The Necessary Skills for Success in Tomorrow's Workplace

A group of workplace professionals have an informal meeting

In order to be successful in the business world we’re often told to become more efficient, knowledgeable, and hardworking. This has especially been the case when it comes to acquiring “hard skills,” those technical and computer-based skills hailed as keys to guaranteed success in the world of work both today and tomorrow. And while it’s true that these hard skills will remain critical (in some industries more so than others), there is another set of overlooked skills that are becoming increasingly important. In fact, it’s these particular types of skills that are being sought after by the top businesses and organizations in the world.

There is a great demand for human skills.

That’s right. With the increase in automated jobs thanks to technological innovation, it’s the very skills and attributes that separate us from machines that are becoming the most valuable. It’s these human skills — communication, emotional intelligence, ethics, resilience, grit, and genuine love and compassion — that will separate the mere mediocre from the uniquely great in our workforce.

It’s precisely as the world becomes less human that the best employees, managers, and entrepreneurs will thrive by being more human.

The Growing Demand for Human Skills

An article in the Wall Street Journal details how U.S. companies are having difficulty finding “applicants who can communicate clearly, take initiative, problem-solve, and get along with co-workers.” With companies automating or outsourcing more routine and technical tasks, skills like critical thinking and empathy, which can’t be emulated by computers, are becoming all the more important. In fact, many companies are starting to hire consultants to develop tests and screening methods for candidates with the aim of determining whether or not they have these types of skills. Organizations across the country are worried about the lack of these skills in candidates, often referred to as “soft skills.” The article explains: “In a Wall Street Journal survey of nearly 900 executives last year, 92 percent said soft skills were equally important or more important than technical skills. But 89 percent said they have a very or somewhat difficult time finding people with the requisite attributes.”

That means that nine out of 10 executives not only consider soft skills extremely important, but rare to find in job candidates.

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Another article from World Economic Forum echoes the importance of these skills, citing that “skills — especially soft skills — are the most important foundation to build upon.” The article clarifies that by soft skills, they mean “things like the ability to communicate and work well with others, solve problems, and think outside of the box, as well as other aspects of emotional intelligence.”

That means that nine out of 10 executives not only consider soft skills extremely important, but rare to find in job candidates.

And the Harvard Business Review confirms that these types of skills are not going to be outsourced to technology anytime soon — skills, again, like communication, having context within work settings, emotional competence, effective teaching abilities, being able to forge connections with others, and cultivating an ethical compass.

Aside from articles like these in major publications relaying the importance of soft skills for the future of work, we also spot their growing importance via the sprouting of new programs across the country centered around organizational leadership — highlighting the market demand for professionals with these skills. PLNU has invested in two programs of this kind, an accelerated undergraduate program in Organizational Leadership for those looking to finish their bachelor’s degree in a non-traditional setting and a graduate program in Organizational Leadership.

Pete Thurman, MBA, teaches the Group and Organizational Behavior and Effective Interpersonal Relations courses in the Organizational Leadership program at PLNU. Additionally, he has an MBA from USC and has notched over ten years as a project manager in the healthcare industry. He believes there is a major shift occurring with how people are being hired.

“I think employers are moving toward having better screening processes for the soft skills in candidates,” Thurman said. “I have a feeling, if we don’t already see it now, there will be a higher level of sophistication to screening soft skills in candidates for hire across industries.”

This isn’t to say the hard skills aren’t still important, but that they’re not enough for long-term success.

“The hard skills get you into the door, and they are still very important, but the soft skills are more sustainable and long term,” Thurman said. “Skills related to communicating effectively with others, conducting presentations in front of large groups, developing emotional intelligence, being able to resolve conflicts, and reading the personalities in a room, these skill are more relevant in today’s workplace.”

One specific example he gave was working on conflict resolution with his students, something that becomes absolutely necessary for those who want to be managers and leaders in organizational and business settings.

The key takeaway is that these types of skills can only be developed through exercising them in intentional ways — through committed practice.

“When it comes to conflict resolution, I work through live examples with the students. We’ll start with a long-standing conflict of some kind that one student is experiencing, and it doesn’t have to be work-related, like a conflict with a parent or son or daughter,” Thurman shared. “I let them do most of the talking and I’m just there to facilitate, but what I try to do is walk them through alternate ways of approaching that given situation. Then we’ll transfer what we discussed over to the business world. It can involve a conflict regarding an assignment that needs to get done, or perhaps feeling discriminated against in the workplace. Whatever it is, we work through ways to mitigate these conflicts.”

The key takeaway is that these types of skills can only be developed through exercising them in intentional ways — through committed practice. Thurman shared that he encourages his students to volunteer at their workplaces for opportunities to develop these skills — to offer to give a presentation to fellow co-workers or have a difficult but professional conversation with a manager.

