Date: 08/12/20 | Duration: 00:29:00

In the last year or so there has been growing debate and conversation around the benefits of soft skills in the workplace and the essential or core skills we will increasingly need. The events of 2020 have prompted greater shows of empathy, teamwork and problem solving, but can getting these ‘softer’ skills right pay dividends in the long-term and do we need to value these skills more within our organisations?

Join Nigel Cassidy and this month’s guests, Rebekah Wallis, Director of People and Corporate Responsibility at Ricoh UK, Phil Lowe, Leadership Development Specialist and Lizzie Crowley, Senior Skills Adviser at CIPD, to unpack how a greater emphasis on nurturing, utilising and measuring the effectiveness of soft skills can benefit your organisation. 

Nigel Cassidy: When doing the job is so hard just now how far will soft skills get you? I'm Nigel Cassidy and this is the CIPD podcast.

Every day in 2020 each and every one of us has had to show kindness and sympathy to family, to friends and to co-workers. That's whether or not it always comes naturally. It’s been the worst year in our professional lives but what the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us is how important it is to lead with the heart. There’s been a lot of debate about the value of interpersonal skills to rally teams and support colleagues but is all this getting a bit fluffy, a fad born of our times? How far are soft skills going to get us when the going is tough and you've no choice about imposing hard decisions on others? 

Here to talk using, measuring and developing soft skills, and doubtless much more Rebekah Wallis, she’s Director of People and Corporate Responsibility for Ricoh UK, who provide document services, consulting software and hardware worldwide. She's a board director with overall responsibility for human resources, learning and corporate responsibility. Hello.

Rebekah Wallis: Hello.

NC: Phil Lowe has 30 years’ experience as a , Leadership Development Specialist, a former senior consultant originally with Price Waterhouse Coopers, and People Development Manager at Goldman Sachs, his recent clients include BP, Barclays and the NHS and the Civil Service. Hello.

Phil Lowe: Hello.

NC: And from the home team Lizzie Crowley, Senior Skills Adviser to the CIPD, she's also published a number of influential reports on youth unemployment. Hello.

Lizzie Crowley: Hi there.

NC: So Lizzie there are other blanket terms I suppose for the skills we’re talking about here, essential skills, core, human, transferable, we know that employers repeatedly say that young applicants and many existing workers lack them, so .let’s keep it simple what are soft skills?

LC: I think that's part of where the problem is, is that we don't really have an agreed language to describe these skills, and we’ll come onto that later, but that's a lot of work we’ve been doing at the CIPD. But if you think about those skills which enable individuals to work together in organisations, so team work, communication, listening, problem solving, we’re talking about some of the really fundamental human capabilities that are very difficult all to make out and are becoming increasingly important.

NC: And I suppose, Rebecca Wallis, these skills, they’re not technical, they’re not academic so maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised that people aren’t taught them.

RW: That's a really good point actually in terms of whether people are taught them or not, in fact it’s absolutely true in professional work people get their technical skills, quite often people are promoted through being a subject matter expert, we see a lot of that, but the importance, as Lizzie was saying of the soft skills it’s that overlay, it’s that ability, not to do something, it’s to do it well, it’s how you do it, how you fit in with your culture, environment and your teamwork. And absolutely I think there is a lack of teaching of soft skills. 

NC: And just quickly Rebecca in your organisation was it very apparent as 2020 wore on that some people didn’t have these skills and maybe were at a disadvantage because they didn’t?

RW: I think it dramatically made us aware actually when we first went into the Covid situation the difference between those leaders who had the soft skills at the appropriate levels and those leaders who didn’t became very, very evident and certainly those leaders who had those skills, through training, people aren’t born with them they’re trained to have them, it was evident the difference in how they managed their team. That's gone on through the whole of 2020 actually and continues as we speak.

NC: Now Phil Lowe it’s all very well being known around the workplace for your sensitivity, your understanding, but then of course people managers are having to make tough decisions at the moment, discipline people, demote them, all that, I think what you call people elements, and I just wonder whether all that sensitivity might actually just get in the way?

PL: You're absolutely right first of all. I think there are always going to be situations in organisations, particularly at the moment but all the time, where you have to make quite tough decisions and you might have to act in a way that is not going to be great for people in the short-term. But the problem I think is that when people think about soft skills, for want of a better description and I agree with Lizzie it’s not a kind of perfect way of describing them, but if we understand what we mean by that they swing between soft skills and what you might call more hard skills, the very kind of direct approaches which operate without empathy and don't take care of people particularly, people tend to see it as an either/or and I don't think it is, I think the best leaders and managers operate with a blend to keep it simple, let’s say clarity and empathy: I can give you a clear message about your performance, I can also take care of you as a person. 

