Ness Labs by Anne-Laure Le Cunff

Ness Labs: Nothing Soft about Soft Skills 💪

Published 8 months ago • 7 min read

Edition #203 – October 12th, 2023
The mindful productivity newsletter by Anne-Laure Le Cunff

Hello friends!
Next week, for the very first time, I will present the results of my own research at an academic conference. And, I have to tell you, public speaking is something that gives me pretty bad anxiety! I really wish we were taught more of those interpersonal skills in school — not just hard skills. So, this week, we'll talk about the history of soft skills and how they can change your life. I also recorded a video to explore a fascinating question: why is it that being alone sometimes feels great, and other times terrible? Enjoy this edition, and please wish me luck!

The Hard Truth about Soft Skills

For generations, hard skills have been prioritized over soft skills. Today, engineering and computer science education still places a strong emphasis on building technical expertise through math, science, and programming courses, with little attention paid to fostering interpersonal abilities.

Many parents and educators still operate under the assumption that academic achievement and hard skills should be the top priority. But success in today’s world depends just as much on soft skills like creativity, collaboration, empathy, and adaptability.

The Collins English Dictionary defines soft skills as the “desirable qualities for certain forms of employment that do not depend on acquired knowledge: they include common sense, the ability to deal with people, and a positive flexible attitude.”

Note the part that says soft skills do not depend on acquired knowledge. Indeed, many people think that soft skills cannot be taught or learned. Is that really the case?

Nothing soft about soft skills

The term “soft skills” was created by the U.S. Army in the late 1960s to refer to any skill that does not employ the use of machinery. Since then, interest in soft skills has greatly increased.

Here are the most in-demand soft skills according to a survey conducted by LinkedIn:

  1. Creativity
  2. Persuasion
  3. Collaboration
  4. Adaptability
  5. Time Management

It’s unfortunate that we chose to call such fundamental skills “soft”, making them sound somewhat weaker and less crucial to the job compared to hard skills.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. In today’s world, the average lifespan of a technical skill is roughly 18 months. Soft skills, by contrast, will never get obsolete, and can be transferred from role to role and anywhere outside the company.

Hard skills are linked to your ability to do a specific task, while soft skills are about the way you do them. As technology continues to evolve at breakneck speed, soft skills may be the only constant in an ever-changing work environment. In the most basic sense, hard skills will get you the job, but soft skills will make you excel at it.

There is in fact scientific evidence to this. A review from Rutgers University lists 19 research findings building a case for how emotional intelligence, a commonly used proxy for soft skills, contributes to the bottom line in the workplace. For example, one study found that leaders with higher emotional intelligence delivered greater profits—139% higher in one study—as well as higher customer satisfaction levels.

This was confirmed in a famous research study conducted with hundreds of employees by Google, called Project Aristotle. The goal of the study was to answer the question: “What makes a team effective?”

The big surprise? Hard skills did not top the list. Psychological safety—basically teammates being nice and caring—was the top factor in team performance, followed by dependability—being able to count on your teammates.

So what should we call “soft skills” instead? I vote for “life skills” but other people have suggested “power skills”. Whatever you want to call them, one thing is for sure: they are in demand. So, is there a way to teach or learn them?

Measuring soft skills

People say that you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. Fortunately, as I’ve discussed in the past, that’s a fallacy. But it’s still true that soft skills are incredibly hard to measure. There have been many attempts to create tests that would give a score assessing how well developed soft skills are in people, with no clear winner so far.

The most common approach is to measure people’s EQ, or Emotional Quotient. Some research found that one of the most important foundations of emotional competence — accurate self-assessment — was associated with superior performance among several hundred managers from twelve different companies. But EQ is only a small subset of soft skills.

Some people are trying to develop frameworks that touch on other specific aspects. A few years ago, Brent Hoberman announced a new business school called Founders Academy, where I was a faculty advisor to support the first cohort of students. The school focuses on developing your AQ, or Adaptability Quotient, a measure of how well you are able to thrive in a world of accelerating change.

You also have this paper which examines a new creativity test designed to test for CQ, or Creativity Quotient, using verbal tests and eye-tracking to measure engineers’ creative thinking skills. Collaborative Quotient, Persuasion Quotient… You can stick the word “quotient” to practically any soft skill, and you will find that someone has created a test to measure it, and many of them lack solid science to support them.

