Over the last few years, I have written a lot of good things about technology in my articles. I have tried to show it from the best possible perspective. Mainly because I firmly believe that with it, we can change the world around us for the better. However, as well as being an engineer by education (and passion), I also have a touch of the humanist in me, for whom the needs, happiness and free development of human beings come first. I have always believed that technology is for people, not the other way around and that people should be put at the centre.
It is my conviction that, as high-tech people, we focus our attention primarily on achieving expertise in a narrow field. We dismiss, as implicitly unnecessary, all kinds of social skills. Even when, in the course of gaining experience, we see our problems on the line with another human being, when we manage to achieve ‘mastery’ in a particular field, the next path chosen is again the technical one (usually involving deepening the knowledge we have gained) rather than the human one. Meanwhile, this is a huge mistake.
As the McKinsey report shows, it is estimated that between 400 and 800 million workers worldwide will have to change jobs by 2030 due to automation. Technical skills are dying out faster and faster, with some experts even estimating their lifespan to be just a few years.
57% of senior managers say that social skills are more important than technical skills.
In order to create people-centred solutions, i.e. solutions that help solve our everyday problems, we need to be close to the people for whom we are creating the solutions. It is impossible to:
- understand the needs of others without empathy and communication skills,
- improve company processes without understanding the nature of the problem of those who face the challenges,
- create a solution to help, e.g. chronically ill patients without entering their world and empathising with their situation,
- to design a tool to connect different departments in a company for people with heterogeneous needs and requirements without focusing on relationships, active listening and creative thinking.
How do we find a consensus or propose a solution when we have millions of ideas in our heads, but none of them we can verbalise or outline in such a way that another person (especially a non-technical person) understands the values behind them? How do we help when we are unable to empathise with our interlocutor’s situation (it does not have to be all about emotion, it is about empathy and critical thinking, among other things)?
How do we define people skills
The skills I write about are often called soft skills. I am not fond of this name because I don’t understand why it should be so. Does it mean that they are bland, watered down, unspecific, bendable, yielding and without fixed form? The term ‘soft’ does not reflect what they actually are, which is why I definitely like to call them social or people skills. This gives us, as technical people, an idea of (more or less) the range of incoming data for this set.
While most people are hired for their technical skills, their people skills provide them with ‘career longevity’.
People who have strongly developed human skills are able to establish better, more valuable and deeper relationships with other people. This, in turn, provides a strong foundation for positive outcomes in terms of innovation, adaptive and critical thinking and successful cooperation with colleagues or customers.
When we look at the Future of Work Global Hiring Outlook study, we can see that when asked to identify the most important skills they expect from employees, organisations cited skills such as:
- problem-solving skills.
These skills are directly related to our ability to relate to other people and relate to the aspects described below.
Along with compassion, it involves a genuine concern for others. Through empathy, we are able to understand the situation another person is in and their perspective. Empathy is not something that comes first to mind when talking about modern technologies, especially when all we want is to specialise in one of them. However, empathy is part of our daily work, and we should cultivate it in order to maintain harmony and also to understand the problems we want to solve with technology.
For example, being a software engineer is not just about delivering the code itself. It is a complex and intricate role where you have to look at millions of different contexts and be able to bring them together. In the main, it is based on empathy and understanding another human being in order to make the process you want to improve useful.
Additionally, according to an article published in the Harvard Business Review, authored by Rasmus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter and Louise Chester – of the more than 1,000 leaders surveyed, 91% said that compassion (linked to empathy) is very important to be a good manager, and 80% would like to increase their compassion for others, but don’t know how to do it.
Meanwhile, empathy and compassion are prerequisites for effective and genuine communication.
With strong skills in verbalising our thoughts and presenting them, we are better able to work in teams, and communicate among ourselves, but also to announce needs or solutions taking into account the recipient of our messages. This is a particularly important but also extremely difficult skill in the age of remote or hybrid working.
- 86% of employees and managers cite a lack of effective collaboration and communication as the main reasons for failure in the workplace,
- 74% of employees feel that they lack good communication within the company,
- 80% of US employees report feeling stressed due to ineffective communication,
- 28% of employees feel that poor communication is the cause of their inability to get work done by a certain date,
- according to a report by David Grossman (involving 400 large companies and 100,000 employees), it is estimated that the cost of communication barriers in the workplace is $62.4 million per company per year.
The art of communication helps scientists or engineers to communicate their or their team’s findings in a logical, structured and clear way. It gives a different dimension to the visualisation of ideas, solutions or data. It allows the people for whom we are presenting (e.g. decision-makers) to see things from a different perspective. By taking an interesting approach to storytelling, stakeholders gain a new sense of understanding of the data or solutions presented and can use them in the future (e.g. to support decisions).
Maciek Pawlowski talks brilliantly about the consequences of poor communication in his podcast ‘Foundations of the Organisation‘. You can find the whole thing in the video below:
Trust is one of the key and indispensable elements for the teams we work in to be successful. It is the basis of everything relating to interpersonal cooperation. It has to be built in order to get on with other tasks. When people work in a team where they feel safe and trust the other members, they are able to do their work to the best of their ability. Creating such an environment is not an easy task, but you can start by being authentic, honest, transparent and empathetic.
- According to the survey “Perspectives on Trust”, 23% of 1,202 American adults said they would be willing to offer more ideas and solutions if they trusted their leaders and colleagues,
- a third of respondents said they would be a member of a team longer if its leaders kept their promises,
- according to Edelman’s ‘Trust Barometer’ (a survey of 33,000 people in 28 countries), one in three people do not trust their employer/leader they work with,
Meanwhile, employees who trust their employers experience 74% less stress and 40% less burnout.
