A change is occurring in our workplaces. One of those creeping, glacial changes happening so slowly it’s barely perceptible: a shift in emphasis from hard skills to soft.
In recent decades there has been a huge emphasis on acquiring hard skills. In fact, the era since World War II can be described as the Age of the Technician. From the 1950s onwards, Western technicians have criss-crossed the globe working on high-value infrastructure, defence and information technology projects. I used to be one of them. Back in the pre-Skype days, I once commuted from Auckland to Boston for a three-hour meeting.
This situation is changing. The ubiquity of modern technology means that acquiring hard skills is easier than ever. Thirteen-year-olds are learning advanced IT skills from YouTube. I know this because my son is one of them.
If you have spent any time around technicians, you may have noticed that they are often introverted, insensitive and under-communicative, preferring the isolation of the ‘IT bunker’ to a more gregarious, socially engaged workplace.
To get something done you had to put up with abrupt manners, uncertain timing, and the vague but inescapable feeling that the person you were dealing with regarded you as an idiot. The organisation tolerated this because of the hard skills of these individuals.
Technical skills are no longer trump cards in the workplace.
Technical skills are no longer trump cards in the workplace. Stress is steeply on the rise. The World Health Organisation reports that between 1990 and 2013, the number of people suffering from mental health issues rose by 50%. Our colleagues are being signed off for extended periods of sick leave for unspecified reasons in record numbers.
The high-stress workplace demands new skills. When people are under stress they become irritable, insensitive, despondent and depressed. Little things become major irritants. Excessive loudness or abruptness, bright light, an annoying mannerism, phrasing requests as demands instead of questions—all of these elements can have more impact on the outcome of a meeting than the hard skills you bring to the table.
The person with good soft skills puts individuals, not outcomes, first. When others feel you are genuinely engaged with them and not just railroading them into doing something, you are more likely to achieve your goal. A successful outcome emerges organically from good interpersonal skills.
The organisations that most rapidly adapt to this changing landscape will reap the greatest benefits. Workplace cultures will change, as will CVs and job interview processes. The key to soft skills is simple: treat others as you would like to be treated, particularly when you’re not feeling your best. Doing this in a high-stress workplace is easier said than done.
This article was originally posted on LinkedIn.