NC: Okay well Lizzie Crowley with that in mind I'm just getting a bit sort of twitchy about this because already at least two of you are not altogether happy about this term ‘soft skills’ I just wonder whether it’s all a bit overblown, I mean the profession constantly striving to ensure what it does is evidence-based? Well before this podcast I spent a bit of a while consulting Dr Google and frankly evidence is pretty scant, perhaps I wasn’t looking in the right learned journals but I mean I don't see much evidence that soft skills help you do the job?

LC: Well I mean if you look at a lot of the major data sources that are out there these skills do come up, you know seven out of the top ten skills that are missing amongst employees and that businesses are looking for are these skills. These skills do fundamentally affect the bottom line, if you don't have them in your organisation it’s very difficult to introduce new product, new process improvements, and do you know there's a sufficient amount of evidence out there that actually shows these skills, you know if you get them right it pays dividends. Google has for instance been studying teams for I think around about seven or eight years and it was these skills that they identified as the important ones to have in a successful team. It wasn’t the deep specialist skills, it was people who are able to collaborate and communicate effectively with one another. And even like a randomised control trial in a factory setting done by MIT Sloan found a 250% return on investment for providing training and problem solving skills within five factory settings. So I think that there's quite a sufficient amount of evidence out there that they really do impact upon business performance. 

RW: Absolutely I think there is, when you look at the wider employee sense, the soft skills that feed into culture, culture feeds into how the workforce works. And we did do some work actually, Ricoh, actually we’d go out to customers to help them help their workforce as it were. And we took the opportunity in October to do a piece called Conscious Workplace, very psychologically based and stuff and it spoke to a sample of people and looked at what were the key things that were important during this. And a lot of this was around decision-making, what was actually the successful companies, how they came out of it. We referred earlier to decision-making as a key skill, particularly during times of crises, but also things around looking at the impact on employees around things like mental health and the link with that and productivity, obviously, I'm sure Lizzie can quote some statistics, but people being well psychologically, physically and so on, but in this case we’re talking psychologically, but then the link with that and empathy from managers, that support from managers, so I think I absolutely agree with what Lizzie is saying there is a fundamental link between productivity and customer satisfaction, company success with employees and how they're functioning and that comes from leadership and culture and how they're managed.

PL: I wanted to add to that because I endorse that. I think one of the things that you do notice happens when you have leaders and managers, maybe not even a whole organisation doing this but you have individual leaders and managers who are able to work well with their employees is you get a big boost in loyalty. It is often said that people don't leave organisations they leave people and one of my clients that happened to be a research company, did a huge piece of research and they found that the biggest factor when anybody chose to leave the organisation was the behaviour of their own boss. So I think some of the research that I've seen has a bit of a question mark over productivity actually but I’ll bow to Lizzie’s, which is probably more recent, but if you think about it you can get productivity out of people by beating them and making them very scared, what you don't get though is employees who will be loyal to you over the longer-term and that can be quite a significant thing.

NC: So taking that up with you Lizzie how can you crystallise this link between having good soft skills and outcomes? I mean again to quote the evidence-based thing you know that old thing at the interview where you’re asked, can you tell me about a time when this happened and you did this and that was the outcome?

LC: I do think that we need to get better about measuring these types of skills and valuing them more in organisations and I think one of the reasons why we actually have a bit of a weak evidence base here, I'm not saying we, the examples I quoted at you earlier they do exist, they are relatively robust but I do think we need to work at better strengthening our evidence base around the values that these skill sets bring into organisations. And also about what are some of the best ways to develop these skills within the context of employment. That's why we've been doing a lot of work through the essential skills taskforce to develop a very detailed, measurable set of skills that enable you to look at how people progress across these softer skill sets. We call them essential skills. But I do take the point that the evidence base is not necessarily that clear cut in here. We’ve got some indications about the importance of these skills and I think going back to what businesses say through major surveys about actually what is stopping them actually getting on with the things they want to do, the products and the processes that they want to improve on, the innovation that they want to happen within their organisations, in many cases it is these skills that are holding them back and time and time again it comes out through survey work that that is a fundamental fact.

NC: Okay so if these skills are holding people back and we want to push them forward with them Rebecca Wallis what do you do in your organisation? I mean if you look at your website there's an awful lot about the value you place on these kind of things, how do you nurture people and help them to develop these skills so that they can use them in their day-to-day business life, and of course it’s particularly important now because they’re not learning from each other in an office, in the main people are working virtually?

