Hard Truths

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    Welcome to the 33rd edition of Humanity Working. This time, I’m looking into why we still struggle to build soft skills in 2024, and what AI will likely do to our working lives by 2030.

    The Hard Truths About Soft Skills

    In 1968 the US Army had a problem. It was 20 years into the Cold War, and the Soviet Union still seemed far ahead by many measures. For over a decade, triggered by the Sputnik Crisis, the US had poured massive investment into science and technology education. The army had also specifically targeted vocational and military training – with a deep focus on building, maintaining, and operating the new weapons of war.

    But something was still missing.

    It turned out that there are many aspects to building a world-class military in uncertain times, and many of the most critical factors seem to be more art than science—things like motivating soldiers or clearly communicating battle plans. As a friend of mine in the military said recently, ” You can innovate your way out of a broken tank, but you cannot win wars with broken morale.”

    Those intangibles needed a term—and by the end of the decade, the army had one—soft skills. By the early 1970s, soft skills were officially part of a US Army Training manual. They were defined as “job-related skills involving actions affecting primarily people and paper, e.g., inspecting troops, supervising office personnel, conducting studies, preparing maintenance reports, preparing efficiency reports, designing bridge structures.”

    Like most good ideas that start in the military, they tend to spread into the broader business world. Very soon, companies with strong military connections, like IBM and Bell, started focusing on hiring and training based on soft skills. From there, a whole industry began, designed to help companies tap into their “soft side.”

    History can be deeply interesting in its own right, but it’s most useful when it teaches us something. I believe that there are two inescapable conclusions to be drawn from the long and storied history of soft skills.

    1. Soft skills are massively, sometimes existentially important.
    2. Few organizations appropriately prioritize them.

    I’ll get into both of these, but first, a quick aside:

    Aside: What are Soft Skills Anyway?

    Given that the term “soft skills” has been used for over 50 years, it’s amazing how often I am asked this question.

    But the underlying reasons are actually pretty simple. First, the term itself is pretty lousy (I’ve yet to meet anyone in the field who likes it), and second, the historical definitions have aged terribly, such as this doozy from 1972:

    Soft skills are important job-related skills that involve little or no interaction with machines and whose application on the job is quite generalized.

    Really? Today, every information worker on the planet makes heavy use of machines (computers), and their soft skills are deeply intertwined with that. I’m exercising a soft skill right now (written communication), and I’m doing it on a computer that is helping me research and assemble this post.

    For what it’s worth, we choose to use the following definition at BillionMinds:

    Human attributes that enable interpersonal interactions and collaborative problem-solving in diverse professional and social environments.

    It’s not exactly snappy, but perhaps that’s the point. We are dealing with complex systems (teams) that, in turn, consist of complex systems (humans).

    But if you want something shorter, here’s what I might say to you at a dinner party:

    “The intangibles that take an organization from surviving to thriving.”

    Why Soft Skills are Hugely, Massively Important

    Pick your “favorite” scandal of the last 30 years and see how it relates to a deficit of soft skills. Here are a few examples:

    • Enron Scandal (2001): Ethics, integrity, transparency
    • BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (2010): Communication, decision-making, risk management
    • Volkswagen Emissions Scandal (2015): Ethics, transparency, responsibility
    • Theranos Fraud (2015): Ethical judgment, transparency, communication
    • Wells Fargo Account Fraud Scandal (2016): Ethical leadership, integrity, corporate culture
    • Boeing 737 MAX Crashes (2018-2019): Communication, training, accountability
    • UK Post Office Horizon IT Scandal (2000-2019): Empathy, communication, problem-solving, accountability, ethical judgment, leadership

    Every single one of these scandals caused massive damage and, in some cases, created an existential threat to the organization. In all cases, reports highlighted that problems with soft skills directly contributed to the issue or made it much, much worse.

    And these scandals keep happening, so we clearly are not doing enough.

    Hopefully, your organization will never become embroiled in a scandal like this. Still, the fact remains that doing business without a strong focus on soft skills costs organizations and their employees massively. If you’ve been in business a while, you likely know how much it costs to lose an employee and get a new one hired. You can think of that as an inevitable cost of doing business, or you can fix it. And then of course there are the opportunity costs. These costs are more difficult to quantify but no less important – the costs associated with employees who are barely surviving versus those who could be thriving.

    You might be tempted to think that technological advancements will make soft skills less important in the future, but every reputable study shows the opposite. After all, as robotics, automation, and AI become the norm, what is the key differentiator between companies? It’s the humans—how they work individually and collaborate in teams. That’s one of the reasons that the World Economic Forum continues to place such an emphasis on these skills.