Critical and creative thinking
Creative and critical thinking is essential for us to be able to bring fresh ideas, services or products to market. Without this, no startup or technology company has a chance to break out.
Already in 2015, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, creative and critical thinking skills came second and third on a list listing the most important skills we will need to thrive in the industrial revolution.
Then in 2020, at the same Forum, the Future of Jobs Report indicated that by 2025. 50% of all workers will require retraining due to the increasing use of technology. Critical thinking and problem solving continued to top the list of skills that employers believe will become increasingly important.
As artificial intelligence and automation develops, creative and critical thinking skills will be increasingly needed to supplement what machines still cannot achieve. For example, for data engineers, critical thinking enables objective analysis of a problem. It also allows them to formulate questions correctly and determine how data can move the organisation closer to its desired course of action.
According to a report by the Society for Human Resource Management, 84% of recruiters said there was a deficit in key social skills such as creative and critical thinking among job candidates. This is evidence of how desirable this trait is becoming in the job market.
Let’s look at the real data
The value of social skills can already be seen even in children. Those who possess them are more likely to progress academically (Caprara, 2000; Denham, 2006; Wentzel, 1991) or rate themselves as happier (Ryan and Deci, 2001).
Moving on into adulthood, they are ‘simpler’ than those who do not develop their empathy, critical thinking, presentation or communication skills.
According to LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends report, 89% of recruiters say that when a hire doesn’t work out, the reason is usually a lack of social skills. 77% of managers are looking for employees who can think critically, and when it comes to hiring 46% of them say that new hires nevertheless need to improve their communication skills.
Looking the other way, 70% of employees dealing with managers (including technical managers ) who were described as having low levels of emotional intelligence said that their main feelings about working for the company were negative.
Stanford Research Institute International, in its research, identified that 75% of human competence is responsible for success, compared to 25% when it comes to technical skills.
This is also supported by LinkedIn Learning’s research, which shows that almost 57% of senior managers say that social competencies are more important than technical ones. Interestingly, interpersonal communication skills topped the majority of lists describing desired competencies – 88% from 41 sources.
I didn’t study computer science to have to talk to people
This is a phrase I often quote. I use it as a joke now, but I nevertheless sympathised with it for a long time. As a technical person, who is a researcher by nature, I like to surround myself with data, structures, and what is tangible, understandable and certain.
When dealing with another human being (on first encounters), we very often encounter unfamiliar territory. We have to quickly analyse what comes to us and react in real-time. The inability to collect enough data to make inferences makes us very uncomfortable. The same is true when, as specialists in a narrow field, we need to verbalise our thoughts for a non-technical person. This causes a short circuit in the circuits of our system, and we feel so uncomfortable that we would rather remain silent than offend the other person in some way or be perceived as a freak.
So it’s worth mentioning that, according to a McKinsey report, teams that are well aligned and know how to communicate see an increase in their productivity by as much as 20-25%.
Looking into guides on how to carry out digital transformation in companies, we would expect a super-strong emphasis on technology. Meanwhile, we can see that at the forefront of all the process elements, we need to focus on people (employees and customers) and build empathy-based relationships with them. So if even digital transformation is based on human skills, we cannot overlook the value flowing from them.
Unlike hard skills, which can be learned from a textbook, practice or experts, social skills are more difficult to learn. They are more like feelings or insights that allow us to ‘read’ others. They are also much more difficult to measure and evaluate. On the market, we can find a large number of special courses, tutorials and even higher education courses to help in this area. However, I believe that they will be nothing if we do not get out in front of our discomfort and go into practice. I have a phrase that I repeat to myself (and sometimes to others) whenever I have to do something that causes me some discomfort:
I planted flowers in my comfort zone, but nothing grows there
When we leave a place that is safe, comfortable and that we know, we expose ourselves, in a way, to ‘danger’. So much so that without this, we will not be able to grow. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to people skills, but basically any new skill we want to acquire.
Nothing makes us masters like experience. Therefore, the earlier we start working on transparent, honest and other-centred communication, the easier it will be to learn empathy, and critical thinking and build trust.
Empathy cannot be learned from a textbook and certified. It is best to start by opening up to our interlocutor, giving them 100% of our attention and trying to imagine ourselves in their situation. To improve communication in our workplace, to start with, we can try to simplify the things we say, keep our feet on the ground and try to keep statements about proposed solutions to no more than 30 seconds. It’s also worth taking a look at the communication courses and materials available for startups. They show you how to talk about your idea in three minutes, outlining the solutions to your target audience’s problems, the entire market, business model, timeline, teams, sales, etc., so as to interest the audience and maximise their attention.
Organisations around the world are spending millions on ideas and solutions related to ‘digital transformation’. Yet a significant proportion of the initiatives undertaken fail to deliver the expected results. One of the reasons for this is that organisations focus only on technology. They forget that it is the human being that should always come first and that the ability to adapt to an even more digital future depends on the development of our human skills.
Sources and supplementary materials:
https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/0618/pages/why-trust-matters-at-work.aspx https://haiilo.com/blog/trust-in-the-workplace-why-it-is-so-important-today-and-how-to-build-it/ https://hbr.org/2017/01/the-neuroscience-of-trust https://virtualspeech.com/blog/importance-soft-skills https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/summer2021/pages/why-soft-skills-are-important.aspx https://futureofsourcing.com/7-reasons-soft-skills-are-important-in-the-workplace https://www.peoplescout.com/insights/soft-skills-in-the-workplace/ https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1878929320301110 https://www.snhu.edu/about-us/newsroom/career/what-are-soft-skills https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/interviewing/why-are-soft-skills-important https://www.harvardbusiness.org/5-key-human-skills-to-thrive-in-the-future-digital-workplace/ https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/10/top-10-work-skills-of-tomorrow-how-long-it-takes-to-learn-them/