Are soft skills the elephant in the room

Cartoon of an elephant in the room
Posted on: Wednesday 13, March 2019
Category: Leadership Development

In the past, hard skills trumped soft skills hands-down. For many businesses, soft skills had a fluffy or namby-pamby reputation! But, in today's economy, the prevailing view is quite the opposite. Many leaders today talk about soft skills as their top priority for developing high-performance teamwork, growth mindset and future business success.

So, this article explores can business leaders afford to ignore the ‘soft-stuff’ anymore?

(Updated blog - originally published Jan 2018.)

(Thought: by Beverly Oliver - University Deakin University)

Let’s start with a definition of soft skills:

Soft skills (also often referred to as work readiness, core skills or success enabling skills) is an umbrella term for a cluster of productive personality and relationships traits that drive high performance. They are essential skills for leaders to master. In short, it’s a term for professional, social, and career skills. Soft skills include emotional intelligence, communication abilities, collaborative skills, personal habits, cognitive and emotional empathy, time management, teamwork and leadership traits.(Wikipedia - abridged)

The elephant in the room

In the '90s, so-called soft skills were seen as a fluffy set of nice-to-have qualities. I’ve even heard them termed, ‘namby-pamby’. Whereas traditionally, the big career prizes of one’s competence were mainly represented by hard-technical skills. This view is still prevalent in our many businesses and workplaces today. Aubrey Wall - contributor to this blog and director of communication at the Engineering Leadership Institute in Montana US believes this is true particularly in engineering for example.

But, is that old-hat now? Does this view need to change and why? Read on...

It's a fact that KPI’s, hard-measures and scorecards and so on benchmark and drive efficient business processes. Yes! That will always be true. However, today they are merely essential business controls and just a given now - been-there-done-that. But, it seems that the real value driver is now focusing more on soft skills to make significant differences in high performance, profit growth and business success from now on. Whilst this approach is still very new in peoples' minds, it continues to be evangelised and is gaining considerable traction.

The reason for this is the shift in global economics, the technology and upcoming IA revolution as well as the new attitudes and expectations of the millennials generation now arriving in our workplaces. Things are rapidly changing - at a seemingly dizzy pace too.

Predictions suggest that by 2030, for example, many of our day-to-day jobs will have already been superseded by technology.

(See fast forward to 2030 by Sally Fuller – Director at Vodafone - link at end).

Therefore, many experts are arguing that this will soon point to an exponential demand for people with well-developed soft skills. And, it seems very plausible. It follows too that this will lead to an increasing demand for businesses to invest in developing its people. We’ll cover these points in more detail later. For now, I believe, that the people-factor directly links to high-performance, which in turn, is a key to future business success.

People with outstanding soft skills will matter more and more.

Aubrey’s research has led her to conclude that over the past few decades alone, an increasingly large gap in soft skills competency has continued to emerge in the engineering sector in the US for example. And I think that this is probably applicable to all business sectors today in the UK too. So, there is mounting evidence that endorses the need to urgently develop soft skills for careers success in today’s workplaces. Furthermore, as we’ve just touched upon, this is likely to grow in the future exponentially.

So, perhaps we can’t keep ignoring the soft stuff – maybe it is the elephant in the room after all!

Still not convinced?

Here are some statistics on the growing demand for soft skills for today’s workforce:

It’s all about the numbers – Duh!

Aubrey’s research reinforces the importance of soft skills development (link references at end):

According to a Wall Street Journal survey of about 900 executives, 92% of respondents stated soft skills are as important as technical skills. However, 89% also stated they have trouble finding candidates with adequate professional skill competency.

The global Talent Shortage Survey, conducted annually by the Manpower Group found that one in five employers globally cannot fill positions due to a lack of necessary soft skills.

And, according to Pew Research, employment in jobs requiring soft skills has increased by 83% since 1980! And, when asked about the skills most relied on while on the job, employees placed soft skills, critical thinking, and collaboration at the top of their list.