RW: Yeah to pick up on your first point I think virtually it is hard, I think to really engender and embed these skills to some extent you do need to interact with other people, but that aside in terms of what we’re doing, so we have a long history of leadership programmes where the soft skills are structured with people in support and training and measured to some extent but measured in terms of output interestingly. So someone would have an example of a project they wanted to do, how they'd work with a team, and then that would have to be a distinct return on investment. Picking up on Lizzie’s point around essential skills, something we’re doing going forward or are currently in the process of doing is actually embedding within our leadership programmes, within our other programmes, some of the core essential skills through the Skills-builder Framework, which do have levels from 1 - 15 which can be measurable. So in terms of putting someone in you can assess where someone starts on a particular skill like listening, put some intervention in, some support in and then measure again if they’ve increased in those skills. And that's what we’re looking to do, going forward we’re looking at currently particularly looking at for younger people, for apprentices coming in, those leaving school or education, but also for middle managers, for people who've been with us a long, long time. so I think there is something in there that has a lot of potential in terms of, one, being recognised when we talk about the language, and different people do use different languages and different terms for soft skills, but also how we measure the effectiveness of any interventions. And those can be multiple, online, face-to-face, coaching and mentoring are amazing for developing people’s soft skills and skills generally. But again those can be tailored to the learner or tailored to the circumstances that we find ourselves in.

NC: Phil, though do you want to pick up that point about measuring, training, actually working with people, what do you think is helpful, because we all know managers and colleagues who are super deficient in people skills?

PL: I was really interested to hear that list of things from Rebecca that they’re doing because it is true that these kind of skills are fiendishly difficult to measure often and I mean back in the 90s Coopers & Lybrand, as it was then, just before they became PWC, spent several years and a lot of money trying to develop a system called Econometrics, and the idea of this is that it will give you hard measures of what HR activities were delivering, so that you could go to the finance director and say, ‘See look at all the value I'm creating, let me have a bigger budget,’ but they couldn’t do it, they couldn’t make it work. But I think that, picking up on one of Rebecca’s examples you measure and then you measure again, one client of mine did a very good job of building, this was around organisational values, I know this is a bit of a minefield to get into and we haven’t mentioned them yet but organisational values which were all about promoting the softer side of this organisation, and this was a manufacturing organisation so they were taking it really seriously. So what they did was they went to the annual performance review process and they said, ‘Right we’re going to split it 60/40, 60% of your annual review is on your business delivery, 40% is on you living our values.’ And I was the person who was leading the workshops for leaders in the organisation to help them, support them, in how to run their reviews. And of course what everyone was saying was, ‘Well how can I tell if someone’s living the values, you can't measure that it’s not a hard thing?’ What we got them doing was having the equivalent conversation that you would have if you were setting a goal for someone. So in someone’s business performance you set a goal at the beginning of the period, the year or the quarter, or whatever it is, and then you come back and you see how they’ve done against that goal. And the values equivalent of this was to have a kind of little bit of a debate and discussion between the leader and the individual to say, ‘Okay if you were going to live this particular value you, in your job, at the moment with everything else going on, what would we need to see you doing that would tell us that you were living it?’ So they'd have that kind of dialogue early on in the process and then the manager would know what to look at and what they were going to be observing to help them gather some data and the employee knew very clearly what it was that they were being observed on and what they were being assessed, for want of a better word, on and so there was a great openness about the process. So I think the measures very often they can be subjective, which is what some people struggle with, but if they’re subjective and agreed and both manager and employee know what it is that is being measured then I think it can actually be much more easy than people think to do that.

LC: Yes I think that is the key point here. We’ve done quite a bit of work in this space and actually what the framework, the Skills-builder Framework is most useful for in many respects is to being a self-reflective development tool. So it’s very detailed, it’s broken down into these, you can sort of self-assess yourself. The interesting thing is though that actually when we got HRDs in organisations to look at these detailed breakdowns they say well they’ve got people in senior management positions who maybe score only a level three at some communication skills, so I think having some combination of self-reflection and 360 degree feedback around these skill sets. But I suppose there is a challenge here because it’s easy to talk for instance to an employee or to someone in your leadership team and say, ‘Well you've got this technical skill gaps missing, we need to offer you some training in this area,’ but if you actually say to someone, ‘Well I don't think you're necessarily that good at this type of softer skill,’ so working in a team and you’ve broken that down, I mean it is a more challenging conversation to have with employees when you’re identifying weaknesses in this area. And also we need to recognise that they often take quite a long time to change because it’s not a change in knowledge that you’re seeking it’s a change in knowledge and behaviour. So they do take longer and it sometimes can be a bit more of a challenge to talk about them.

