Someone can have all the technical expertise in the world for a job but it's the people who have the ability to work well as a team that will be the most successful.
These "soft skills" involve attitude, interpersonal skills, business etiquette and social graces, among other things. Business psychologist and author of Get Your Groove Back, Jasbindar Singh says these traits are as relevant now as ever.
"Soft skills are really important because it's to do with engagement. Organisations are crying out for more engagement and I think soft skills feed in really well in terms of how to engage people."
Basic soft skills such as listening and making eye contact are often overlooked at work, where everyone seems to have their heads tucked into the latest electronic device. We email each other across the room rather than walk over and have a chat. Or even worse, we have a conflict via email.
Singh says: "If you're in a state of emotional agitation or worked up, just leave it. Even if you draft it, put it away and I can guarantee 95 per cent of the time you'll go back and say, 'Thank God, I didn't sent that'."
She says the lack of face-to-face communication could be hurting us.
"If you want people to feel respected and valued, listen to them. Make eye contact so at least they know you're taking in what they're saying."
But soft skills go beyond just being polite at work. Singh says soft skills are all a part of emotional intelligence (EQ). EQ involves an intelligence that falls outside the scope of standard IQ tests, which are more focused around technical skills. But now there are tools to measure someone's soft skill aptitude.
"It might have things like how you manage conflict. How's your intuition? It has scales around self-awareness, your awareness of other people and so forth," Singh says.
But if you don't necessarily have the most highly refined soft skills in the world, there is still hope. You can make a conscious effort to be more aware of how you are being perceived. Think about what a colleague thought of your conversation with them. You can even use a coach to help you try to focus on the positive even when things go wrong.
Singh says: "It's actually saying, `Hang on, here is this person and they really worked around the clock trying to produce the result and so how can I reward them for the effort they put in?' And then you might tackle the fact that something could have been done better for them to have met the target."
For managers, soft skills are particularly important because it's their job to get results through others. Singh says leaders must be able to do more than set out the objectives, explain the mission and vision and lay out the KPIs.
"You need to be able to understand your people. You need to be able to know how your team members are motivated and what their drivers are so that you can reinforce them accordingly."
It's one thing to have a strategy and quite another to have staff implement it, she says.
"The research says that half of any strategy fails. Something like 80 per cent of it is actually to do with people factors. Maybe people weren't consulted widely enough."
Persuading people to want to do things your way involves highly developed people skills. Likewise, the ability to guide people and get a message across without making people defensive is one soft skill everyone needs. Workers also need enough self-awareness to be able to know how they're coming across to their team.
"It's knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are, being open to feedback, asking the team and your peers for feedback and learning from it," Singh says.
Soft skills are also necessary in keeping employees engaged, acknowledging their achievements and making them feel respected. Engaged employees put in more discretionary effort and have higher retention levels.
"People need to know that you really care for them and that they're cared about."
To keep workers engaged, managers need to be proactive in conflict management to reduce interpersonal tensions. Generally once the good workers on a team become disengaged, they won't stick around for long.
"People react to positivity. They react to somebody who is encouraging and who you know you can have an open dialogue with," Singh says.
But soft skills are not all about being Mr Nice Guy. