The Importance Of Soft Skills In A Post-Pandemic World

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If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is the importance of knowing what matters most in our lives, personally and professionally. For many business leaders, it is not so much about what we can achieve, but rather how we want to act in the world.

These shifts in perspective elevate the importance of what used to be considered soft skills, such as kindness, empathy, resilience, ethical behavior, and other positive character traits. In fact, as we move forward, these skills should no longer be viewed as “soft”; increasingly, they will be determinants of success.

Mastering soft skills won’t make major business decisions such as layoffs and furloughs any easier; in many ways, they will become more difficult. But when soft skills are part of the toolkit, leaders can improve their decision-making with a more holistic view of the impact, both in the short-term and for the future.

Many other leaders share these views about the importance of soft skills. For example, Charles Fadel, founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign, emphasizes character as part of 21st century education. He categorizes character in six areas: courage, curiosity, mindfulness, resilience, ethics, and leadership.

An example of resilience is “grit,” which researcher Angela Duckworth describes as passion and perseverance, to see failure as a learning experience. Resilience will be crucial for business reinvention, throughout every stage of the crisis, which Deloitte defines as respond, recover, and thrive. In the recovery stage, Deloitte notes, leaders must be resilient as they shift their mindset, navigate uncertainties, establish trust, define the destination or end point, and learn from the successes of others.

Whatever soft skill leaders want to develop, the process starts with self-awareness and the knowledge of how they are perceived by others. This allows them to receive feedback and engage in deliberate practice: a concept coined by the late K. Anders Ericsson, the Swedish psychologist and researcher, and applied broadly to skill development.

My Kindness Experiment

Over the past several months, I have worked on the soft skill of kindness. Esther Wojcicki, a gifted educator, advisor to our company, and author of How to Raise Successful People, defines kindness as one of five fundamental values, along with trust, respect, independence, and collaboration. Within the business world, kindness supports a culture in which people feel valued and respected.

Kindness can be shown in trivial ways, such as paying a compliment or engaging in light conversation with someone. Far more challenging is showing kindness during conflict. I recognized this shortcoming in myself when, in the midst in an intense discussion with a close colleague, I told him off, rather instead of maintaining a kind attitude. Afterwards, I realized that I had missed my goal of being deliberately kind.

With some self-reflection, this helped shape four steps as part of my deliberate practice to develop this soft skill:

1.    Admit the journey to others. I told my peers that I am working on kindness (and now, I write it here). I know this will be an ongoing journey and I need their feedback as part of my deliberate practice to become more skilled at showing kindness.

2.    Avoid knee-jerk reactions. When upset or angry, any of us can regress to our old ways of reacting. This trigger, however, can also be a reminder to be more mindful in the moment and, in my case, to show kindness.

3.    Take responsibility and apologize. Whenever I act in a way that is contrary to what I want to do, I take responsibility and apologize.

4.    Commit. Every day, I commit to improving on kindness, which takes me back to step 1 and embracing the journey.

Working on kindness does not making me any less decisive nor do I avoid difficult conversations. Indeed, as I have found, working on character development should be an integral part of each person’s learning journey—with a deliberate practice approach.

The Importance of Empathy

Hand-in-hand with kindness is empathy. This emotional skill allows us to identify with others and the problems they face. In addition, empathy may be an antidote to burnout that’s becoming endemic in the workplace today. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, author Jennifer Moss cited a survey of 3,900 employees and business leaders in 11 nations that found nearly one-third of respondents expressed the desire that organizations act with more empathy.

Empathy takes on greater meaning today as the pandemic continues to take a toll, in terms of people’s physical and mental health and their economic well-being. These deeply felt impacts likely will be long-lasting. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, one-in-four adults have struggled to pay their bills since the Covid-19 outbreak; among lower-income individuals that struggle is faced by nearly half of adults (46%).

Business leaders I have spoken to recently are acutely aware of the economic struggles felt by so many, including employees who have been laid off or furloughed. In a recent conversation, the leader of a global organization wrestled emotionally with the inevitable decision to lay off thousands of workers. This wasn’t just cost-cutting; it was a matter of survival for the company that will go out of business unless it reduces capacity. At the same time, this executive wanted to ensure that people would be treated decently and receive as much support as possible. In this conversation and others like it, I’ve heard one question asked repeatedly: How can we prepare people who are going to lose their jobs?

The Learning Science Solution

Empathy, kindness, resilience, and other soft skills will make business leaders more acutely aware of the problems and their complexity—and help them find the courage to pursue solutions. From my perspective, based on more than two decades of research into how people learn, I believe careful learning engineering must be part of any solution.

For one, business leaders need to address the ongoing need to reskill and upskill workers to increase their employability in the future. In addition, organizations need to be more systematic in the development of soft skills across the workplace (including among leaders) to help build communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.

Gone are the days of relying on the tacit learning that traditionally happened in the workplace almost by osmosis, as people interact. Today, as people continue to work remotely, organizations need an “active transport” method that will convey knowledge and skill development widely, as part of ongoing corporate learning and development.

This is how business leaders can help people prepare for the future and their part in it: with greater development of an array of skills—both technical know-how and the soft skills that will increasingly determine success.