The 12 most important missing soft skills

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Bruce Tulgan
CEO
Rainmaker Thinking
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Bruce Tulgan identifies the top 12 missing soft skills among today’s young talent, pulled from research done by his consultation firm, RainmakerThinking, Inc.

So many business leaders and managers at all levels fall for the myth that soft skills are 'nice to have' rather than 'must have' – simply a luxury they cannot afford to prioritise. That is a huge mistake.

Hard skills are easier to define and measure, yes. Hard skills are critical and they deserve lots of attention, but don’t let anybody fool you: Soft skills are every bit as important. For the vast majority of your workforce, soft skills are the key to your success in the workplace and competitive differentiation in the marketplace. Soft skills are the source of a huge amount of power that is always right there hiding in plain sight – a tremendous reservoir of often untapped value – a secret weapon for any smart organisation, team, leader, or individual performer. 

Yes, the hard skills – the technical skills – are absolutely required in any job. That’s every bit as true at the low end of the skill spectrum as it is at the high end. Right? Even if you are a cashier in a convenience store, you simply must know how to operate the cash register and make change to do the job. That’s the bare minimum. After all, you can’t do the job if you can’t do the job. But that’s only half the story. 

The many soft skills which I put into those three old fashioned buckets (professionalism, critical thinking, and followership) are where even the most technically proficient employees in any field can go terribly wrong - or incredibly right. 

Think about it: Even if the cashier can operate the cash register and make correct change, there is a big difference between a cashier who is always a little bit early to work and doesn’t take long breaks and one who is chronically late or disappears for long stretches of time. There is a big difference between the cashier who is bright eyed and the one who is bleary eyed; the one who is smiling and the one who is rolling his eyes; the one who can help a customer when something is wrong with his order and one who is clueless; the one who is staring at her device and talking with her peers behind the counter and the one who pays attention to the customer; the one who mumbles and the one who says enthusiastically, “Would you like a beverage today sir?” 

These differences may not be thrilling and sexy, but they matter. So much. They matter to your customers, to your vendors, to that employee’s coworkers, to you and every other manager, and these differences have a huge impact on the bottom line. Yes, your employees (of all ages) must have the hard skills to do the job, but the soft skills make all the difference, whether at the lowest end of the technical skill spectrum or the highest. 

I focus on professionalism, critical thinking, and followership because they seem like the best way to capture the thousands of details of behaviour that managers bring up in surveys, interviews, focus groups and seminars. In trying to make them easier to discuss and teach, I’ve boiled them down to just twelve missing basics: 

Professionalism: The missing basics 

  • Self-evaluation: Regularly assessing one’s own thoughts, words, and actions against clear meaningful standards; and one’s own performance against specific goals, timelines, guidelines and parameters. 
  • Personal responsibility: Staying focused on what one can control directly – principally one’s self - and controlling one’s responses in the face of factors outside one’s own control.
  • Positive attitude: Maintaining and conveying a positive, generous, enthusiastic demeanour in one’s expressions, gestures, words, and tone. 
  • Good work habits: Wellness, self-presentation, timeliness, organisation, productivity, quality, follow-through, and initiative.
  • People skills: Attentive listening, observing, and reading; perceiving and empathising; effective use of words, tone, expressions and gestures - verbal, written, and otherwise; one-on-one and in groups; in-person and remotely. 

Critical thinking: The missing basics 

  • Proactive learning: Keeping an open mind, suspending judgment, questioning assumptions, and seeking out information, technique and perspective; and studying, practicing, and contemplating in order to build one’s stored knowledge base, skillset, and wisdom. 
  • Problem-solving: Mastering established best practices - proven repeatable solutions for dealing with regular recurring decisions - so as to avoid reinventing the wheel. Using repeatable solutions to improvise when addressing decisions that are new but similar. 
  • Decision-making: Identifying and considering multiple options, assessing the pros and cons of each, and choosing the course of action closest to the desired outcome.

Followership: The missing basics 

  • Respect for context: Reading and adapting to the existing structure, rules, customs and leadership in an unfamiliar situation. 
  • Citizenship: Accepting, embracing, and observing, not just the rights and rewards, but the duties of membership/belonging/participation in a defined group with its own structure, rules, customs, and leadership. 
  • Service: Approaching relationships in terms of what you have to offer - respect, commitment, hard work, creativity, sacrifice - rather than what you need or want.
  • Teamwork: Playing whatever role is needed to support the larger mission; coordinating, cooperating and collaborating with others in pursuit of a shared goal; supporting and celebrating the success of others. 

As you read and re-read the descriptions of the missing basics, you should be asking yourself: What are the highest priority behaviours for your organisation, for your team, for different roles on your team, and/or for the various individuals on your team? Which behaviours are crucial to success? Which ones offer the greatest potential to increase competitive differentiation?

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an on-line training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (2009), It’s Okay to be the Boss (2007), Winning the Talent Wars (2001), FAST Feedback (1999), and the classic Managing Generation X (1995). This article in excerpt from his new book 'Bridging the Soft Skills Gap' (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 2015)

About bruce.tulgan

About bruce.tulgan

Bruce Tulgan is founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking

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16th Dec 2015 13:03

Hello Bruce and thank you for this interesting article. I don't disagree regarding the importance of the things that you outline. Where I feel less comfortable is in calling them skills, my difficulty with this is that it perhaps implies that these are things which can be taught, and thus it encourages managers to believe that putting someone on a 'training course' is the solution to the problem. For me, much of this is about attitude and is therefore more about performance management.

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16th Dec 2015 15:28

Thank you for this thought provoking piece Bruce. Catherine makes a valid point about the instinctive reaction of 'putting someone on a course' although some of the qualities that you identify can be taught. Importantly, they are also qualities that can be observed and even assessed which means that developmental needs can be addressed, whether by formal training, coaching or mentoring. They are all qualities that we should look for in ourselves, in our colleagues and in our teams.

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