like to call “human skills,” elevate a person’s technical and professional experiences, allowing them to ramp up fast, and deliver meaningful insights and practical solutions so teams can make steady progress every single day.

“Hire for the skills you can’t teach.” It’s advice I received early on and have taken to heart my entire career.  The question is – are human skills teachable or are they innate?

The truth is, human skills exist within us all, but not everyone exhibits them to the extent necessary in the workplace. I believe these skills (and behaviors) can be taught, in the sense that they can be leveraged to potential — but only if leaders emphasize and reward the right behaviors. Here are three ways to improve the impact of softer skills in the workplace:

  1. Set clear priorities and expectations about what success looks like. Are you measuring success based on what was achieved, or based on both what was achieved, and how it was achieved? Establish a clear set of behavioral expectations and priorities for your team.
  2. Incentivize individuals based on these priorities, as well as their business goals. Include measures for soft skills in your performance management process. Recognize and celebrate teams and individuals who are doing things like listening, showing empathy and creative thinking, collaborating across siloes, and taking calculated risks. For example, a sports and entertainment company we work with used to host a ceremony where leaders awarded a person and team a “best failure” trophy each year. It was an opportunity to recognize people who took risks and failed spectacularly, using all their technical and “human” skills.
  3. Create a workplace where a balance between human and technical skills is the norm. Here are a few examples of how you can influence the growth of soft skills alongside technical ones:
    • To encourage teamwork and innovative thinking, create opportunities for individuals who wouldn’t normally cross paths to collaborate.
    • To build empathy, incorporate storytelling in your corporate messaging wherever possible.
    • To encourage a solution-oriented mindset, spend more time developing people who are generating ideas and solutions than on those who are consistently negative or finding fault without alternative suggestions.
    • To improve self-awareness, provide leadership development opportunities as part of your learning and development curriculum.

As the tight labor market continues, employers will continue to search deeply to find candidates who have the right combination of technical and “human” skills. The gaps in “getting it” may or may not be obvious when an employee is first hired, but they are critical for long-term career success.

With focused effort, you can amplify the human skills and behaviors that impact this success.Providing structure to your priorities, expectations, programs, policies and experiences will help your people make the most of their hard and soft skills — and ultimately, provide lasting benefits to your employees, the community and your business.