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Ed Hess on why workplace soft skills are important

Soft skills will become even more important as automation increases. Learn what top workplace soft skills organizations will need and how to enable training.

As automation increases in the digital age, leaders' and employees' soft skills will become critically important to getting -- and keeping -- a competitive edge.

That's one of the critical takeaways Edward D. Hess, author of Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change, would like business and HR leaders to understand. Hess is an author, business consultant and professor of business administration at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. He focuses on innovation, principled leadership and creating a better learning culture. With his latest book, Hess tackles hyper-learning and the practical ways humans can stay relevant as automation becomes more widespread.

Hess delves into why soft skills are a key aspect of hyper-learning, shares some top soft skills and explains how employers can create a learning culture to cultivate soft skills.

Innovative thinking for the digital age

What is hyper-learning?

Ed Hess: Hyper-learning is the process of being able to adapt to the digital age by being able to learn, unlearn and relearn at the speed and pace of change, which technology is going to drive.

Business performance in the age of artificial intelligence

Why are soft skills an important aspect of hyper-learning?

Edward D. Hess headshotEdward D. Hess

Hess: Humans are going to have jobs [only] if they can add value in ways technology can't. They need to be able to think in ways that the technology can't and be able to emotionally connect and relate in positive ways with other human beings. Those activities are heavily dependent on soft skills.

Which soft skills are most important?

Hess: There are several: humility, empathy, compassion, mindfulness, courage, reflective listening, resilience, curiosity, emotional intelligence and a few more.

Workplace learning for positive emotions

How can business and HR leaders help their employees start to learn these soft skills?

Hess: Consider your strategic objective, and choose six to seven soft skills that will increase the probability of you achieving that strategic objective. Then define those soft skills in concrete behavioral terms. For example, what observable, measurable behaviors demonstrate humility? What observable behaviors evidence a lack of humility?

Book cover Hyper-LearningTo learn more about this
book, click the book cover.

Then each person takes a diagnostic [test] and determines the top two soft skills they need to improve, and every person undertakes the personal work to improve those skills. Once that is accomplished, they choose two more soft skills to work on.

Who defines what those concrete behaviors are? For example, should organizations bring in a consultant who specializes in soft skills training? Or is it the CEO or someone else?

Hess: Generally, defining the soft skills starts at the top. Leadership must buy into the training strategy and ultimately model the desired behaviors. Yes, it helps to have a professional facilitator, but the facilitation is experiential -- a learn-by-doing approach. Having a consultant define the behaviors and deliver a list saying "here is how you should behave" will not optimize results. Doing the hard work of defining the behaviors is a making-meaning learning process [that] increases buy-in and commitment to the process. [A making-meaning learning process focuses on how the learner actively makes sense of what they are learning.]

Leadership picks the soft skills from a list based on the behaviors needed to accomplish the strategic objective. Then a team of senior leaders with a facilitator defines the sub-behaviors that would evidence the desired behavior and the sub-behaviors that would evidence the lack of the desired behavior.

Business leaders, continuous learning and organizational performance

From #MeToo to diversity problems to other negative issues, we've seen examples in recent years where top corporate leadership has not demonstrated positive examples of soft skills. How can leaders set the right behaviors when they may not be the best people to understand them?

Hess: People at the top have got to have a personal "why" to focus on soft skills and help their employees learn them and why it's in the organization's best interest to do this. What's going to differentiate organizations going forward is not the technology, but the value humans can add that technology can't.

The two biggest obstacles to adult learning and change are ego and fear. And yet, the two reasons why many senior executives buy into this process is ego or fear: They want to be winners, or they fear losing or not having a legacy. They must work on increasing the desired behaviors and decreasing the behaviors which inhibit the desired behaviors. It comes down to this: If the senior leadership does not buy into the need to focus and role model the desired soft skills, the initiative won't be successful.

If predictions are right about the digital age and what technology and automation will be able to do, companies that don't develop employees' soft skills will have a lower probability of being successful.

Leadership development for social intelligence

At this point many business cultures are based on a survival-of-the-fittest competitive model.

You work with many leaders who do care about empowering soft skills like kindness and compassion. What differentiates leaders who care about these types of qualities and those who don't?

Hess: So much depends on how a person was raised, their background, how they became successful. Some leaders have good soft skills because they worked in entities where those were valued, or they had a personal life experience that required them to transform how they behave. [On the other hand,] many leaders have not had to focus on soft skills because they were able to be successful without them. That is going to change.

At this point, many business cultures are based on a survival-of-the-fittest competitive model. That doesn't lend itself to the type of environment that we're talking about. Focusing on things like empathy, humility, mindfulness and collective intelligence will be a major change, and there will be people that don't buy into it.

Control over human emotions for better behavioral performance

You're a proponent of meditation. What does it offer that's so important?

Hess: Our mind is typically a chatterbox, judging ourselves and distracting us. Mindfulness meditation trains you to focus -- to be fully present in the moment and regain your focus if your mind interrupts that. 

The goal ultimately is inner peace -- having a quiet ego, a quiet mind, a quiet body and being in a positive emotional state. That enables one to truly listen in a non-judgmental manner and to be more open-minded and not react reflexively or defensively when someone disagrees with you -- all of which enables hyper-learning and higher quality collaboration.

A key strategic differentiator in the digital age will be the quality of the conversations in the workplace. That is highly dependent of how people manage themselves and how they behave.

You can download a book chapter for free here.

About the author
Diann Daniel is a senior site editor in TechTarget’s Enterprise Software and Services Media Group. She oversees SearchHRSoftware, SearchERP and SearchSAP.

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