    But beyond all of this, there is a more critical societal reason why emphasizing soft skills is essential. At this point, we have entire generations of people who, at best, are surviving at work and, in many cases, are not managing even that. They are burning out at record rates, and workplace suicides have been worryingly high for years. Rather than simply offering employees services they can use when they are suffering, shouldn’t we create work environments where people can do their best work and give them the skills to do it?

    Many CEOs understand all of this. It is why over 90% of them rate soft skills as either hugely or very important in most surveys. But knowing this is not always the same as doing something about it, which leads me to my next point….

    Why Few Organizations Prioritize Soft Skills

    So soft skills are important. Great.

    But are they important enough for leaders to do anything meaningful about it?

    For many organizations, the answer is no. We hear many reasons why, but one of the most common is that while this IS important, it’s not the MOST urgent thing for their organization right now.

    Just stop for a moment and think about that. When WILL it be the most important thing for your company? Most likely, when your organization encounters a major existential crisis and your employees leave in droves. This is the company equivalent of waiting until AFTER you have a cardiac arrest before you decide to exercise. You can do it, but is that the responsible way to act?

    As the Army realized back in the 1960s, the right time to focus on this seriously was yesterday.

    What Does NOT Fix This?

    I’d love to jump straight into solutions, but let’s face it—it’s been 56 years, and this problem is not completely solved, at least not beyond a few organizations that “get it.”

    Here’s what, at this point, we definitively know doesn’t work, at least in isolation:

    • Inspirational speeches
    • One day offsites
    • Trickle-down effects from leadership training
    • Self-help books
    • Mindset training
    • Course Catalogs (Udemy etc)

    If you are spending your money on these things, you might be achieving something, but you are absolutely not creating a strategic advantage for your organization.

    So What DOES Fix This?

    I’m not going to pretend we fully know the answer. If we did, we’d be a trillion-dollar company by now, and you wouldn’t have to worry about any of this.

    That said, our research clearly shows that three things make a dramatic difference to soft skills initiatives, which we now call the 3 Cs.

    • Commitment – Half-assing this doesn’t work. Organizations must commit to soft skills development at the highest level possible and embed it as part of their culture. If they don’t, it will always take a back seat to something else more immediate. The urgent will overtake the important, and everyone in the company will deprioritize it.
    • Calibration – This stuff already feels intangible. Why make it worse by not measuring it? You can absolutely measure the soft skills of your employees today, see how they grow from now on, and adjust accordingly. Are the measurements perfect? No. Does that mean you shouldn’t measure at all? Again, no.
    • Continuity—Skills degrade, business circumstances change, and people come and go in your workforce. Soft skills development is evergreen in the sense that human skills don’t really alter. But it is also ever-changing because the context is always new. The only way to address that is through a continuous commitment to developing and maintaining soft skills.

    How BillionMinds is Adapting

    Our research into how soft skills are really developed and maintained has caused us to change our entire approach as a company—both in terms of how we work with customers and which customers we work with.

    While courses are part of what we do (such as our Thrive with AI course), the bigger goal is to move individuals, teams, and organizations through a journey – developing the most needed soft skills and doing so in a measurable way. It’s a journey that is never complete. Yet it changes as the capabilities of an organization get better, and they move away from the improvement phase and into the maintenance phase. You are probably not our customer if you are not on board for that journey. But if you are, we’d love to talk.

    And, as I mentioned last week, this also means that we will be working with all parties interested in learning and growing people so they can get hired, retained, promoted, and most of all thrive. If this resonates with you as an employer, educational institution, or workforce development non-profit, we want to hear from you. Let’s solve this problem together.


    Is AI going to make almost every aspect of work easier, better, and potentially more fun? Or will it lead to mass unemployment and remove much of the meaning from our existence?

    I suspect the answer might be a bit of both, so I decided to phone a friend a few weeks ago and chat about it. Boaz Ashkenazy runs Augmented AI and hosts the Shift AI podcast. As we’d say in the UK – he’s a man who knows what’s what.

    It’s a fascinating discussion and well worth taking a few minutes out of your day to listen to. As ever, look for Humanity Working on your favorite podcasting platform, or watch below:

    About Us

    I’m Paul and I’m the CEO and Co-Founder of BillionMinds. If you are worried about how prepared your employees are for change – change in work environments (like hybrid and remote), business strategy, or even technology changes, you should talk to us. Just reach out to me here on LinkedIn and we can get a call scheduled.

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