The Human Advantage

Improve Soft Skills to Defend Your Job against Robots

It will not happen overnight, but in the next few decades, artificial intelligence tools are likely to take over a lot of the tasks you do at work. That does not have to mean unemployment, though. Communication and creative skills are fast becoming game-changers for professionals who want to succeed and lead. Improve soft skills to stay on top.

improve soft skills

The next career threat?

Automated Everything?

The predictions abound. A University of Oxford study of the U.S. labor market estimated that 47 percent of jobs could be computerized. McKinsey Global Institute’s recent report agreed, saying that around half of today’s work activities could be automated in the next 40 years.

Even the World Economic Forum devoted last year’s annual meeting to the fourth industrial revolution, including examining how disruptive technologies like robotics will affect jobs in the future.

The shift is well underway in some industries, like finance. A standout example is the cash equities trading desk at Goldman Sachs in New York. In 2000, it employed 600 traders. Now it has two — trading software programs do most of the work.

A Higher Role

But it is not all scary news. Some believe it will be liberating for humans not to deal with mundane, repetitive work like scheduling meetings, doing research, crunching numbers.

“A lot of those tedious tasks can be automated,” says Greg Besner, founder and CEO of CultureIQ, a culture engagement software platform for companies. Letting computers do the grunt work allows us to focus on the things we like most about our jobs, like complex problem-solving, brainstorming the next innovation, or working closely with clients.

Besner explains that data automation frees him and the team up to spend more time talking with customers about their needs. Rather than devoting resources to collecting and analyzing culture survey feedback, a computer does this in a click. “We focus on what questions to ask, what the data means, and what we do next.”

Soft Skills You Need

What’s more, humans are (still) better than computers at many of these creative, relationship-based activities. In other words, tasks that require strong soft skills.

In Besner’s view, the soft skills competencies that employees need to remain sought-after in workplaces of today and tomorrow are: collaboration, mentoring/being mentored, agility, leadership, communication, creativity, emotional intelligence (EQ), active listening and interpreting body language.

While these skills have always been important to employers, they have become more valuable and more in focus, he claims.

You Can Improve Soft Skills

Some people might be born with high EQs or leadership instincts. Everyone else can improve soft skills with training, practice and mentoring, says Besner.

A good example is Tony Hseih, CEO of Zappos, who conquered his deep fear of public speaking by “just doing it” and is now a highly-paid, entertaining speaker.

Soft skills training programs – such as Skillsoft’s “Effective Body Language in Negotiations” and “Increasing Competitiveness through Collaboration” — are everywhere and growing. One study predicts the soft skills training market in Europe will increase over 33 percent annually until 2021. So, there is a course for you, no matter what skills gap you are trying to shore up.

Employers can and should play a big role, too, in improving the soft skills of their workers, according to Besner. “Part of employee retention is nurturing these skills. We recognize that the human component is what makes our company better than others,” he adds.

Soft skills can be built through mentoring, ideally by matching an employee who needs improvement in an area with someone who has already successfully developed skills in that same area. Besner is also a fan of reverse-mentoring. While the model’s intention is to allow older workers to learn tech skills from younger ones, an indirect effect is that the younger employee often “gets leadership training from someone who probably has pretty good soft skills,” he stresses.

Selling Your Soft Skills

Besner sees no shortage of candidates with good soft skills, but says it is hard to spot these strengths on a CV, especially one that has been filtered by recruitment software. “One of our company values is ‘Great people over great resumes,’ but how do you know you’re getting great people if you are just relying on a computer to find them?” he says.

Interviews are where these competencies can be discovered. To this end, he advises candidates to show off their communication skills. Use active listening techniques to summarize things you hear in interviews and ask pertinent questions. “Show you really heard that person,” he comments. Follow up after interviews, too. Sending a hand-written thank you note will differentiate you from others, says Besner: “They won’t expect it. You’ll be remembered!”

Kate Rodriguez is a freelance business writer based in Munich. She has an extensive background as an analyst, consultant and writer to public and private organizations. She also worked as a university career coach, specializing in international career search.

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