Also, a recent study conducted by a US economic research group - The Hamilton Project, pointed out that in the last 30 years the impact of social skills on success and high performance at work increased more than 15%, while the success associated with technical skills remained stable. The Future of Jobs Report points out that, in 2020, emotional intelligence, creativity and people management will be on the top of the list of the skills required. (found via a link from

If an organisation is merely a collection of people doing business together and, as companies adapt and evolve to survive, then surely, isn’t it evident that its people need to adjust as well to follow suit? For these exact reasons, I set up my own company 15 years ago to spearhead this new way of thinking with business leaders and teams.

Soft skills hey...why so serious?

So, the research all points to an escalating demand for soft skills. That will continue to grow in significance in the future as business becomes steadily more diverse and dynamic.

Furthermore, the global and technology-based economy, mentioned earlier, means that business will grow more and more complicated. Therefore, collaborative problem-solving approaches will be the way we will find innovate and create new solutions together. And, it seems, soft skills lay at the foundation of this approach.

Moreover, as more technical jobs become automated, it means that soft skills will fast become essential qualities for career and business success. Crucially, it also follows that these professional skills will quickly supersede technical skills!

From Aubrey’s involvement with the Engineering Leadership Institute she knows all too well that soft skills are complex and multifaceted to learn, as they include:

Communication – both verbal and written, including precise and clear communication of complex subjects with others.

Teamwork cohesion and Collaboration - to build trust and work with others, handle conflict and effectively give and receive positive and developmental feedback.

Time Management and problem-solving - to prioritize and manage complex projects, issues and tasks completing them to agreed deadlines.

Adaptability – to deal with change and flexibility to learn new skills and incorporate them into your daily routine.

Emotional intelligence– aspects of self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, social skills.

Compassion - the ability to treat people how you would like to be addressed, and to accept where people 'are at' in their lives and what they are learning or working through and assisting accordingly. Forgiving others and helping others to learn from mistakes.

Coaching - to listen and have guided conversations that encourage others to get the best from their unique strengths.

Presenting and speaking - to engage and guide groups is fast becoming a staple of professional life.

That isn’t an exhaustive list either. For example, a contributor mentioned a sense of humour as being a useful people skill as well to diffuse stressful situations. I completely agree too.

How do you Grow the soft stuff in your business?

Well, a lot of Learning and Development professionals in my network state that merely sending people out to open external soft skills training courses is a distinct and easy solution. Yes, it can tick the box in certain circumstances as a tactical solution. But, often, longer term, it’s a cop-out. That’s because learnings of this nature tend not to stick from one or two days training. So, to implement something more serious requires a smarter approach - one that matches your business needs.

I believe that a more effective process is to develop a series of ongoing work-based soft skills programmes. The intention of which blends practical experience of working in teams, alongside tailor-made development to suit your companies nuanced needs. Lead by external (or internal) expert facilitators; such programmes include a mix of interactive team workshops, individual coaching and online training too. Such development programmes may require a leadership commitment also to change company culture to more align with people-based values.

Also, according to Peoplematters and their blog - 3 things to remember in soft skills training the process should be continuous, interactive and based on active learning.

Strategic planning and budgeting by the leadership team are vital to getting the best from such development programmes but, they are compelling ways to help organisations to embed such skills effectively.

Show me the ROI dude!

Importantly, significant returns on development investment (RODI) are possible to calculate concerning hard cash savings for well-designed programmes and these can be substantial numbers too! I bet that surprised you? 

So, it turns out that this soft skills 'stuff' is not woolly or fuzzy at all – far from it! Logically, it makes such investment very compelling for leadership teams.

Before I move on, Charles Handy predicted in his famous thought-provoking book - The Age of Unreason, that in the future, many careers will be portfolio based, where people will move from project to project following the demand. Working collaboratively in teams will be the name-of-the-game. He predicted that both individuals and businesses will need to invest in helping that team to cohere and work effectively together. That is where the need for bespoke soft-skills and people development at the source, where it is needed will come into its own. The returns on investment (ROI) and pay-offs will be seen directly in the project success. I also believe, that in the future, businesses seeking recruitment will only select employees that actively invest in their ongoing development.

