Though I was always proficient in my science and math classes growing up, I’ve never really been much of a STEM guy. Honestly, I don’t remember hearing the acronym during my time in high school at the turn of the millennium. Common usage of the term might be newer than that, but maybe it’s further evidence of how disconnected my writer brain was from the worlds of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
For those who may not know, STEM teaching is a focused educational category with an aim toward preparing students for the rapidly evolving technology and skills of the modern workplace. A solid goal, for sure, but at some point the folks in charge of such things realized that humans are not technical-skills robots, so more recently “arts” was added (perhaps begrudgingly?) into the acronym to make it STEAM. In doing so, they threw us a bone, with a nod toward the idea that success in the workplace cannot rely on knowledge and technical expertise alone. It also takes communication and at least a little bit of creativity.
Most recently, “reading” was thrown in there to make it STREAM. Another acknowledgement that there might be more to (earning a) living than the ability to employ hard, practical skills.
While I may be manufacturing some of the tension between “hard” and “soft” skills here, the reality of the situation is that a successful, well-rounded employee will need to use both types of skills. The running gag for liberal arts/humanities degrees like mine is, “Okay, good for you! What are you going to do with it?” Fair enough. I would argue that learning is a legitimate end unto itself, and that the critical thinking, communication, and creativity engendered by study of the arts have their place in the more practical world of work. But what good are creative ideas that never escape the mind into the real world?
Likewise, though, you can have all the technical expertise possible in your field, but at some point you are going to have to interact with other people — customers, colleagues, supervisors — in order for your skills to have any practical application. Expert skills that exist only within a void are not actually “practical” no matter how much you can do with them.
“Softer” people skills are, of course, more intangible — more difficult to both test and train for — than their “harder,” knowledge-based counterparts. An employee either knows Excel or they don’t, can code in C++ or can’t, and any gaps in knowledge can be filled with training and experience. It’s much harder to gauge an employee’s (or interviewee’s) active listening abilities, for example, and equally harder to train for.
Still, especially in these trying pandemic times, soft “people skills” are more important than ever. Customer expectations, and stress levels, seem to be at an all-time high. Demand for services, such as fast delivery and responsive customer service, has only increased, even as the pool of available workers across multiple sectors has seemed to decrease. Emotional intelligence? That deinifely needs to increase, too.
Soft skills can be the differentiator
Not every company can afford to change their business practices, to offer free shipping or lower prices, for example. Delivery itself is nearing the threshold of physical possibility — how much faster can we go than same-day delivery (and who can afford to compete with Amazon, anyway)?
In tighter markets with narrower profit margins, where throwing more money at problems is not a feasible solution, a company’s success and ability to differentiate itself from competitors can depend on its employees’ soft people-skills: their ability to connect and communicate with customers and their fellow employees in effective — that is, patient and compassionate — ways.
So, here’s the paradox: though intangible soft skills like creativity, critical thinking, empathy, and active listening are more important than ever for a company’s continued success, they are also much more difficult to account and train for than hard technical skills. But anybody with any type of public-facing role will need both, so we’ve come up with a few best practices to help.
- Identify the most desirable soft skills for your field/workplace and hire toward them. Ask targeted questions in interviews and pay attention, as much as possible, to intangibles (active listening, adaptability, flexibility.)
- Identify current employees’ strengths and gaps through focused surveys.
- Train up your workforce. It’s easy to wrap your mind around training someone for institutional skills like how to drive a forklift or how to separate a catalyst in a centrifuge. That kind of training will most likely be institutional and internal (or in some cases may have occurred before hiring). If you don’t already have a system in place for soft skill training, however, you might need to go outside of the organization. Many online and in-person options are available through a focused Google search.
- Outside of separate focused training, find opportunities to increase communication and collaboration. Soft skills are essentially about how one interacts with the people around them, so the best way to increase fluency every day is to interact with people. Foster a workplace where open communication is possible and encouraged.
- Recognize softer achievements. Use customer compliments and complaints as teaching moments. We have argued before the value of combining the unique powers of individuals within inclusive workspaces.
Way back in high school, I had a conversation with my senior-year English teacher — one of my favorite people in the world — where I essentially questioned what role someone like me might have out in the real world. I was a strong student, successful in most subjects, but my true love — and what seemed most suited to my brain — was writing and literature. Our class that year was called “Science and Ethics,” a survey of speculative and factual science writing, including work from such authors as Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, Carl Sagan, and Richard Preston.
His response to my ennui was perfect (at least to my 17-year-old ear): “We always need work that appeals to the heart, not just the mind.”
Making softer skills more of a priority focus in your organization acknowledges that employees and the customers they communicate with are whole people with logical minds, yes, but also with complex emotional hearts to be handled lightly and with care.