The workplace has undergone a radical change in the last decade, and people skills have never been more important to succeed at work.
With organizations embracing novel and ground-breaking technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, and many more, to perform critical tasks better than humans, what primes an employee for success is not his or her functional skills but 'people skills'.
So what are 'people skills' or 'soft skills'?
People skills are the various attributes of a person's behaviour which includes how the person interacts and works with others.
And what is it that makes 'soft skills' as crucial as say, 'software skills'?
These are skills that cannot be replicated by technology. Thus, they have the potential to be key differentiators while evaluating a candidate. Secondly, good people skills help one connect at a personal level with other team members and work well in a team. This significantly boosts the morale of the team and the productivity of the workplace.
I remember an interesting example shared by author and coach, Marshal Goldsmith, for medical professionals. "We believe our doctors are smart and we give them the benefit of the doubt on skill. We assume, for example, that our doctor knows medicine. So we judge him on their 'bedside manner' - how s/he tolerates our questions, maybe even how he apologizes for keeping us waiting too long. None of this is taught in medical school."
All other things (read technical qualifications or degrees) being equal, your people skills, or the lack of them, become more significant as one climbs up the career ladder.
In fact, even when all other things are not equal, people skills often make the difference in how an entrylevel manager or CXO is perceived by those who matter. There is no point in having a person who is excellent at say coding or crunching numbers, but always angry, inept with external stakeholders and alienates smart people in his/her team.
This is an interesting dichotomy. And one that will go on to rule the future of the workplace.
There have been various studies corroborating this fact, including a recent one called Project Oxygen conducted by Google in 2018, involving more than 10,000 managers. The study found that the skills that differentiated exceptional managers from mediocre ones were eight crucial soft skills. Technical excellence did not make the cut.
I will highlight two examples of my work experience.
After my MBA, I worked with the Tata Group for 14 years in various, diverse roles, culminating with a role as Chief Strategy Officer of Tata Communications. During this time, I had the fortune of working in the office of the Tata group Chairman, with Ratan Tata, for a while.
Through various interactions that took place at work every day, I witnessed Mr. Tata's tremendous humility and feeling for others. It was clear that his down-to-earth nature, warm and patient listening skills, and ability to remember names, is what endeared him to almost everyone who worked with him.
Conversely, I can cite the example of a young professional, a CA from a reputed institute; with about 5 years - experience but limited people skills. He was above average in his functional domain, but poor at communicating with peers, rigid about work demarcations and never stretched himself to help juniors. He put in his papers at his current job on being pulled up for poor collaborative skills. While serving notice, he dodged handover formalities and did not complete pending work. This caused difficulties for his replacement. He was also rude in his exit interview. Later, when he needed help with exit formalities, nobody in the organization was eager to assist him. Senior management will always spot such a candidate and be hesitant to give him/her a leadership role.
People skills - vital for the workplace
I can think of three key skills which I believe are vital for any employee, irrespective of the industry or stage of career.
Persuasion: Persuasion in the workplace means convincing others to agree to your point of view or action plan. Persuasion is a valuable trait for any organization as it can boost productivity by getting various stakeholders (such as co-workers, clients, business partners, and many more) to work towards a common goal. To be persuasive, it is essential that you are genuine in your interactions and also explain to all parties how your proposal could meet the work objective. Additionally, it's important to address any concerns or objections respectfully and without any biases.
This is the second important skill after persuasion. Collaboration in the workplace means working with two or more people or groups (par for the course) to achieve a common objective. Simply put, collaboration is teamwork on a higher scale, to accomplish a strong meaningful purpose. For collaborating well, it's important for all members involved to be able to share ideas freely and also be agreeable to different perspectives.
Empathy: This is perhaps one of the most needed skills, not just at the workplace but in all aspects of life. Empathy is the ability to understand other's thoughts, emotions, and experiences. In the workplace, empathy would mean having respected and care for co-workers, as opposed to demonstrating authority and power. An empathetic leader or co-worker makes everyone feel part of the team and boosts positive feelings of loyalty and trust.
More and more companies are recognizing the need for the above soft skills and adopting learning and development programs to make employees aware of their preconceived notions and hidden biases.
As per the LinkedIn Global Talent 2019 report, 92 percent of talent professionals and hiring managers agree that strong soft skills are getting increasingly important and impacting the future of recruiting across the world.
The challenge for every employee now is to become a professional that employers want in their organization, and every team leader wants in his or her team.
By Srinivasa Addepalli, Founder & CEO, GlobalGyan Academy
Srinivasa Addepalli is the Founder & CEO of GlobalGyan, an Edtech firm that provides learning, mentoring and consulting services to organizations. Drawing upon his experience in Corporate Strategy, M&A, Business Transformation and Innovation, Srinivasa helps business leaders, startups and students navigate complex business situations. Also he is a visiting Faculty at the IIM Ahmedabad, IIM Indore, NMIMS and IIT Hyderabad in the strategy area. He was selected by the Global Telecoms Business in the 2010, 2011 and 2012 lists of 40 "most exciting leaders of the telecoms industry over the next few years" (under the age of 40).