In fact, many organizations are starting to recognize that soft skills are more important than the traditional analytic or trade skills that they used to specifically target in their search campaigns. Old hiring methods that focused on job output have given way to 360-degree “full person” profiling techniques such as the behavoural job interview and social media scans. Of course, human emotions aren’t new. Why then, does it seem we’re suddenly changing our workplace around to accommodate them?
To understand that, I think it's important to look over the last hundred years or so of Western work evolution. In the 1920s, robber barons were bilking most of the world's wealth. Our immature economy couldn't sustain this and so it collapsed. To rebuild from the rubble, a generation of people said "never again" and collectivist values formed, resulting in dramatic wage compression, social services, collective bargaining, and a general "coming together" for universal survivability (which makes the simultaneous McCarthyism in the States rather ironic). Decade on decade, in various ways, unity was the prevailing attitude that our culture embraced. It's under these very conditions that the traditional, stable, benevolent organization we've come to know was created.
OPEC and double digit inflation wrought economic havoc in the 1970s, priming us for the Reagan years. This seems to have been an important turning point. Unity stopped becoming the driving force behind innovation - suddenly every man (and woman) was in the rat race for themselves (remember The Secret of My Success?). Individual achievement became the norm. It didn't happen immediately, but I believe this paradigm shift began the unraveling of decades worth of organizational fabric. The pace of innovation exploded, bringing with it incredible technology costs. "Superfluous" employee-related costs, like training and development, had to go out the window to feed the upgrade monster. This meant that to find someone capable of performing a specific job, you had to find a candidate who was already doing that specific job somewhere else. This, of course, pushed recruitment costs up, but retention costs necessarily had to come down. Simultaneously, the nature of Western work shifted into a project-based rhythm as operational work was either outsourced or eliminated. (As an aside, I believe that under these conditions, moving recruitment onto the web was the worst possible idea ever, but that's another story.)
So where does this leave us? I believe we're left with a world where individual talent is the working world's most sought after currency - but (for the most part) that talent is transactional. There will always be people like Jonathan Ive whom companies protect like treasure but for most of us, contract work is becoming the norm. This means that the protective cocoon of an organization's pensions, benefits, water cooler friends, paid professional development opportunities and after-work parties are gone.
Who will thrive under these conditions? It will likely be people with a very distinct set of skills:
- To keep their head above water through the constant sea change associated with project environments, successful workers will need to highly adaptable. This means they will need to retain a cool head under pressure and be able to use logic and reason to carry them through inevitable challenges without succumbing to strong emotions.
- To be able to lead others in times of crisis, successful individuals will need strong interpersonal skills, empathy and the ability to form mutually satisfying relationships with other people. They will need to be able to effectively balance their own needs against the needs of others and ensure socially responsible outcomes that map against the greater good.
- To be able to stay in the game for the long term, successful workers will need exceptional stress management abilities. This means they will be able to regulate their body’s stress responses, never allowing themselves to become too keyed up for too long. They will take care of themselves mentally and physically, independently of work.
- To be able to perform the above, a successful worker today will need high levels of self-awareness. Empathy requires a solid understanding of one’s own feelings while adaptability and stress management both require one to have an intimate knowledge of their own boundaries. This is both so they can protect themselves against too much uncertainty, but also expand those boundaries under controlled conditions.
Together, these four abilities comprise the basis of what has come to be known as the trait model of emotional intelligence. Given the challenges that today’s workers must face, I think it’s no accident that employers are starting to look beyond analytic and technical skill sets in their hires. These “soft skills” have become every bit as important to career longevity as the tangible work results we have traditionally valued.
How can workers hone these abilities? That is a question for another day.