Hard skills get you hired, poor soft skills could get you fired

Emotional intelligence seems to be on the wane in the modern workplace

If the way web company Yelp broke the recent news of job losses at its European headquarters in Dublin is anything to go by, chief executive Jeremy Stoppelman’s soft skills could do with improvement.

The announcement came during a conference call with analysts when Stoppelman essentially dispatched the Irish workforce in one line.

What sticks out about the incident is that he clearly didn’t see anything wrong with this.

Soft skills are intangible, they're not easy to measure and they conjure up "touchy feely" images that have people running for the exit.


But while difficult to pin down, most people recognise the soft skills gap when they see it and Stoppelman’s attitude is a good example.

Soft skills keep the wheels of inter-personal communication running smoothly. They are central to building employee commitment and morale and essential to good teamwork.

The soft skills net is wide and includes a person’s attitude to their job, their work ethic, how they interact with others, how they solve problems and how well they resolve conflict.

Simple things like making eye contact, expressing empathy, exhibiting emotional intelligence and showing old-fashioned courtesy are also on the list as are seemingly inconsequential trifles, such as offering a firm handshake and taking time to communicate face to face.

The problem in the world of work now is that these skills, previosuly learned as a natural part of growing up, are getting lost as more and more communication happens via the more impersonal text, email and social media.

Management consultant and writer Bruce Tulgan says that while the soft skills gap is most pronounced among younger workers "who have learned how to think, learn and communicate in a tidal wave of information while permanently attached to hand-held supercomputers", it is actually widening across all age groups.

"Soft skills may be harder to define and measure than hard skills, but they are just as critical. People get hired because of their hard skills but get fired because of their soft skills," says Tulgan who is no stranger to Irish life having worked here as an intern in the Department of Education under minister Gemma Hussey.

Different cultures

“The majority of our research comes from North America and Europe, including England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, France, Spain, Switzerland and Greece, and the soft skills gap has been rising in Europe as long as we’ve been tracking it,” he adds.

“Of course, it plays out somewhat differently in different cultures, but in Europe it has certainly developed along the same trend lines as in North America.

“The issues are roughly the same:

– matters of professionalism such as work habits and interpersonal skills;

– matters of critical thinking such as patient, deep-dive foundational learning and puzzling through problems;

– matters of followership, like reading and appreciating the prior context of a situation one is entering for the first time and organisational citizenship, service-mindset, and teamwork,” says Tulgan whose latest book is called Bridging the Soft Skills Gap.

The work of work is being driven deeper and deeper into process by the digital era, but businesses can’t survive in a vacuum.

Strong team skills, understanding organisational behaviour and knowing how to build and manage relationships are still what makes commerce tick and underpin good leadership.

Hard skills are important, but not necessarily the guaranteed fast track route to success as Mark de Rond, professor of organisational ethnography at the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge discovered during a study on performance.

Best method

As part of his research into how high performance sport can be relevant to business, de Rond spent months living and training with the elite athletes of the Cambridge Rowing team. The video he made about it is on YouTube and is called The Boat Race, A Perfect Crew.

The rowing squad is 40-strong but there are only eight places in the final boat so selection is critical. Most people would probably assume that the best method would be to pick the eight strongest and fastest performers. Wrong, says de Rond.

“You pick your best eight not your eight best,” he says.

The reason why is that while each rower is hugely talented in their own right, this can make it difficult for them to work together with the level of seamless collaborate required.

There often needs to be some trade off between technical competence (hard skills) and social intelligence (soft skills) to get the best out of a team as a whole, adds de Rond says..

Prof Patrick Flood, co-director of the Leadership and Talent Institute at DCU, says most universities have woken up to the fact that they need to equip graduates with more than just hard skills.

“Many are investing significantly in ensuring that graduates have experience of working in teams and that they recognise the importance of communication and relating well to others in the workplace,” he says.

“What’s also important to realise is that people have different personalities and just because someone says little doesn’t mean they are less engaged. They may be the reflective type who doesn’t share their thoughts until they’ve had time to think.

“A good leader will encourage the development of soft skills (which can be learned) and make sure people get the training they need to bridge any gap and thereby ensure that the team runs more effectively.”