PL: I think there's a very simple thing you can do, if you want to give somebody a message that says in effect, you are not delivering on this soft skill, you just need to do the same thing, or you need to create a missing link to be the equivalent of a business area. So in other words you tell them what the impact is of them not doing this particular thing. There's an aspect of your team working which is deficient and the impact of that is going to be that the team will not meet its goals and therefore the business will lose this and this. So in other words you turn it into a hard business measure further down the chain and that then makes the link for people I think and they can see why it’s so important.

NC: Rebecca Wallis, the buck stops with people in a job like yours, just tell us how soft skills specifically help you personally in your daily work leading human resources?

RW: I guess to some extent as an HR manager you do need to be a role model in a role model department, to sort of walk the talk as it were, and how does it help me in my day-to-day work? I think in terms of when you talk about things like listening, you talk about things like speaking, communicating, all key skills, they are things that you do need to ideally be pretty good at because you are talking effectively the voice of the organisation, you’re talking to managers, in Phil’s words, to try and help them to be better managers effectively.

NC: Do you ever have to remind yourself to do these things?

RW: At a very personal level I think I do try to be very authentic and work in a way which is, but I do also recognise it comes very naturally to me so kind of like I'm inside the organisation and I'm outside the organisation like that. I also recognise it doesn’t always come but that's through years of experience, years of learning, years of getting it wrong I think it’s fair to say. And yes I'm not perfect, I'm not trying to imply that. But do I have to remind myself? I think at times it can. I think what’s interesting actually when we think back to the last 12 months is there are times I think where we were making decisions with very, very, very little data and you’re having to make quite quick decisions, quite hard decisions, as we said earlier, and I think at those times is the times where I felt gosh normally I would have listened, I would have spoken, I would have asked, I would have gathered views, and things like that, and that’s where you kind of get that conflict between actually utilising your soft skills, your essential skills and actually just having to get the job done in the best way possible. But yes a good question.

NC: And Lizzie Crowley let’s go down the food chain a little bit to the rank and file people working in human resources, just a quick thought or two from you on which in a way are the most useful skills to deploy and how you can acquire them if you don't have them?

LC: Well I think everyone has skills in these areas, it’s being able to reflect on actually where some of your weaknesses and your development needs lie as an individual. So we all have experience of working in teams and I think one of the key things which have been shown to be incredibly powerful here is around having a mentor. And Rebecca mentioned earlier about the importance of mentoring and coaching initiatives internally. So we’ve set up, CIPD, some of our own mentoring networks with senior HRDs and people working within the HR profession at a lower level because we recognise the critical importance of having someone you can listen to, talk problems through, and actually to be able to identify areas where you maybe need to go away and work to improve on certain skillsets and it’s absolutely critical for these skills in particular.

NC: And Phil what about people who are just starting their career, often in HR, they're doing a lot of process stuff, in many ways they probably don't get chance to interact with people enough, especially with remote working, so how do they actually learn these skills?

PL: First of all there are some fundamental basics that anybody, regardless of role or in the situations that you describe, can learn. For example, if you look at motivation theory one of the fundamental things that underpins most motivation is a feeling of significance. So in other words if you could make all your employees feel significant, i.e. that they matter, that you notice them and so on, and the very simplest way to do that is to make eye contact with them, which people don't do any more. And I think, for example, one of the reasons that people find Zoom, Teams and other virtual platforms so tiring is no one’s looking at you, no one’s making eye contact with you, we’re all kind of looking somewhere else on the screen. So your person, for example, whose got a pretty heavy desk job, not interacting with people very much, if all they did when somebody came over and said, ‘Have you got a moment,’ was stop what they were doing and looked the person in the eye and listened to them for a moment, that would have such an impact on that individual who spends their days going around with everybody multi-tasking and not paying them any attention at all. And your junior HR person would find all of a sudden that they’re getting quite highly rated by people for being a very effective people person, and all they’re doing is just paying somebody some attention when they talk to them.

LC: I do think though we have a bit of a challenge here with the current working arrangements, particularly for new labour market entrants, and many of these skills are learnt by observing your more senior colleagues and how they behave in certain situations and so on. So actually for young people I think they are missing out a big part of their career development at the moment by us all being forced to work in these ways. Technology has got some great solutions to help support people, peer-to-peer learning communities and so on, but I don't think that's ever going to take the place of actually real world experience of seeing people behave in a more normal, sorry I'm just trying to find a way to…

NC: At least you didn’t mention the new normal, so that was something. 

