Article

"It's not what you know, but who you are that counts"

‘Soft skills’, ‘human skills’, ‘generic labour market skills’, ‘21st century skills’ … There is no shortage of terms to describe the skills we use to soften hard knowledge. But ‘soft’ they are not. In fact, these days you can't do without human skills and function well in a professional capacity.

Why are these skills getting more and more important? What can companies do when assessing new employees? And what skills can employees use to lift themselves and their colleagues to higher levels? Professor Ans De Vos (of the Antwerp Management School) tells us more on this subject.

Bio

Prof. Dr. Ans De Vos is currently a professor at Antwerp University's Faculty of Business and Economics, department of Management, and at the Antwerp Management School.

Her main research subjects are sustainable careers, career development, career management, deployability and the psychological contract.

The hard- and human-skills mix

"It is amazing how apparently insoluble problems get resolved when somebody actually listens." This quote from Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung illustrates the importance of human skills in our everyday lives. And they are becoming even more important in the workplace. But employers searching for new talent are facing challenges set by our younger generations, who are looking for variation, continual feedback and an option-packed future.

Ans De Vos explains: “Nowadays, job-specific or technical skills are no longer a precondition for employability. For employers who aim to stay relevant, the human qualities of the employees are vital. Expertise hasn’t faded to the background in the digital era, but success rests on a combination of hard and soft skills. Business culture, the setting in which employees apply those skills, is a part of the picture too. In the coronavirus crisis, for example, we saw that human skills are crucial when it comes to weathering unexpected crises.”

Of the so-called ‘T‘ profile Ans De Vos says, “The vertical line of the T refers to technical, niche expertise. But there is also a horizontal line, which refers to things like teamwork, decision making, planning and organization ability, and anticipating the pitfalls in a job.”

"For employers who aim to stay relevant, the human qualities of the employees are vital."

Ans De Vos

Human skills are increasingly important on the labour market

Ans De Vos and her team have spent the last decade studying the importance and utilization of human qualities in Belgian businesses and organizations. Explaining the research methodology and results, she tells us: “From 2010 to 2017 we carried out semantic analyses of job vacancies and made a study of the sought-after profiles. Over that period we noted that while the demand for technical skills was present, it was gradually losing ground to human skills. These skills are clearly gaining ground as the economic realities and working environment become ever more complex. When it comes to safeguarding business processes, managing production lines and developing new products and services, teamwork is moving center stage. Businesses and organizations no longer have room for lone operators. Communication and consultation have become the important building blocks for successful entrepreneurship.”

Determining factors

What, according to Ans De Vos, has helped define the advance of human skills? “In some professions, we are seeing a rapid rise in the proportion of new technologies such as big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain and so on. Gathering data is simply no longer enough. Employees have to be able to interpret data, identify patterns and use their experience to override automatically-generated decisions. Human skills such as boldness, ability to synthesize, forward thinking and business acumen are becoming ever more important. The global context is evolving rapidly too: the employee with a 20 or 30-year service record is a thing of the past. These days people must be able to collaborate virtually, often in an international working environment of different cultures. Consider also, for example, employees who frequently find themselves switching teams in project management situations. This has the effect of pushing skills such as connectivity, adaptability, digital communication and virtual collaboration into ever more prominent positions.”

“Even management tasks are changing. The manager is no longer the ‘top of the class’ or the person who merely assembles the right experts. He or she has to make connections. Or, in other words, see to it that everyone collaborates effectively and reads from the same page to achieve the shared goals.”

What are the top-of-mind human skills today?

Ans De Vos highlights, from her own research, a few of the skills that she thinks are (now) indispensable in the workplace. “Employers are very keen on team players. Anyone who cooperates well and slots neatly into the team earns an extra stripe. But communication is and remains a crucial human quality. It continues to grow, due to the sheer number of (online and offline) communication channels and the fleeting nature of the messages passed. Communication is not just a matter of conveying a message clearly, but about being able to listen, and to see the other's viewpoint. When a team communicates well, not only do colleagues have the room to express their opinions, but they listen actively. They bounce off each other and find the balance between defending their own views and accepting another's perspective.”

“Other leading qualities are autonomy (the ability to work independently and initiate improvements) and thirst for knowledge. These days a diploma no longer guarantees that you have the education needed to assume a set of tasks across your career. With digitization and automation evolving briskly, and the volatility of the labour market, employees have to keep topping up their reservoirs of experience and expertise with new knowledge and human skills. This is what we describe as ‘learning agility’: a readiness to learn continually and an ability to rapidly develop effective new behaviours through new knowledge and experience. Anyone who is aware of this can come flying out of the starting blocks to build extra versatility and resilience.”

"Communication and consultation have become the important building blocks for successful entrepreneurship."

Ans De Vos

Desire for a challenging career and permanent feedback

According to Ans De Vos, successful businesses and organizations instill a growth mindset in employees, young and old alike. “We note that quite a few employers still tend to strengthen people in areas they already excel in. Most training courses are about improving the tasks that people do already, to keep them functioning in the same job. This really only encourages employees to show how well they have mastered existing work patterns. But they find it difficult to put new skills into practice when the company restructures or radically alters its job descriptions. In a growth culture employees are encouraged to be proactive about brushing up their knowledge of new (digital and human) skills, and so bring them to bear on new tasks with flexibility.”

Permanent feedback is also on the rise. This approach is essential when it comes to creating a learning culture that invites colleagues to step out of their comfort zone, and to learn and practise new skills. Without (permanent) feedback from their colleagues and clients, a person cannot possibly grow. And yet many people are afraid to take part in an open exchange. We are still overly focused on performance management, through the fear that identifying areas of professional improvement may have a negative impact on salary and career prospects.”

“I would certainly argue the case for making permanent feedback a matter of open discussion among young employees. I have even found that among my own students it can be hard, in terms of personal development and team dynamics, to give each other feedback. Research shows that people actually need the sort of feedback that they can learn from. And yet the feedback we keep giving each other is mostly confirmatory. I would like to see a turn in this trend.”