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Soft skills for a hard new world

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5th Aug 2013
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Emma-Sue Prince kicks off soft skills month with a look at their importance in the modern workplace.

Soft skills get a bit of a bad rap. The term itself is, at best, vague and non-specific and there are varying views about what these skills actually are - as well as how you go about 'getting them'.

The common view has been that soft skills are about how we manage ourselves and our relationships with others, encased in courses such as 'team building', 'communication skills', 'leadership'. There, we learn techniques and try out different ways of interacting. If lucky, we can also pick up some self-awareness along the way. It's all valuable.

I believe that the world we are living in now is encouraging us, and some may say even forcing us, to do more than this and to become better versions of ourselves. To move beyond only looking at such skills as part of a training package or only focusing on them when a situation calls for it. To take each day as an opportunity to learn more, do more, grow more and really use that self-awareness.

It’s the only thing you have, you know. Soft skills. Your own. Everything else can be imitated, outsourced or replaced and probably will be at some point. We need to think of soft skills as personal competencies that make the difference and help each of us cope better with the extraordinary change and challenges around us right now, grab the opportunities that are coming, that are already here and live better and happier lives as a result.

Sound a bit woolly? Sound like something you’ve heard before? Maybe, but there’s no escaping how much the world has shifted in recent years. We’re living in times of unprecedented change, complexity and competition. Advances in technology, globalisation, economic uncertainty, the shifting workplace and changing social dynamics are presenting us all with challenges and opportunities never before experienced. And everything is happening so fast.

"We need to think of soft skills as personal competencies that make the difference and help each of us cope better with the extraordinary change and challenges around us right now"

Coupled with this, it’s pretty plain that schools, universities and employers aren’t equipping us with the tools and skills we need to prosper in today's world. Yes, we learn information and how to do things. We go on team-building courses and maybe we learn how to give a great presentation. But we all seem to be working harder and longer without necessarily seeing any real benefit. We are bombarded every single day by blogs, social media, websites, email and a constant, unrelenting requirement in both personal and professional life to be switched on and responding 24/7.

If we’re young, we struggle to find work despite being (in the West anyway) the most advantaged and ‘prepared’ generation in terms of qualifications, extra-curricular activities and buckets of support from parents. If we’re older, we struggle with being made redundant, working more for less money and worried about how we’re going to cope with living longer. Many of us have to reinvent ourselves on a regular basis. Lots of uncertainty and things outside our control mean that many struggle with anxiety, loss of sleep, worry and even depression as they face government cuts, financial problems and less job security.

Now, the idea of personal competences and skills is nothing new really. After all, it was established well over 10 years ago that people entering the workforce lacked skills like oral communication, collaboration, work ethic, self-discipline, critical thinking, written communication and problem solving – loosely known as ‘twenty-first century skills’ [1]. So, why is it then, that these skills are still lacking across all levels of the workplace, from top to bottom and are firmly on the agenda of most governments from the UK to Malaysia, from the UAE to Australia? Why are so many people ill-equipped to simply help themselves more?

In the past ten years, the way we interact and communicate with each other, and, more recently the dramatic economic events have, to some extent, helped make these types of skills less relevant and urgent. Skills like written communication and problem-solving are hugely impacted by the fast rise in use of various technologies and partly because the good economic times most of us experienced before the downturn meant that we didn’t really have to worry about them that much.

Of course, these skills are still vitally important, but it’s becoming much harder to develop them without the inner resources required. And, perhaps surprisingly, new technology and how we use that technology to communicate still requires strong interpersonal skills and requires us to take critical thinking skills, for example, to a whole new level. We just haven’t been strengthening our ability to focus, communicate and collaborate and most of the time we are actually weakening this ability significantly, each and every day.

"The only way to thrive and be successful (however you may define that success) is to hone our personal soft skills. And develop these in others."

Speed, whether from fast thinking, information overload, reacting or technology, is making us bad communicators. We listen poorly to others and figure out where they are headed after the first few words and then interrupt. We also weaken our innate executive function – that’s our ability to focus, ignore distractions, remember and use new information as well as our ability to inhibit fast impulsive thoughts and actions.

There are lots of key trends that are driving the need for us to focus more on individual competences and traits. These range from technology, the changing workplace and globalisation to demographic changes, our health and our education systems. Whatever changes the world is going through? The repercussions of the current economic crises? These are around long-term and much of it beyond our control.

The only way to thrive and be successful (however you may define that success) is to hone our personal soft skills. And develop these in others. What are they? Empathy, adaptability, integrity and optimism to name a few.

This month I will write more about these. Why they’re so crucial right now, to what extent we each naturally possess these, what barriers exist in terms of developing them and how we go about getting them.

Emma Sue Prince is author of The Advantage, published by Pearson March 2013. She is also the director of Unimenta – a best practice, free membership site for any trainer or practitioner developing soft skills. www.unimenta.com

[1] www.edweek.org/tsb/articles/2010/10/12/01panel.h04.html

The term ‘21st-century skills’ is generally used to refer to certain/core competences such as collaboration, digital literacy, critical thinking and problem solving that advocates believe schools need to teach to help students thrive in today’s world. In a broader sense, however, the idea of what learning in the 21st century should look like is open to interpretation and controversy.

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