As you can see, measuring soft skills is actually hard work, and you may be better off focusing on developing your soft skills and measuring the impact they have on your work, your relationships, and your life in general, rather than creating a measurement scale for the skills themselves.

Life skills

There’s an increasingly large body of evidence showing that soft skills can help predict work performance. The consensus is that curiosity, emotional resilience, and general learning ability will make you better at your job. So, how can we go about developing these skills in people and yourself?

The main challenge is that you cannot just give people a step-by-step guide on how to be a nice person, or how to be a better listener. Reading about soft skills or watching a lecture is not enough. Soft skills need to be practiced, and the student needs a strong intrinsic motivation to learn them and incorporate them into their lives.

More than demonstration, soft skills require participation. Here are some learning approaches that do work when it comes to acquiring or improving soft skills:

  1. Coaching and mentoring. Research suggests that coaching significantly enhances motivation, coping skills, and overall emotional wellbeing. One of the most important aspects of coaching is to provide feedback, which helps people identify their key areas of improvement. This is crucial when it comes to soft skills, as people are pretty much unaware of their own soft skills, with only a 10% overlap between the skills people think they have, and the ones they actually have.
  2. Interactive training. There is strong evidence of the effectiveness of interactive training when it comes to learning soft skills. For example, many creativity training programmes do produce positive results. Again, the interactive part is essential! Soft skills cannot be taught through a good old traditional lecture.
  3. Online interventions. Interestingly, whether soft skills training is delivered online or offline doesn’t seem to matter. Which is pretty exciting if you’re thinking about learning new soft skills or improving existing ones — no need to travel far to attend face-to-face events.

One big caveat is that soft skills training works best for people who are motivated to improve these skills — and who therefore may need it the least.

But I personally find it extremely comforting to know that whatever your current levels of interpersonal and emotional skills... You can always improve them should you wish to invest some effort. Another example of the magic of lifelong learning!

🎬 Video of the Week

The Paradox of Alone Time

It feels awful to be lonely. But somehow we sometimes seek solace in solitude. Why are these two experiences of being alone so different?

While loneliness and solitude share their basis into the same fundamental experience, the way we interact with this experience gives rise to two different mental states.

Watch the video to learn how to turn crippling loneliness into creative solitude!

video preview

🛠️ Tool of the Week

Raycast is a blazingly fast and extendable launcher that lets you complete tasks, calculate, share common links, and much more. In this interview with its co-founder Thomas Paul Mann, we talked about how to make productivity truly personal, how to balance powerful features with ease-of-use, why everyone should customize their productivity tools, the power of app integrations, and much more. Enjoy the read!

🤝 Brain Trust

If you enjoy the newsletter, you'll love our community of curious minds who grow together through interactive workshops and safe discussion spaces. Here is what we have planned in the next few weeks:

• Mindful Productivity for Remote Workers: Don't miss today's workshop (9am PDT / 12pm EST / 5pm BST), where Jake Slater will teach us how to find flexibility in your schedule and make the most of it, how to plan your time to stay focused and productive, how to stay connected even if you're working alone.
• Your Relationship with Technology: Join Gosia on October 16th for a Creative Hour session where you will explore explore how technology has helped you learn and connect more, and how it may be problematic in other areas of your life.
• A Skill-Based Approach to Meditation: In this interactive session on October 30th (10am PDT / 1pm EST / 6pm BST), Ants Cabraal and Kyan Tan will share how to train your mind to be more focused, observant, and balanced, useful tips to develop a consistent meditation practice, closing with a short meditation practice together.
• Make progress on your projects: Join Javier for our weekly co-working on October 19th and 26th so you can progress on your projects while connecting with fellow community members.

All of these and future events are included in the price of the annual membership ($49), as well as access to the recordings of all our previous sessions and past cohort-based courses.

🌊 Brain Waves

If you enjoyed this edition, please share the love with fellow curious minds on Threads, Twitter, Instagram, or Whatsapp, or simply forward them this email.

Thank you for reading, and take care!

P.S. Here is one simple question to ask yourself when you're procrastinating.

Ness Labs by Anne-Laure Le Cunff

A weekly newsletter with science-based insights on creativity, mindful productivity, better thinking and lifelong learning.

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