LinkedIn has more access than just about anyone to data about a) the skill sets of today’s top talent and b) the skill sets companies are seeking. There is a mismatch between the two that LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner calls a significant skills gap. “Somewhat surprisingly,” Weiner says in an interview with CNBC, “interpersonal skills is where we’re seeing the biggest imbalance. Communications is the number one skills gap.”
LinkedIn’s 2018 Workforce Report found that the four most in-demand soft skills are within leadership, communication, collaboration, and time management. The report corroborates my own experience as an executive coach, where I have found that soft skills can be hard to find and difficult to master.
Soft skills versus hard skills
There is an ongoing debate about the relative importance of soft and hard skills that imply a competition between the two. However, they are both necessary and complementary to one another.
Hard skills are teachable and most often technical skills, such as economic analysis, strategic planning or design. Soft skills fall in the interpersonal realm and include listening, team-building, and leadership development. They are not so much taught as cultivated. All of us are predisposed to be stronger in some soft areas than others. However, we can nurture those qualities over time with self-awareness, empathy, persistence, and humility.
The terms themselves are inadequate and misleading. In one critique of the importance of soft skills, assertiveness was found as a hard skill. At first, this makes sense. Yet, on closer inspection, it is clear that assertiveness is inseparable from interpersonal dynamics. To know when and how to use this quality, we must first read the room, others, and ourselves.
Emotional Intelligence is an umbrella term that encompasses many of these critical interpersonal skills. Laura Wilcox, director of management programs at the Harvard Extension School, said, “Emotional intelligence is no soft skill.”
We should see hard and soft skills as working in concert with one another, she says. “Emotional intelligence bolsters the hard skills, helping us think more creatively about how best to leverage our technical chops.”
A New York Times portrait of former General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt also rejects a false dichotomy between hard and soft skills. Great leaders, the piece argues, “need to be able to do really hard things – change a strategic direction, sell a long-valued division, lay off employees—with… a deft touch.”
A winning edge
Hard numbers back up the value of soft skills.
Writer Daniel Goleman has been making a case for emotional intelligence for over 20 years. He backs up his claim with extensive research in books like Emotional Intelligence at Work:
- When IQ and technical skills are similar, emotional intelligence accounts for 90% of what makes people move up the success ladder.
- Competency research in over 200 companies and organizations worldwide found that emotional intelligence was twice as important as technical and cognitive ability in distinguishing top performers from average ones. In senior leadership positions, it was four times as important.
- A survey of over 500 executives found that emotional intelligence was a better predictor of success than either relevant previous experience or IQ.
- Recruitment is the life-blood of the armed services. After the Air Force began using emotional intelligence tests to hire recruiters, they found their ability to predict who would make a successful recruiter increased three-fold.
The good news, Goleman says in a Business Voice interview, is that the skills of emotional intelligence are “learned abilities.” That does not make them easy to acquire by any means. Cultivating emotional intelligence involves the hard work of undoing old “over-rehearsed” habits and building new ones.
The first step is to go back to the ancient Greek Delphic maxims—”know thyself.” We must be willing to take inventory of our emotional skills and tendencies. When are we truly listening, as opposed to just waiting for an opportunity to have our say? What situations prompt us to contract and become defensive or judgmental? Conversely, what are we doing right when we inspire and bring out the best in others?
A core skill I impart to my clients is a different self-assessment—an in-the-moment inventory. Periodically checking in with ourselves throughout the day helps us avoid getting caught up in counter-productive thinking. We can nip negative thought loops in the bud and remain focused on the situation at hand.
For example, following a problematic meeting pause for a moment and take your internal emotional temperature. If you are feeling tense, then take a deep conscious breath. Allow yourself a short walk around the block. Simply noticing stress makes it less likely it will carry over to your next task or encounter.
Mind-body awareness is an essential complementary skill. Stress, fear, and anxiety—all of which prevent us from reading the room and reading others—usually register in the body before we are consciously aware of them. Mind-body practices like yoga and the simple act of mindful breathing help us monitor ourselves and remain in the moment.
Such habits and practices may appear to be about the self, but they are so much more. They free us from the prison of our drama and of our limited perspective. They allow us to engage more deeply with others and with the world. This kind of self-awareness also increases empathy. In accepting and attending to our own emotions, we identify with and feel compassion for those same emotions in others.
The inner work of practicing mindful emotional intelligence lets us step outside of ourselves. Thus, permitting ourselves to do the more important work of leading and inspiring others.
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Published on Forbes on Sep. 24, 2018
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