LC: Yeah.

NC: Rebecca Wallis 

RW: Yeah I agree with you. I think at the moment we haven’t been in a position to heavily recruit but things that we would have done in the past such as work placement, work experience, when we’re talking young people, entry level roles, I'm struggling at the moment to know how to do that in an effective way because you’re absolutely right the role modelling of seeing what happens, even the apprentices in the past who’d just bring a notebook and a pen to a meeting, you know you wouldn’t say that because you couldn’t actually see it on video calls, you can only see a certain amount of space. So I think that there is a whole, well I don't want to say a whole generation because that's not strictly true, but you know there is a whole tranche of people who will miss out on accelerating those essential skills, those soft skills at the very beginning of their career. And picking up on Phil’s point, those things, those small little differences that people can make are massive in terms of not just their own career and development but in terms of the people they interact with and the overall impact. So I think it’s quite troubling at the moment.

NC: Okay so just looking at how we can just continue developing and using some of these essential soft skills in 2021, Phil do you think we’ve got to peak soft skills because of the pandemic or will we actually need them more in the future?

PL: I think yes to the extent that people are feeling pretty bruised pandemic-wise, they’re feeling quite lost and I think having a workplace that makes them feel important and feel like they matter is going to go a long way towards, from a collective mental health point of view, I think will be a very, very good thing that organisations can do. But having said that the other thing that a lot of people are complaining about in the pandemic time is they don't get any clarity, they don't know what’s going on, and I think that's edging into your hard skills, but I think that's something that organisations could really bear in mind is people want clarity, they want somebody to look them in the eye, well you know obviously look them in the eye, from what I said before, look them in the eye and say, ‘This is what we expect, this is what we want you to do, this is how we’d like you to do it all’ whatever that conversation is. But clarity and simplicity along with empathy I think that's hard to get the two in balance sometimes but a combination of the two could work really well.

NC: And Lizzie Crowley some of us who've worked through the analogue age and gone into the digital age another thing is that in order to get things done we need to influence people, often virtually, often perhaps when we wouldn’t necessarily have the real authority in the organisation to do it, and I suppose that's where soft skills come in?

LC: Yes I mean negotiating and influencing individuals has been an incredibly important soft skill that individuals really need to learn and develop over the course of their careers and I think just coming back to the question you asked Phil there about are these things going to be less important 2021 when we come out of the pandemic, I mean my view is that these skills are only going to become even more important as technology continues to reshape work and actually a lot of the more routine, or some of the more technical skills become automated. It is these things, if you think about it from the HR perspective, some of those processes you mentioned earlier about tasks people might be doing earlier on in their careers those things are more vulnerable to automation and the ability to work together, to interrogate, to critically think, to negotiate, to influence, those things will only become more important and you can't automate those.

NC: Rebecca Wallis final thought from you.

RW: Absolutely, I was just going to absolutely agree with what Lizzie says and I think when people have looked at this research and I'm a firm believer in this, I think if we can see the essential skills, soft skills as the foundation for any job, and we know lots and lots of people are going to have to retrain, upskill, cross-skill, over the coming decade and beyond but every job you look at in theory, and in my belief it is done better by having good core skills. So that's the foundation, the building block for every other job with the technical aspects overlaid, is fundamental too as we go forward into the future. So my belief is that they do become more and more important as people move careers.

NC: Rebecca Wallis thanks very much indeed, fundamental indeed. And certainly one of the things I've learnt today, even as we talked through many aspects of these skills it’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking soft skills are about being soft, when of course it’s to do with how you use your head in any situation, and as we’ve heard we’ve all got to work on those soft skills to get through 2021. It would certainly be a shame if we don't use them more to influence others.

Now a quick word, last month we talked about how to change your organisation’s learning culture, we touched on that a bit this time too, so it was pleasing to see a post afterwards from a retailer in these troubled times, Carpetright, saying they’re appointing a new head of L&D to spearhead simple but effective strategies to inspire colleagues and retain talent so they become an employer of choice. So just what we were talking about. And that all important podcast we did about employment life after Brexit that's still up and very relevant at the moment.

You can see that and all our other podcasts on the CIPD website, so please subscribe so you don't miss any. But until next time from all of us here, from Lizzie Crowley, Rebecca Wallis and Phil Lowe thank you very much indeed. Thanks for listening. Goodbye and keep safe.

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