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  • Writer's pictureGirish Karnad

The Hard Truth About Soft Skills

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

"Take away my factories, my plants; take away my money; strip me of all these; but leave me my people, and in two or three years I will have them all again." This statement from the legendary industrialist Andrew Carnegie says it all. It shows the confidence that he had in his team and the power of talent. When we have the right people, we can achieve great things. In his book "Good to Great", Jim Collins echoes this sentiment when he writes "Those who build great companies understand that the ultimate throttle on growth for any company is not markets, or technology, or competition, or products. It is one thing above all others: the ability to get and keep enough of the right people." Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy recently said that more than 80 percent of our youngsters are not employable and that they are not trained suitably for any job. Many of his peers across industries have agreed with this observation. Our education system has been found sadly lacking in equipping our youngsters and making them industry ready. However, it is not that easy to hire experienced professionals or senior leaders either. Apart from the knowledge, skills and experience that we look for in a prospective candidate, there are a lot of other unspoken attributes that get evaluated. So how does one go about becoming “the right person”? What are those qualities that get us hired and keep us in the job? Let us examine this through our everyday personal experiences. When we are unwell, which doctor do we visit? What do we expect beyond the doctor’s technical skills or knowledge? A doctor, who shows genuine interest, makes us feel at ease and takes time to answer our questions or the one who considers us as just one more number in the long queue of patients?  When we visit a large shop, what do we expect from a salesman? A person who is helpful, ready to share the information we need, or someone who is intrusive and insists on hard selling a particular product? Similarly, at work do we not feel comfortable with colleagues who have a positive attitude and a great work ethic? In all such cases and many others, we notice that academic qualifications, technical skills and experience help people to get their foot in the door, but it is the soft skills, the social skills which open new doors in their career. Our communication skills, attitude, work ethics, emotional intelligence and many other personal attributes determine how successful we are in our career.  These are intangible skills which cannot be really measured. Moreover, unlike domain knowledge and technical skills, the soft skills take time to develop. In today’s workplace we have to do more with less, where we are constantly working and connecting nonstop with people throughout the day. If we are not able to communicate effectively, manage conflicts or manage our work by prioritizing, we cannot expect to succeed in the workplace. A study by CareerBuilder last year showed that more than 70 percent of employers chose emotional intelligence over IQ – that is to even get into the front door. In order to perform at our job and move to the next levels, we need to focus on these soft skills and develop them over a period of time. Having good soft skills helps us excel as a leader and makes problem solving, motivating, team building and delegating so much easier.  In spite of these skills being so critical for success in today’s business environment, they are often undervalued. Calling these skills “soft” imperceptibly reduces their importance and there is a need to change this image. When breakdowns happen in an organization, it is not because employees do not have specific knowledge or skill to do the job. They are most likely to happen when there is lack of critical thinking, a communication breakdown or poor team dynamics. When we look at it this way, soft skills do not seem that soft. 

A friend attended an interview in an industry which was completely alien to him. Though he had good experience, there was very little that matched the job description. His lack of experience in that industry came out clearly during the interview; which he readily admitted and expressed willingness to learn. The interviewer, who later became his future boss told him “I don’t care if you do not know the job – that can be learnt. I only wanted to know if you were a fit with our culture.”  My friend will never forget this interview as it led him to his best job. He learnt how to do the job because the culture allowed him.  The next time you hear about “soft” skills, remember how important they really are. The problem in many organizations today is that there is far less training provided for soft skills as compared to hard skills. For some reason, organizations seem to expect their employees to learn these skills on their own. They assume that everyone knows how to manage conflicts, take initiative and produce high quality work. 

So how do we know if there is a soft skill gap? Whenever we are not able to capitalize on the knowledge, proficiency and experience that we, our teams or our organizations have, it is time to assess whether it is due to lack of any of the soft skills. There is a soft skill gap if we are good at getting clients but not good at retaining them. There is a soft skill gap when we have lots of managers but no real leaders.

How do we develop our soft skills? A first step would be to identify the areas where we need to improve. This can happen through personal introspection, development plans arising out of performance appraisals or feedback from trusted friends or colleagues. Ask for feedback from managers and the people that surround you about what you’re doing right, what you’re doing wrong, Many swear by the habit of daily journaling of our professional interactions and outcomes, as a means of self-assessment. Once the areas of improvement are identified, create a plan of action for improvement, which aligns with your personal and business plans. It would be advisable to work with a mentor who can provide feedback and model appropriate skills.

Enroll in courses which provide training in your development areas. The advent of technology has helped bring these courses to us 24 x 7 through the internet and our smartphones. Many good courses are available free of charge or at very nominal rates. Some skills may require classroom and practical outbound training programs. Take the help of your HR team and your manager at every stage. More and more organizations are appreciating the importance of soft skills development for their employees and incorporating them in training programs. Finally, do not underestimate the power of optimism and positivity, as most of the soft skills are reinforced by enthusiasm and confidence. ^

^ Connect with Girish Karnad on his email id for training on soft skills for your organisation.

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