No Longer Soft Skills: Five Crucial Workplace Skills Everyone Should Learn

Carmen O'Shea

My child’s elementary school focuses on skills they believe support children in becoming changemakers. Through use of an integrated, project-based curriculum, they explicitly teach and assess “learner values” such as iteration, risk, failure, collaboration, and perspective. Their philosophy is that these attributes long considered “soft skills” have become the crucial educational priorities for this generation.

Why do they believe this? Much knowledge is now easily accessed and readily queried, such that the acquisition of specific content or know-how is far less important than how to apply that content in different situations and how to interact with others in the pursuit of goals. This holds true in the workplace as well as the academic environment. When I think about how I operate in my job at a large technology company, it’s not really what I know but what I do with what I know, and whom I engage to get things accomplished.

Watching the school teach these skills just as they do math or language has made me stop and consider what they look like for an employee. I wanted to share my thoughts on five qualities beyond relevant academic skills or professional experience that are just as important (if not more so) in predicting top work performance. These are more qualitative skills that managers should hire for, employees should develop, and organizations should optimize for.

  • Empathythe ability to see and integrate multiple perspectives and to understand the impact of how others think. Empathy can also mean advocating and showing empathy for oneself and for others. Empathy is assuming a good intention even when someone has said or done something we dislike – to stop and pause, attempt to understand, and respond compassionately in a difficult workplace situation. Empathy also extends to intuiting beyond just the professional environment to more of a personal level to truly understand what drives a colleague or employee.
  • Resiliencethe ability to take risks even when you know you may fail and then to bounce back, sometimes repeatedly, from failure. Inherent in resilience is the idea of iteration – that it is often essential to try things multiple times, in multiple ways, from multiple angles, before achieving a desired outcome. Resilience is receiving difficult yet constructive feedback from a manager or peer and resolving to act positively on it instead of wallowing or harboring a grudge. Resilience is maintaining a sense of optimism even in a down quarter at work.
  • Creativitythe ability to think differently or expansively and to approach a problem from multiple angles. Sometimes it’s called “thinking outside the box.” Creativity often includes inquiry, the act of questioning and satisfying one’s curiosity about particular topics. Torrance defined it along several parameters – number of ideas generated, number of categories of ideas, originality of ideas, and how detailed each idea is elaborated. We see it in action during brainstorming phases of projects, but it’s also possible to apply creativity on a continual basis, by pushing colleagues to expand on their thoughts, by not being satisfied with a less than stellar answer, by taking time to understand how multiple approaches to an issue could be combined, or by simply trying something new in a familiar situation.
  • Collaborationthe ability to interact and work productively with others, in all size groups. Effective collaboration requires empathy, especially when collaborators have different backgrounds, styles, or thought processes. Collaboration also requires exemplary communication skills, both oral and written, as well as reflective listening. So much of our tasks on the job require collaboration with others, whether to inform, persuade, learn, or engage, and these interactions form the bedrock for innovation. It’s tough to innovate without collaborating.
  • Flexibilitythe ability to adapt or change course if that is what the situation demands. Flexibility includes letting go of one’s idea in the interest of attaining a goal more quickly. It can also include development a comfort level with uncertainty or ambiguity, especially in times of change. Flexibility is a willingness to absorb feedback objectively and course correct as needed without personalizing the information or demonizing the provider of it. Expounding on another’s idea (not our own) in a brainstorming session demonstrates flexibility, as does remaining calm while an org change takes effect and roles are temporarily unclear.

When employees exhibit these qualities, they are better able to understand their purpose at work and to unleash their passions in the pursuit of that purpose. When teams exhibit these qualities, achievement and employee engagement are higher.  I wager that retention and innovation will improve as well. It’s heartening that as a society we’re beginning to consider how to best prepare our children educationally for the kind of work environments they will encounter after they finish their academic journey.

Do you also see these qualities as valuable in assessing employee fit? How can managers and organizations better identify, train and reward employees for living these qualities?

For more on this topic, see Your Business Needs People With Skills, Not Just Qualifications.


Carmen O'Shea

About Carmen O'Shea

Carmen O'Shea is the Senior Vice President of HR Change & Engagement at SAP. She leads a global team supporting major transformation initiatives across the company, focused on change management, employee engagement, and creative marketing and interaction. You can follow Carmen on Twitter.