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Soft skills: Just as valuable as tech skills, even in Silicon Valley

In the vast majority of schools, the educational system is centered on hard skills in academic areas such as math, leaving many socio-cognitive skills that relate to interpersonal success in the dust. Every good program will attempt to inspire the squishy skills of creativity, resourcefulness and discipline, but often the teaching required to successfully collaborate with other individuals is sorely missing. Sure, we might be encouraged to work on group projects but very few of us innately have the interpersonal know-how to reap the rewards of real teamwork. We are after all each of us individuals with different needs, interests, and capabilities but frequently the rush to divide tasks overlooks the process of recognizing, embracing and appreciating what makes each of us unique. Unfortunately, we not typically taught to look for and harness each other’s attributes and to improve interpersonal skills in school.

According to Forbes, in 2015 McDonald’s commissioned an economic research study revealing that these non-technical skills contribute about £100 billion to the UK economy. This study found that 97% of employers believed soft skills were important to their current business success, while over half were of the mind that skills such as communication and teamwork were more important than academic results and yet, 75% pointed to a gap of these same soft skills in the workforce. If hiring managers select employees based on academic success and technical skills, it is no surprise then that non-technical skills are underrepresented in the workforce.

Columbia University professor Jonah Rockoff asserts that intangible skills are notoriously difficult to evaluate on a large scale, hindering attempts to collect and share best practices. Admittedly, it is difficult to assess non-technical skills, but performance reviews can and should evaluate interpersonal ability in a 360-degree format, capturing creative problem-solving, empathy for others and a wide range of other soft skills. It may take a cultural shift, but we should be measuring what we know matters: How we treat each other. We know intuitively that soft skills are essential to teamwork, productivity, and innovation and are crucial to delivering top-notch customer service, don’t we? (If you need hard evidence, see the summary of extensive research on the link between social sensitivity and effective teamwork at Google in a previous post.)

Service-oriented businesses cannot afford not to hire for, measure and manage non-technical skills. Given the widespread lack of academic training in the less technical domains, businesses can also not afford to leave such skills underdeveloped.

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