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Human resources

Flexibility, curiosity, and empathy: The importance of soft skills

19 of April of 2022

On a day-to-day basis, work at a large company is focused on achieving goals. The pace is determined by figures, deliveries, and the will to always keep achieving the best results. Between deadlines and tasks, often little attention is paid to so-called soft skills, which are key to creating professional, happy, and productive work environments.

What are soft skills?

Soft skills are tied to our personality and character, and they’re related to our behaviors. Some examples include flexibility, integrity, curiosity, communication style, time management, and how we deal with complex situations.

Hard skills, on the other hand, are related to knowledge of certain techniques or areas of expertise. Speaking languages, operating a machine, writing code, and performing complex mathematical calculations are examples of hard skills.

The main differences between soft and hard skills are determined by how they are acquired and by how they’re used in the workplace. Hard skills are acquired through education or specific training and practice. Soft skills are related to personality traits and skills obtained and developed throughout life.

These are crucial in many aspects of our lives. In the workplace, their importance can be seen when working as a team and collaborating with other people. These days, it’s very difficult to carry out complex projects without relying on others, whether they are workers at the same company (colleagues or bosses, for instance) or external partners (suppliers, shareholders, or clients, to name a few).

We live in a social ecosystem, so it is essential to know how to communicate, adapt, and learn from others. A working team made up of people who lack soft skills would be like a football team whose players can’t pass the ball or talk to each other. That team could have the best players in the world, and the result would still be a real mess.

But are they soft skills or power skills?

Traditionally, particularly in more technical sectors, special emphasis has been placed on hard skills, with soft skills left aside. However, soft skills play an essential and complementary role in achieving better results in a more sustainable way.

As proof of this, in 2020, the World Economic Forum selected the ten most important skills for the future of work, and eight were soft skills. Analytical thinking, the ability to innovate, and active learning are at the top of the list of skills that employers say will grow in importance in the coming years.

Just three years earlier, a 2017 study that the Stanford Research Institute and the Carnegie Mellon Foundation conducted on 500 CEOs revealed that 75% of success in long-term work is the result of soft skills, while only 25% comes from professionals’ hard skills.

Soft skills are so essential that there’s nothing soft about them. “To me, there’s nothing soft about them: they are absolutely essential. Teamwork, leadership, making decisions under pressure, communication skills, and a culture where people feel empowered to do their jobs – these are the things we talk about in the RAF and the aviation industry to create a safe environment,” says pilot Mandy Hickson. “You can be a phenomenal pilot, but unless you have the communication skills to go along with that, you’ll never be able to move up or get people to follow you. The two go hand in hand.”

That’s why they are so often known as and sought with a much more powerful name: power skills.

In 2019, the Greater Good Science Center at the University of Berkeley, California, along with author Josh Bersin, coined the term power skill by determining that these skills gave real “power” at the workplace. Issues like growth, innovation, agility, and change depend heavily on values like generosity, trust, and the ability to amaze. These values are the basis of human happiness, and human happiness is the foundation for commitment, productivity, and employee and corporate growth.

Another strong advocate of these skills is Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. Nadella teaches a “growth mindset” at Microsoft by being aware of how this power skill impacts work, relationships, teams, and the organization.

How to build these skills

According to analyst Josh Bersin, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to start considering hard skills as soft and soft skills hard. This is true, he points out, because hard skills change and can quickly become obsolete. Soft skills, on the other hand, are difficult to obtain, and acquiring them takes significant effort, as they’re closely related to character and personality. Consider leadership capacity.

This doesn’t, however, mean these skills cannot be learned. Considering the 70-20-10 learning approach (the idea that 10% of our learning is formal, 20% is shaped by relationships with other people, and the remaining 70% by day-to-day experience), power or soft skills are developed out of situations that pose a challenge. Thus, these skills can be fostered with experiences, feedback from others, training activities and programs, and coaching or mentoring.

For a company, the first step to making the most of soft skills is to recognize their value and then encourage them. At Ferrovial, we’re working to identify and develop the most relevant and appropriate power skills for the business, evaluate our actions, and encourage making these skills a fundamental part of the company’s teams every day.

In a future where we will need STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math) profiles, developing power skills will become increasingly fundamental.

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