The case for ‘soft’ skills

Diana Searls

March 14, 2014

In July 1999 (yes, 1999!), Workforce published an article, “The Hard Case for Soft Skills, Research on Emotional Intelligence shows that investing in “soft skills” development has big payoffs” by Shari Caurdon.

In her article, Ms. Caudron examines the research described in Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (Bantam Books, 1995). Goleman conducted years of research that illustrated the a person’s ability to manage themselves and relate to other people matters twice as much as IQ or technical skills in job success. He labeled emotional intelligence EQ and identified these competencies:

Self-Awareness – Emotional self-awareness, accurate self-assessment and self-confidence.

Self-Management – Self-control, trustworthiness, conscientiousness, adaptability, achievement orientation, and initiative.

Social Skills – Leadership, influence, communication, change catalyst, conflict management, building bonds, teamwork, and collaboration.

Social Awareness – Empathy, organizational awareness, developing others, and service orientation. Goleman’s research was widely read, especially by business leaders and educators. I suspect that many of us read it; strip mined it, and went about our business. Because organizations (and schools) were more interested in “hard” skills (science, technology, engineering, and math) and times were tough, we did what we needed to do. We’re reaping the benefits of that approach now in two arenas: Employee Selection and Employee Development.

Employee Selection

Recently, Upper Valley Career Center Adult Division conducted a survey of employers to determine the skills employers were looking for when they have positions to fill. Employers overwhelmingly named “soft” skills as the skills they most wanted to see in employment candidates, the skills that made employees successful, and the skills that were most lacking in employees they had to terminate for other than safety and drug violations.

One HR Director said, “I wanted so badly to hire him, (the candidate), but he couldn’t make eye contact with me or respond to basic open-ended questions.” Why? He was lacking EQ. Sadly, he may have been perfectly qualified in terms of “hard” skills. I experienced this first-hand in a recent professional training class. A smart, bright, intelligent young man sat down with his head tucked into his chest chewing on his hoodie string. No one has even shown him how to behave as a professional adult.

Employee Development

Over and over I have coached managers who are astounded that the people they get from their HR Departments show up late (if they do at all), take incessant bathroom breaks, chat frequently during their shift (on the clock), roam the plant, an use their cell phones on company time. Managers seem to think that EQ is part of the package because it is part of THEIR package. They expect their employees to have the same initiative, drive, and work ethic they have. That may have been true 30 years ago, but it’s not true now. One supervisor told me he didn’t want to parent his employees. My response, “Welcome to the 21st Century, my friend.” When I investigated his comment further, he described how HE grew up and how he learned EQ from his parents. He spoke of what “should” be. What should be is not the issue here; what we have is what we have. WHY this exists is irrelevant and discussing it is a waste of time. Like it or not, many potential manufacturing workers didn’t have positive work ethics modeled for them while they were growing up. As leaders, WE are those role models for them, and it IS like parenting them. Perhaps a more palatable word would be “mentor”. Whatever we choose to call it, we DO have to teach them how to behave professionally.

Suggestions: For Employee Selection – Use assessments that assess EQ – We test for drugs and nicotine, why not test for EQ? Many assessments are available not only to determine skill potential, but aptitude and ability to use and apply EQ. These tests are available at most career and technical schools; they are validated and reliable assessments that can predict job success. A word of caution is needed; the EEOC has guidelines on how to use and administer employment tests. For an article on the guidelines, send me a request via email: searlsd@uppervalleycc.org

Learn how to interview for EQ – Build an interview guide to conduct behavior/competency-based interviews for each position you expect to hire. See that the guide is used for every candidate by every interviewer.

For Employee Development – Teach soft skills to employees and their managers. Involve the employees’ managers, not only the employees. The most successful companies do not merely “send” employees to EQ training. They integrate the training into an employee development plan, and require managers to be engaged prior to the training, during the training, and after the training.

— Diana Searls provides training and consulting services to organizations in the Greater Dayton Area through Partners in Business Solutions, Upper Valley Career Center Adult Division