Soft Is The New Hard

Think about it.

Which dentist would you prefer – the one who does a good job, and is kind and empathetic to your pain, or the one who also does a good job, but doesn’t seem to care that he is hurting you?

If times are lean, and you are forced to lay off an employee due to lack of budget, which one would you keep – the clerical worker who does a good job but frequently picks fights with your customers and storms out of the room, or the one who also does a good job and is frequently complimented by customers for her positive attitude and “can do” mentality?

An often overlooked and undervalued set of skills that are necessary for Africa’s youthful labour force to compete globally are the set of skills labeled as “soft skills.”

A recent report published by Child Trends, and funded by USAID, indicates that soft skills are key to success for young people aged 15-29 worldwide.  “Soft skills are behaviours, attitudes, and personal qualities that enable people to effectively navigate their environment, and [these soft skills] complement technical, vocational and academic skills,” says Laura Lippman, lead author of the report.  Honing these soft skills helps young people get a job, keep the job, perform well, and earn more.

Quite importantly, these soft skills are often associated with leadership skills.  Many efforts focus on helping young Africans get their foot in the door with foundational skills, but to make a difference, create more opportunities for others and generally employ the multiplier effect, soft skills unlock great value.  Thus, investing in soft skills is an investment in leadership development.

Social skills, broadly defined as getting along with others, is at the top of the list of important skills.  It doesn’t matter if one has the greatest engineering brain to come along in the last century if that employee is fired for insubordination or other manifestations of poor social skills.   Being able to communicate clearly, including non-verbal and listening skills are key to moving beyond the factory floor; a leader must be adept at communicating.  Self control is highly correlated with leadership.  Workers who succeed in the long run generally demonstrate an ability to manage emotions, regulate behaviors, and delay gratification until the appropriate time.

Soft skills are a particularly important set of skills to impart to new entrants into the formal working sector.  For example, resolving conflict by staying calm, listening intently, and presenting clear and persuasive evidence is a useful behavior to employ in the workplace. Some people may innately approach conflict in this way. Some people acquire this approach at home, through observation of adults who have developed this skill in their own managerial roles. For those who did not acquire this skill innately or through observation at home, it is a skill that can be learned in the classroom or at the work place.

Ongoing research in the field supports the importance of soft skills, provides validation across regions and sectors, and evidence that soft skills can be taught to young adults.  The research is also quite definitive in concluding that soft skills are best learned when classroom training is combined with practical application.  Ideally soft skills training in the classroom is combined with an internship or other on-the-job learning experience.  Having the opportunity to reflect on soft skills with a teacher, coach, mentor or supervisor provides the greatest integrative learning experience.

A best in class example of soft skill development is GE’s  leadership and development programmes on the continent of Africa.

To learn more about these programmes, we invite you to watch this short, four minute, video.