We’ve all heard of the term ‘soft skills’ or ‘power skills’ as they’ve also been coined. They are the essential being and thinking (or social and emotional) behaviours we should all be developing in our workforce to improve future capability alongside the ‘hard’, doing, technical skills too. Soft skills, such as patience, adaptability, curiosity and being able to build relationships and collaborate, are all integral to fostering healthy, respectful and productive working environments; places where we all want – and choose – to work.

Simon Sinek recently said, that “…skills like effective confrontation, empathy, and patience are not soft skills. They are human skills, and they must be learned.” And, of course, he is right. These, and other recognised ‘soft/power skills’ are so inherently human. I recently wrote a blog on human acknowledgement and how it’s the little things – the more human things – that really make a difference when it comes to work culture and employee engagement. And certainly, the ‘human skills’ and capabilities we need in our teams are much the same. Josh Bersin also recognises that “…growth, innovation, agility, and change are entirely dependent on values like kindness, generosity, trust, and awe. Yes, these ‘soft skills’ are the foundation of human happiness, and human happiness is the foundation of employee engagement, productivity, and corporate growth…”.

Ultimately, it’s the ‘human skills’ that impact our well-being, productivity and culture in work and also drive engagement. Yet they so often go under the radar or aren’t valued in the same way as ‘hard skills’ (in my view this is equally applicable in our current education system too but that’s another blog!).

Below I consider a handful of the essential ‘human skills’ that add value in our workplace and that we need to acknowledge, nurture and develop in our teams. These are the five I personally deem core, but of course this is subjective and there are many, many more:

Trust: There are varying schools of thought about where trust fits in to the soft skills armoury, but arguably I think it’s the top and most important human metric as to how people engage and work together. Ultimately, if people don’t trust those they work with, they are less likely to work well with them, invest in them, or pursue shared goals. Equally, if they don’t feel trusted themselves, they are less likely to invest discretionary effort in their work, may become disengaged in their role and with colleagues, and at the end of the day will leave the organisation.

Evidence suggests that if you take the time to build trust with your colleagues and teams (and indeed build it with clients), everyone will thrive. To achieve this, encourage a culture of open communication and active listening; seek ways for individuals to fully learn and understand each other’s roles; and make time for employees to connect and have fun through social and team-building activities – it will all help.

Diligence: I’ve listed this next as I do feel it an important human skill – particularly when it comes to teamwork – and one that often gets overlooked. Those who are diligent are rarely recognised, but we trust them (or as is often the case, take them for granted!). They’re ‘just doing their job’ after all. But diligence is so crucial to ensuring a task is completed to the required standard every time and on time, no matter how many times it has to be done. It enables the remainder of a process to be equally completed and with confidence.   

Do make sure you regularly instil in your teams your organisational purpose and the value their individual roles and responsibilities have within this. Discuss why what they do on a daily basis matters, and what the impact is if not done fully. The aim is to give ownership, but also listen to feedback and trust that your teams know their jobs best. I suggest taking time to acknowledge diligent contribution too. The ability to self-motivate and accomplish a task/project with concern for the detail involved, no matter how small, is a great capability and hard to ‘just learn’. Rather we should nourish and appreciate it more in team members when we spot it.

Empathy: Empathy is arguably (and increasingly recognised as) one of the most vital human skills in the workplace, as part of a team and indeed as a leader. Richard Branson once commented, “Great things can be achieved by leading through wisdom, empathy, and integrity – with no other agenda than humanity.Being able to see another person’s motives and actions from their point of view is crucial for an organisation’s overall success, both for maintaining a healthy work culture for employees and for ‘getting in the head’ of your organisation’s end-user/customer.

To some – the Myers Briggs ‘Feelers’ amongst us – empathy and the ability to see things from another’s perspective comes quite naturally, but for others it is a skill that organisations would be wise to invest time and money in developing and nurturing (as is the acceptance with developing technical skills). Likewise, being able to listen – I mean really listen – is such a key part of empathy. Taking the time to really ‘see’ people by acknowledging and listening to them is so important to well-being, motivation, trust and ultimately earning engagement. 

Resilience: There’s a lot of talk about building resilience within organisations right now and there’s no question that some people (and teams!) are naturally more resilient than others. Being able to remain proactive, positive, determined, and adaptable despite unanticipated challenges is a fantastic skill to have and is often a capability we develop through experience.

It is important to help individuals and teams learn resilience and to embrace change as an opportunity to grow. Team resilience comes from confidence in the strength of the ‘team’ to overcome difficulty – it’s therefore important to facilitate opportunities for your team(s) to strengthen their bonds. Team problem-solving activities are a great way of doing this (as well as developing other ‘soft skills’), especially where teams are given the autonomy to identify a problem, resolve it fully and implement their solution themselves. The problem-solving process not only builds resilience and develops trust and belief; but also fosters pride and accountability for their implemented solution; capability to innovate and an improvement mindset.

Communication: This may be last on my list, but it’s by far the least! As humans we learn from an early age how to communicate our needs, but being able to communicate effectively at work both verbally and non-verbally is a vital skill for high-performing teams. Communication is how a team member expresses their thoughts, ideas and feelings to others, as well as actively listening to and understanding the feelings of those that they interact with. Through honest, open, ‘human’ communication one can influence others, provide positivity, show compassion and drive team energy forward. It should never be underestimated.

Thankfully the benefits of being a good communicator and the importance of communications skills for effective teamwork are widely recognised and as such, the marketplace abounds with learning and development offerings. However, I believe there is a tendency in many organisations to focus investment on upskilling graduates and leadership teams in this area as part of their personal development programmes, and more rarely on providing communications skills training and coaching to the broader employee population, regardless of function or ‘level’. If looking to improve culture and striving for a high-performing, productive and engaged workforce it would be wise to make it a priority and more accessible for all employees.

As our workplaces are increasingly becoming more automated, the value-add that humans can bring is becoming ever more critical. The five ‘human skills’ I’ve chosen above are clearly complex and interwoven, and yet they are uniquely human and cannot (and never will) be done by machines or AI. So why are they so often underestimated, undervalued and unacknowledged?

I think Josh Bersin hits the nail on the head again with ‘…Hard Skills are soft (they change all the time, are constantly being obsoleted, and are relatively easy to learn), and Soft Skills are hard (they are difficult to build, critical, and take extreme effort to obtain).’ So, it’s easy to see why organisations often opt to assume people know how to ‘be human’ and focus on hard skills training as it’s more tangible and clearly defined. This makes no sense to me.

More investment in ‘human skills’ development will offer a greater ROI over time as the capability that emerges will be more internally transferable, agile and enduring. Not to do so will be missing a trick. Employees are likely to value the business interest and investment made in their personal development and will naturally be more engaged with an organisation that believes and trusts in them, significantly impacting an organisation’s future potential and ability to flourish from within. To requote Bersin ‘…“soft skills” are the foundation of human happiness, and human happiness is the foundation of employee engagement, productivity, and corporate growth…”.

‘Human skills’ are enduring. What are your core five?

By Louise Raeside, Engagement Lead at DRIVE Engagement