Five years ago, CEB, a best practice insight and technology company, conducted an analysis comparing the percentage of high performing employees within an organisation to each organisation’s overall business performance. The result, to some at least, defied logic. There was no correlation at all between the percentage of high performers and the performance of the business.
Much of this came down to the organisations’ tendency to assess performance based on individual task execution, essentially measuring how well employees apply their hard skills to the job. What’s missing is network performance – how employees apply their soft skills to managing the increasingly complex matrices that they work within.
So actually the result was not so surprising. “Think of a top technician whose communication skills are so poor that they're unable to get people to help them,” explains Aaron McEwan, Advisory Leader at CEB. “They lack the subtlety required to get things pushed through the organisation. That person is never going to be as successful, efficient or high-achieving as somebody who can apply hard skills but do it in a way that manages the environment around them.”
We’re currently seeing an enormous shift in business, McEwan says. We are moving into a period in which soft skills are appreciated as true performance drivers.
“Most of the good stuff in terms of performance happens in the white spaces between people, not at their desks,” he says. Experts absolutely agree.
Gavin Freeman, performance psychologist and author of Just Stop Motivating Me, says social hubs within businesses are only just beginning to be understood as drivers of organisational performance.
“In a big organisation, for example, the social hubs drive the way people interact,” Freeman says. So an organisation that values social skills, and which therefore values soft skills, will ensure there are as many opportunities as possible in a working day for staff to come into contact with one another.
“To simplify the idea, think of the person at work who makes people laugh every day,” Freeman says. “How do you measure that person’s value? Does your organisation value that person more over the sociopath who brings in millions of dollars but makes everybody else leave the company? People will put up with a terrible job if they are surrounded by colleagues they like. But they will rarely stay in a great job if they are surrounded by terrible people.”
Soft skills explained
When we discuss soft skills in business, McEwan says, they are most often defined as driving collaboration, emotional intelligence and communication – the things that facilitate interactions between people.
“The thing that differentiates the performance of the average employee is their ability to prioritise their focus, to work effectively in a heavily-networked and matrixed environment, to understand how the informal mechanisms of a business work – how to get stuff done, who to go to,” he says. “The other big one is an ability to work in a high-change environment.”
The single most important soft skill, Freeman says, is communication.
“Communication comes up again and again in satisfaction surveys,” Freeman says. “It's ironic that we've all got the ability to speak, yet our ability to communicate is incredibly poor, even to the point where I can tell you one thing but what you interpret is completely different.”
“We communicate not just through language but through behaviour and also what we call our ‘bias’ or ‘expectations’. You might say something and I'll interpret what you said based on my bias. If you tell me you love Apple products and I'm an Android person, I'm immediately thinking, ‘What is his problem?’”
Why haven’t soft skills always been appreciated?
Why hasn’t business always valued soft skills? Actually, smart businesses always have. Hiring processes driven by personality rather than technical skill have always existed. But in general the technical section of a potential recruit’s CV has been given more weight in the recruitment process.
“The real problem has been the fact that nobody has been able to work out how to value or measure soft skills,” says Freeman. “Which person do you keep when you’re going through a redundancy program, the person who brings in the money, which is measurable, or the person who keeps everybody happy, which is not?”
Another issue that has recently come into play is the fact that hard skills are far more easily automated.
“Things are moving quickly from a technological perspective and hard skills are being outsourced or taken over by robots,” McEwan says.
The skill sets that are not as easy to automate are now being perceived as higher in value.
Almost every piece of related research, says McEwan, supports the point that soft skills are the differentiator in job performance, particularly in driving change and innovation.
How do you bring soft skills on board?
In order to ensure an organisation’s soft skills are at the optimum level, McEwan says, the business must first understand what types of soft skills it requires. This varies according to size and type of business. So just as an HR leader might conduct a skills audit for hard skills, the same should be done for soft skills.
Once this information exists, psychometric assessments or personality-based interviews of current staff and of potential hires can be conducted.
“Things like dealing with pressure and managing change, communicating effectively, collaborating, influencing others – those are well documented and measured by psychometric assessments and I think that's the starting point,” says McEwan.
“Understand what you need to be effective then apply the right assessments to measure whether your current employees, or the people you're bringing into the company, have it.”
In the meantime, never again underestimate the power of this performance-packed skill set.
“We are doing them a disservice by calling them ‘soft skills’,” McEwan says. “There’s absolutely nothing soft about them.”