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Soft Skills Are the Great Equalizer in Digital Transformation

February 25, 2021 Leadership
mary slaughter
By Mary Slaughter LinkedIn

Once upon a time in a labor market far, far away, we lived in a world of work where employers reigned supreme.

Employee engagement, personal well-being, job satisfaction and work-life balance were not part of our shared lexicon. As an outgrowth of the industrial age of the mid-20th century, human capital practitioners built processes and infrastructure that focused on job competencies, technical skills and fixed concepts such as previous job experience and mental abilities measured by standardized tests. Processes that were the precursors for design thinking did include empathy for the organization, just not much for the employee.

Fast forward to today. Not only is the current world of work wildly different, but the future of work is undergoing a profound shift. Corporations are no longer protected by unassailable moats. Quite the contrary.

The walls between society at large and corporate life have become permeable and operational transparency is a new baseline expectation for corporate governance. Stakeholders now overshadow shareholders, and the line of distinction between what’s good for the organization vs. what’s good for the employee has become blurred, for the better.

The field of study known as industrial and organizational (I/O) psychology has long been the academic go-to for many human capital professionals. While the “O” part is still viable in areas such as organizational purpose, culture and climate, the “I” is evaporating right before our eyes. Research from scientific fields of study such as artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and cognitive and behavioral sciences makes it possible for us to see new correlations, predict outcomes and most importantly, treat employees as individuals vs. industrial assets.

Related Article: How to Practice Empathy in the Virtual World of Work

The Talent Tsunami Is Underway

The explosion of new roles associated with digital transformation is unlike anything we’re seen since the 1950s, forcing organizations to rethink their business models and everything else about their talent lifecycle. Clear structural inequalities in society along with the associated social unrest have triggered a palpable change in legacy diversity and inclusion work. Equity and belonging have taken center stage, with employees speaking candidly about their “lived experiences” at work. Our single largest stakeholder — the workforce itself — expects fairness and equity like never before. The demand for greater flexibility, career mobility, reskilling and meaning at work are rapidly becoming the norm.

While past performance and previous work experience are relevant factors for fit, they speak mostly to the organization’s needs, not the needs of the individual. Most employees (and job candidates) are seeking roles that fit their talents, developmental interests and career aspirations.

In order to attract a broader and more diverse range of talent, organizations should look beyond traditional resume sorting filters such as majors, GPAs and standardized test scores. Those filters assume an industrial approach to evaluating talent, where all roles and people can be evaluated against a standard set of past performance criteria. Instead, we need a rebalancing where both performance and potential are considered when assessing fit for a specific role or the culture overall.

Related Article: What's Trust Go to Do With It?

Soft Skills Are the Great Equalizer

The research is clear that humans are biologically wired to be social creatures. We gravitate towards those whom we trust, who demonstrate empathy toward us and who make us feel psychologically safe when we are with them. No surprise, as a result of the political, economic and healthcare disruptions spawned by the global pandemic, there’s a renewed focus on the related soft skills.

For decades, soft skills have often been undervalued in comparison to task-specific, technical skills. But think again. As far as our brains are concerned, soft skills are the ones most needed during times of uncertainty, ambiguity and high degrees of change. The ability to collaborate with others, build trust, demonstrate empathy and act inclusively are hard skills to master, in part because they require us to focus on others, not ourselves.

Frida Polli
Dr. Frida Polli, award-winning Harvard and MIT neuroscientist and CEO and co-founder of pymetrics:

"Longstanding hiring procedures used to evaluate job candidates today were developed prior to the advent of major fields like cognitive science, behavioral neuroscience and neuropsychology. These traditional employment strategies are clearly falling short in addressing four essential needs: job fit, soft skills, fairness, and flexibility.

In “Cognitive Science as a New People Science for the Future of Work,” my co-authors and I describe the problems this older approach has systematized in the hiring process and explain how cognitive science soft skill assessments can do better. A focus on soft skills makes it possible to evaluate applicants in a more individualized and equitable way than ever before. As HR leaders, that should be our goal: To reveal every candidate and employee’s true potential and guide them to the roles where they are most likely to succeed. We can start by:

1. Looking beyond the resume: Explore alternate ways to measure a person’s potential, or soft skill fit, for a role rather than focusing solely on experience.
2. Exploring reskilling over hiring: Allow opportunities for current employees to reskill rather than always deferring to bringing in talent from the outside.

If we continue to ignore shortcomings in the hiring process, we as a society will perpetuate significant barriers to progress in how we evaluate potential and award opportunity.

When seeking to understand someone’s potential, assessing the skills that fuel effective interpersonal interactions can offer new insights. We can reframe our appreciation of soft skills by thinking of them as:

  • Portable: In a fast-changing world, being adaptable is essential. Soft skills transcend job families, industries and careers moves.
  • Motivating: Relating to colleagues can generate greater job satisfaction and productivity, as well as increased retention via a deeper connection to the culture.
  • Efficient: Articulating the required soft skills makes it easier for organizations and candidates themselves to assess individual fit to the role.
  • Expansive: By assessing potential along with performance, talent pools are broadened with individuals who may have been previously discounted.
  • Equalizing: Soft skills are not dependent on past job experiences, college degrees or scores on a standardized test. They are readily accessible to all, including under-represented and marginalized talent.

The views reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.

About the Author

Mary Slaughter is the Global Head of Employee Experience at Morningstar, an investment research and management firm headquartered in Chicago, IL. Prior to joining Morningstar, she served as a managing director, People Advisory Services at EY.

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