The term “soft” is misleading, spurring the false belief that using these skills requires little effort or difficulty. But, in reality, most of them are quite difficult to master, and can only occur through their repeated use, both in practice settings like Thurman’s classroom, in actual professional settings, and even within the personal domain.

“I’m always considering how my students can sharpen their soft skills in the classroom. Whether we’re talking about active listening, emotional intelligence, or conflict resolution, how do we practice those? I challenge students to practice those skills at the workplace, or at home even; it doesn’t matter where they practice them,” Thurman explained. “Let’s practice them and talk about them in the classroom.”

The X-Factor of Emotional Labor

In Seth Godin’s book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? he writes about the concept of emotional labor. Godin is a best-selling author and marketing entrepreneur. Unlike intellectual or manual labor, emotional labor is what can set you apart in the workplace from others because it entails the challenging and overlooked work that most people aren’t willing to do. Godin writes: “‘Emotional labor’ was a term first coined forty years ago by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her book The Managed Heart. She described it as the ‘management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display.’ In other words, it’s work you do with your feelings, not your body.”

Godin views most of the modern workforce as no different than a factory, though instead of hovering over a conveyor belt with supervisor-approved bathroom breaks, we sit in ergonomic chairs in front of pale blue screens all day. Whether we’re answering routine emails, combing an Excel spreadsheet for errors, or filling out yet another form with company letterhead, most people expend all of their effort doing work that is easily replaceable, either by other people or, as is becoming increasingly the case, machines. The result, he writes, “are legions of frustrated workers, wasted geniuses each and every one of them, working like automatons, racing against the clock to crank out another policy, get through another interaction, see another patient.”

Here is where “emotional labor” comes into play. Emotional labor, as Godin details, is the effort we put into a genuine smile with a customer even when we’re frustrated and tired, the refusal to give up on a meaningful work project despite the roadblocks or naysayers, the cultivated self-awareness to admit to ourselves when we’re not doing the high-quality work of which we’re capable. It’s always easier not to go out of the way to treat that client with above-and-beyond service and kindness, to add humor and creativity to that staff presentation, to stand firm in your convictions when it might challenge a static organization or business to operate differently.

It’s precisely in engaging in emotional labor that makes us most human and, consequently, Irreplaceable.

Another example Godin offers is the emotional labor required to be courageous in seeking to acquire professional goals, even when it means risking failure. Are you willing to sacrifice hours of Netflix to develop a business plan for that arts and crafts business you’ve always wanted to start? Are you willing to you say no to leisurely weekends and summer vacations to attend night school and pursue that more meaningful career? Are you willing to try that new product idea, even if its failure means you might lose your job? The easy and convenient answer is always no. But it’s the people who have honed the very human skills of resilience, courage, discipline, and self-awareness who ultimately have the most successful careers.

It’s precisely in engaging in emotional labor that makes us most human and, consequently, irreplaceable.

Godin acknowledges that fear is what keeps us comfortable, machine-like, and unwilling to engage in the hard work of emotional labor. But those who resist the “flight or fight” response by standing firm in their convictions and dreams, of learning to rephrase failure as a learning experience, of being honest about the negative voices in one’s life and choosing not to give into them, are the ones who make the best employees, leaders, and entrepreneurs in business.

It’s in choosing to be kind, thankful, joyful, humorous, caring, compassionate, courageous, honest, and selfless even — in fact, especially — when we don’t feel like it where we convert our emotional labor into a gift, be that a smile shared with a customer, a well-crafted presentation, or an empathetic conversation with a co-worker, employee, or manager. It’s the people who go out of their way to connect with others and serve them with their gift of emotional labor, no matter how small, who end of up being the most fulfilled.

In other words, it’s the people who are most human who often end up achieving their goals in both their professional and personal lives.

Why Soft Skills Are So Hard

Yet, these types of skills are not only often overlooked, but rarely talked about as important.

“In high school, I didn’t learn any of these soft skills. People aren’t always prepared to apply them in high school, or even college,” Thurman said. “I wasn’t introduced to the importance of these types of skills until my first course in graduate school at USC. Our society has put less of an emphasis on soft skills and more on hard skills. And I think it’s now going in another direction for soft skills. It’s much more difficult to invest in relationships, and engage with them, then it is with a machine.”

Tonia Herndon, Ed.D., developed the course content for the Effective Interpersonal Relations course in the organizational leadership program at PLNU, of which she is also a professor. She explained that one of her students — a former communications major no less — told her she hadn’t ever been introduced to many of these skills.

“Not only did I have a woman with a communications degree tell me that she hadn’t been taught authentic listening skills, but I’ve been told by several students that they’ve never even heard of the term ‘emotional competencies,’” Herndon shared. “That it was a foreign concept.”

Aside from the sheer lack of exposure that many of us have, there is another, perhaps more pressing reason why so many haven’t developed these necessary human skills for the future world of business.

