Soft skills of good communication and relationships essential to career success
Much of the focus in the business world is about technological advances. Imagine the shock in the Google high-tech environment when internal research made senior management realize ‘soft’ skills are more important qualities in the firm’s top employees than tech skills.
An article in the Washington Post quoted a post by eminent Professor Cathy Davidson discussing the Google findings. Davidson noted that in its first 15 years after being founded in 1998, Google sought recruits on the basis that only technologists can understand technology – and therefore people with top computer science qualifications were given top priority.
Senior management decided to test this view in 2013 by exhaustively analyzing employee data, and to their surprise, found soft skills were more important qualities in Google’s top employees than STEM skills (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). The top success qualities at Google were discovered to be soft, general skills, all ranking ahead of STEM expertise:
- Being a good coach
- Communicating and listening well
- Possessing insights into other people’s values and perspectives
- Having empathy toward and supporting colleagues
- Being a good critical thinker and problem solver
- Being able to make connections across complex ideas.
More Google internal analysis in 2017 “further supported the importance of soft skills even in high-tech environments,” according to Prof. Davidson. The company’s teams of top scientists had produced many impressive innovations, but the analysis revealed the best new ideas had actually been created by other teams of lesser lights.
In producing their winning ideas, these teams drew on soft skills such as equality, generosity, curiosity towards the ideas of teammates, empathy and emotional intelligence. The most important factor was emotional safety and support, with no bullying or implied intimidation. Team members could feel confident in speaking up and in making mistakes, which is essentially atmosphere of psychological safety.
Research by Reynolds and Lewis, published in 2018, found the two characteristics of the best problem-solving teams are psychological safety and cognitive diversity.
Psychological safety is the belief that people will not be punished or humiliated for raising ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It is a dynamic, evolving element of human interaction and can be undermined instantly – for instance, with an inappropriate sigh, look or gesture. Unless a certain amount of psychological safety is maintained in a workgroup, people will hold back from making a full contribution. As a result, the benefits of cognitive diversity don’t emerge, and team members become more anxious and defensive.
Cognitive diversity is about differences in perspective or information processing styles. It is not predicted by factors such as gender, ethnicity, or age. The common saying: “We recruit in our own image” goes further than demographic differences like race or gender (or recruitment). People gravitate towards others who think and speak like them.
As a result, organizations often end up with like-minded teams. This leads to functional bias — and low cognitive diversity, which reduces the team’s ability to see things differently, to engage in different ways such as experimenting versus analyzing, or to create new options, thus maintaining lower creativity.
Dr Marina Umaschi Bers, Professor of Computer Science and Child Development at Tufts University, who heads a research group working on how to prepare children for an increasingly automated economy, said in the New York Times “Quotation of the Day” on 31 July 2017:
Technology can be a vehicle to help people create and collaborate better, but at the end of the day, people need to learn to work with people.
The takeaway: The above research demonstrates that technical advances in our society still require teams of people to get on well with each other – to communicate and listen well, and to develop supportive relationships. This highlights the important role of our communication profession in facilitating these key skills among employees. And it highlights the need for communicators to put similar compelling evidence to senior management to increase their support for employee communication.