Bridging the gap between different demographics in the workplace, so that they get along well and form a cohesive team. Creating an environment where people feel that they have the support and acceptance to succeed. Being able to provide new hires, or even experienced personnel, with the guidance they need to improve. Finding ways to make people happy with the work they are doing, with their career track, with their path in the organization.
All these were among the markers of success highlighted in a virtual panel discussion on April 8, “Keeping Pace With Change: The Role of Soft Skills”. Organized by People Matters and pymetrics, the conversation looked into what it means to incorporate soft skills into an organization's talent strategy, and how these capabilities—typically difficult to quantify—can be effectively assessed and developed, then used to drive the organization's goals.
The first and most important point, according to panelists, is to recognize that non-quantifiable capabilities such as creativity, adaptability, communication, or other human qualities simply cannot be overlooked.
“We are not machines,” said Zahira Sughra Zainuddin, Head of Group Strategic Alliance at Petronas. “How we interact with each other, the kind of personal and interpersonal skills we have, is so important—it's critical to talent strategy.”
It helps the individual, too: “These are the skills that will help you make better decisions, and as you advance in your career, it will help you give better advice to internal or external stakeholders,” suggested Daniel Lee, Associate Director at Cognizant.
And on the organizational level, these skills are also critical to business strategy, said Steven Yudiyantho, Head of Human Capital Talent, Organization and Performance, PT Bank Mandiri. He pointed out that banks, for example, are heavily regulated, but also need to compete with each other, which involves a certain ability to innovate and take risks while still adhering to regulations. “How can we have a balance between compliance and creativity?” he asked.
“Human capital really plays an important role. Bankers today need to have another kind of profile, and the question is, how are we going to identify and develop people with that profile?”
The balance of technology and policy
With the accelerated digitalization of learning and development, it is simultaneously easier and more challenging to evaluate non-quantifiable skills. Many organizations—including the panelists'—have implemented tools and methodology such as psychometric tests, simulation, or gamification in their assessment and development processes, to measure characteristics such as self-awareness, emotional agility, or the ability to navigate complexity.
But having the tools is, of course, only one half of the solution. “At the end of the day, it is still the people who decide,” observed Yudiyantho. “Technology helps us to make decisions better, but you cannot neglect the human factor, especially when you are making a decision that deals with people.”
Lee, who heads Cognizant's campus recruitment initiatives for the APAC and Middle East regions, shared that the tools are most effective if the organization has a strategy that uses them in a purposeful and targeted manner. For instance, Cognizant uses its assessment tools to achieve retention of fresh graduate hires by examining traits such as decision making ability, emotional regulation, and risk tolerance.
“We use the results to see how they fit into the organization and the business unit that will be deployed to, and how we can understand them and manage them in future in the interests of retention,” he said. “And we engage them with our learning management system to make sure that they do have the right skills for the job, whether soft skills or technical skills. In all fairness, the tool is not for giving us a black and white 'to hire or not to hire' answer. It is more of a template to guide us.”
The considerations are similar for training employees in these skills, panelists agreed. The tools are a jumping-off point: the organization's culture and policy plays a major role. The organizational culture needs to be one that encourages continuous learning, which also means that employees need to be given the opportunity to practice the skills they learn.
“And feedback is very important,” Zahirah noted. “Culturally, we might not be as comfortable giving feedback, but we need to be honest, open, and transparent. We need to humanize it, especially if we are going to have those uncomfortable conversations—we need to be able to say 'Hey, I want to talk with you, I have a little bit of feedback for you'.”
Individual and organizational success as the best measure
How does one measure the progress or impact of non-quantifiable skills like empathy, resilience, or collaboration? Quite simply, in terms of success, said the panelists. It need not be a large and dramatic organizational success: it could be something as simple as an improvement in a single metric, or it could be the improvement of a project or team's performance.
“It's about shaping teams,” Zahirah said of the impact of these skills.
“Within an organization as large as ours, you can't do it overnight, but you can start by bringing the right people into a team, and slowly create small groups with the mindsets and behaviors that work.”
Yudiyantho shared an example he had encountered, where differences in communication and coaching styles between the older and younger generations had led to increased attrition of younger employees. By reframing how they approached coaching and encouraging them to treat it as a development dialogue, he managed to get the teams to adjust their communication styles and work better together, with the final outcome that attrition rates fell.
“That is a very simple way of using soft skills effectively to create something better,” he said. “Soft skills can help the organization to be more productive, to be more sustainable, and to achieve a greater certainty of course.”
Ultimately, the panelists said, soft skills are a major differentiating factor for individuals, and that trickles up to team level and even, on the wider scale, to organizational level.
“Soft skills are the soul of a worker,” said Yudiyantho. “You can have a brain, but if you do not have a soul, you cannot go.”
“It's the fuel in an individual that sparks passion and drive, that helps you achieve greater things,” Lee described it. “Think in terms of communications, managing expectations, teamwork, punctuality, critical thinking, social skills, and so forth—these things will drive your career further.”
“The skills that you have as a person will be what bring you forward,” predicted Zahirah. “That's going to be your differentiator. Yes, you need to learn the hard skills—the technical skills—because the jobs out there might have it as a basic requirement, but the soft skills is what will really take you forward. At the end of the day, soft skills are the skills that make us more human.”