These skills often require great risk, vulnerability, and as we saw with Godin’s concept of “emotional labor,” we have been able to merely “get by” without them, even if it’s stunted the development and fulfilment of our professional and personal lives. However, as the job market continues to emphasize the importance of these skills, this might become less likely.

“Developing these types of skills is deeply connected to self awareness, and that’s hard to cultivate because it requires honesty.

In addition to teaching, Herndon has many years of professional and personal life coaching experience, and she sees this pervasive lack of soft skills in our workforce stemming from a more fundamental issue.

“Developing these types of skills is deeply connected to self awareness, and that’s hard to cultivate because it requires honesty. Anyone can go to a weekend seminar, or read a leadership book with tips about forming certain skills, but if they don’t have the ability to look within, nothing is going to change,” Herndon continued. “They might walk away with a bunch of cool ideas, and maybe even feel super motivated, but then that person is going to come home and still not know how to talk to their spouse or employees or boss, let alone respond well when someone cuts them off on the freeway.”

She offered an example of working with a difficult manager, and how those who find a way to be successful in spite of the challenges are the ones who ultimately thrive the most.

“How do you work with what you have, even if you know your boss isn’t going to change and you’re stuck in this position? Well, developing the ability to be aware of that, accept it, and respond accordingly is a soft skill,” Herndon explained. “Essentially, how do you make lemonade out of lemons in a tough work situation?”

Fostering these types of skills can’t be done in a vacuum, as if we can learn to be empathetic, compassionate, understanding, and resilient only in the work setting, but keep them siloed from our personal life. These types of skills are life skills — not merely job skills. And learning how to live better is often a lot harder than simply learning a new skill from a textbook.

“It’s from cultivating self-awareness that we can develop personal responsibility,” Herndon said. “Then we can continue to ask ourselves, ‘How do I bring my ethics into the workplace? How do I bring that same way of being into my friendships? How do I bring honesty into every area of my life, so that if I screw up, I can be vulnerable and admit it to my co-workers?’”

Soft Skills As Life Skills

For Herndon, until someone is able to integrate these skills as a way of life, they aren’t going to be able to authentically apply them to their careers. Similar to Godin, who emphasizes emotional labor for the sake of gifting others with time, service, patience, creativity, and love, these skills require both self-awareness and the willingness to choose the way of integrity each and every day.

In a talk by Harvard MBA and entrepreneur Tony Tjan, he explains that it’s by focusing on hiring good people that we can spur thriving business communities. Tjan reviewed 100 case studies and determined that many of the most successful people — be they CEOs, coaches, artists, or athletes — cultivate the attribute of “goodness.” Tjan says that “goodness is about character. Real goodness, and real leadership, is when you help others become a fuller version of who they are.”

Again, the “soft skill” of goodness, as Tjan means it, is something that extends well beyond a professional skill set that can be tabled during non-working hours.

Herndon shared how the development of these skills can have tremendous effects on one’s whole life. In the classroom, she encourages her students to develop the willingness to be vulnerable and communicate deeply with others, along with the need for courage, whether as an employee or manager. One of her students took this to heart and applied it to her personal life.

It’s not always obvious what that loss is going to be, but the willingness to lose whatever it is by developing real soft skills can lead to a gain of tenfold.

“This woman in my class wrote the most beautiful reflection about the course, saying that she had a conversation with her husband like she hadn’t had in five years,” Herndon shared. “They talked about something going on with his sister, and she wrote that there’s no way she would have been brave enough to talk about this four weeks ago at the start of the course. And she wrote that it was amazing. They figured out a solution to this problem because she was courageous enough to be vulnerable with him.’”

It’s these same types of human skills, being able to navigate difficult relationships through listening, empathy, and conflict resolution — in addition to other skills like creativity and ethical reasoning — that will separate the great employees, managers, and entrepreneurs of the future from everyone else. The road, though, remains difficult.

“I’ll say it in the simplest way that I can: many people are petrified to leave their comfort zone because soft skills are really at the core of who they are,” Herndon said. “Change requires loss. It requires the loss of what I used to think about myself or how I used to run my life or how my relationships used to work. It’s not always obvious what that loss is going to be, but the willingness to lose whatever it is by developing real soft skills can lead to a gain of tenfold.”

While developing the soft skills needed to thrive both professionally and personally is, actually, quite hard, it’s certainly possible for those willing to invest in the journey. Ultimately, being successful in the world of business and beyond is about becoming a more empathetic, humane, compassionate, resilient, creative, and loving person.

Want to Thrive as a Manager or Leader?

If so, Point Loma Nazarene University offers two programs to help you develop these skills and thrive in your career. The B.A. in Organizational Leadership is for those looking to earn their bachelor’s degree in as few as 15 months. The M.A. in Organizational Leadership is for those looking to earn a graduate degree in this dynamic field. Both programs can be taken in-person or online, allowing you to continue working in your current role.