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Soft skills of good communication and relationships essential to career success

01 Jun, 2020 Careers, Commentary, Research findings, Workplace relationships

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.

The takeaway

The Google research demonstrates that technical advances in our society still require 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.

If you are interested to read more about Google’s experience in seeking to create more psychological safety in teams, and therefore more productive team outputs, I suggest you read the New York Times article, “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” published on 25 February 2016.

Demand growing for soft skills – McKinsey report

On the subject of soft skills, top management consultancy McKinsey & Co published a report in February 2020 that showed “the demand for soft skills is beginning to surge“:

Notice how the number of hours worked using higher cognitive skills along with social and emotional skills is estimated to increase by around 32% by 2030. Obviously the amount of time worked using technological skills will jump by then as well – by around 55%, according to McKinsey.

In addition, McKinsey consultants specifically note the top three areas of missing soft skills as in their above table. Lots of potential for people who have good soft skills like communication professionals in the forthcoming “automating world.”

People with liberal arts education are catching up on tech graduate salaries over time

Adding further to the view that soft skills are important in the workplace is an article in the New York Times of 20 September 2019, In the Salary Race, Engineers Sprint but English Majors Endure,” by David Deming, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, who said:

“According to a 2018 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the three attributes of college graduates that employers considered most important were written communication, problem-solving and the ability to work in a team. Quantitative and technical skills both made the top 10, alongside other ‘soft’ skills like initiative, verbal communication and leadership.” And “a liberal arts education has enormous value because it builds a set of foundational capacities that will serve students well in a rapidly changing job market.”

“Since new technical skills are always in high demand, young college graduates who have them earn a short-run salary premium. Yet when the job changes, these now experienced workers must learn new technical skills to keep up with fresh college graduates and a constant stream of talent from abroad. The result is slower salary growth and high exit rates from the STEM work force…Why do the earnings of liberal arts majors catch up?… Mid-career salaries are highest in management and business occupations, as well as professions requiring advanced degrees such as law. Liberal arts majors are more likely than STEM graduates to enter those fields.”

Hire on the basis of candidates’ natural tendencies and workplace behaviors

Gallup experts believe soft skills are ‘elusive’ or difficult to identify in a job candidate, so they recommend employers focus on the natural tendencies and actual behaviors of candidates in their career. They believe people’s natural dispositions are consistent from one situation to the next. Desirable behaviors fall into 5 broad categories or ‘dimensions’ as pointed out in their article of 9 October 2019, “The Hard Truth About Soft Skills in the Workplace”:

  • Motivation: Drive for achievement, ie What motivates this person?
  • Workstyle: Organizing work for efficient completion, ie How does this person go about their work?
  • Initiation: Taking action and inspiring others to succeed, ie. How does this person influence others?
  • Collaboration: Building quality partnerships, ie How does this person build relationships and work with others?
  • Thought process: Solving problems through absorbing new information, ie How does this person tackle problems?

The takeaway

Before you are interviewed for a new job, make sure you prepare for possible questions about the 5 soft skills-related behaviors identified by Gallup consultants.

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from

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