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CHARLOTTE WESTERHAUS-RENFROW: Hard skills or soft skills: a chicken-or-the-egg situation

May 25, 2018

workplace_westerhaus-renfrowWhat came first, the chicken or the egg? It is a question that can really stump you because it does not have a singular, solid answer.

Here’s another perplexing question businesses attempt to solve daily: When employers decide which applicant to hire, what is more important—hard skills or soft skills?

No matter an organization’s size—from startups to large multinational corporations—the need to hire the most talented employees is not a riddle or a brainteaser but, rather, a business necessity. McKinsey & Co. conducted a recent study of more than 600,000 researchers, entertainers, politicians and athletes, and found high performers are eight times more productive than average ones. Yet a recent poll conducted by RefreshLeadership.com, Express Employment Professionals’ blog for business leaders, found 42 percent of businesses say it is “somewhat” or “very” difficult to recruit for and fill job positions. One of the top reasons jobs go unfilled is because applicants lack the requisite hard skills.

One hard skill that hiring managers often find lacking or absent is strong analytical skills. Successful companies use data to better understand their audiences and, in turn, the companies become more efficient, customer-focused and profitable.

Customer analytics help companies target and connect with a larger potential customer base by analyzing the demographics of current customers. Marketing analytics help support projections and increase revenue by offering areas to develop innovative uses for products and services. Moreover, the applicability of advanced, analytics-driven data within manufacturing sectors and logistics fleet management is rapidly growing.

Back to the question: What is more important—hard skills or soft skills? Because employees need expertise to successfully tackle a job, the answer is simple, right? There is, however, a definite twist to the answer.

In the same breath businesses emphasize the need for employees to possess excellent hard skills, they are also quick to highlight that employees need soft skills, too. LinkedIn Learning surveyed 2,000 business leaders this year and found that 57 percent indicated leadership, communication, collaboration and time management skills are more important than hard skills. Additionally, ResourcefulManager, a website dedicated to helping managers become more effective, says “technical aptitude and business savvy aren’t worth much if leaders don’t have the people skills to execute them.”

Rick Stephens, senior vice president of human resources at Boeing Corp., was even more direct: “We hire for hard skills. We fire for soft skills.”

Empathy, which is the ability to place yourself in another’s shoes, is an essential soft skill that enhances employment engagement. Alas, it’s fair to say that, in some circles, empathy is viewed as extraneous, irrelevant and indicative of not being able to make hard business decisions. According to a 2017 survey conducted by the Businessolver Workplace Empathy Monitor, 85 percent of employees believe empathy is often undervalued by their employers.

There are significant business costs when leaders rely too heavily on hard skills and fail to use soft skills such as empathy during a crisis.

One infamous example of a complete empathy meltdown occurred in April 2017, when a passenger was dragged off a United Airlines plane to empty his paid seat for an employee. United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz’s first public response was a failure on all fronts. His detached corporate-speak described the incident as an effort to “re-accommodate passengers.”

The public’s outrage was swift due to Munoz’s total lack of empathy for the passenger who was forcibly removed from the flight. Hours later, Munoz issued a non-apology that characterized the passenger as defiant, belligerent and disruptive. Stakeholders were far from pleased. Finally, in his third attempt to address the crisis, Munoz demonstrated an empathic understanding of current and future customer needs and said, “I promise you, we will do better.” But by that time, United Airlines lost nearly $1 billion in market value, and consumer perception of the company had dropped to a decade low.

What is more important—hard skills or soft skills? It is not a difficult question to answer. The bottom line is that both are important. The most effective hiring managers know that the best employees successfully blend stellar hard and soft skills and understand that the balance between the two skill sets is what truly matters.

Moreover, the United Airlines’ public-relations fiasco aptly illustrates that there can be nothing more damaging than having a leader with hard skills who does not have strong soft skills.•

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