Oi-oi! Ignoring the soft stuff equals troubles ahead

Despite being well known that a lack of individual and team development ultimately leads to dysfunction, astonishingly, businesses continue to ignore these sorts of massive issues.

Here are a few examples:

  • distrust
  • toxic individuals with poor behaviours
  • low team morale
  • ego, manipulation, over-control
  • lack of commitment and accountability
  • internal conflict
  • resistance to improvement or change
  • lack of vision, and ruthless pursuit of profit without purpose

Recognise any of those?

These are just some typical symptoms of dysfunction that lead to low performance and resolving any of these isn't trivial. Dealing with Dysfunction, mediocracy and low-performance wastes precious time and effort and bottom-line profit too. It’s also true that high performing people will leave companies because of toxic bosses and/or dysfunctional cultures. That’s an absolute waste of talent, not to mention the effort and cost of recruiting replacements.

While these issues were absorbable in the past, we have already covered why they can’t in the future. There’s just no place for poor interpersonal skills anymore.


In conclusionwith technology moving forward at an exponential pace, so will the demand for soft skills in the workplace. Further, the more we develop our soft skills, the more our company cultures will need to adapt too, for long-term success. 

However, it seems that it's a no-brainer to develop peoples’ soft skills along-side high performance, growth mindset and avoid unnecessary pains while at the same time contribute to profit growth and also better our company cultures too. 

But, perhaps the real challenge is to convince leaders to overcome prevailing thought patterns and instead invest in people development today. Is this is the real elephant in the room after all? You bet!

Tips 'n tools

Here are some tips to help you think about an organisational culture that puts soft skill competencies uppermost among your people:

  1. Learn to encourage an open and honest organisational culture in which employees can communicate and collaborate freely! Giving and taking feedback can be intimidating so, it is imperative your employees feel safe to communicate openly with both co-workers and supervisors. A no-blame culture creates a trusting, collaborative environment where everybody matters and contributes. An open working environment also boosts creativity and innovation and builds relationships.
  2. Develop tools and opportunities for employees to pursue continued education – even if it does not directly relate to their field! As technology pushes our economy forward at an exponential rate, prioritizing a strong learning and development orientation among your people will drive success. So, provide learning tools and resources to encourage people to pursue learning that interests them, both in and out of the workplace (see ELI link at end). When you make people accountable for their own learning, you ensure your organization is equipped with the skills to adapt to our dynamic economy.
  3. Talk the talk AND walk the walk! Bottom line – think about the benefits of creating a learning-based culture that is grounded in communication, collaboration, trust, and accountability that requires leadership that matches these qualities. Leaders must not only clearly communicate company values and vision but, they must also embody these qualities in every facet of their life too. If leaders don’t take these seriously then how can you expect everybody else too? Providing 1-2-1 coaching senior leaders is helpful here.
  4. Focus on success from the inside-out! An internal drive for personal and professional development, one that is not motivated by comparison with others, is fundamental to success. By adopting a career-enabling learning and development culture will nurture success in personal careers. For example, an intrinsic desire to excel, honest self-assessment of strengths and weaknesses, as well as to close personal skills gaps.
  5. Start developing your top teams to become high performing consider putting in place a budgeted strategy to implement a soft skills programme for your people.


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Thanks to Aubrey Wall, director of the Engineering Leadership Institute for collaborating with me on this blog. It was a blast. 

fast forward to 2030 by Sally Fuller, Vodafone

Wall Street Journal survey

Talent Shortage Survey

Pew Research

The Hamilton Project 

3 things to remember in soft skills training,

Other useful leadership blogs

Leadership - Who is Pulling Your Strings -Leadership development blog from Andrew Jenkins Leadership Development Consultant and Coach

High Performance Teams Fact or Fantasy - Blog Post

Look in the Mirror - That's Who is Standing in Your Way a blog from PDX Consultng leadership and team development experts

Click here for Further blogs

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Note on Graphics:

All graphics are my own. Other graphics are creative commons use.


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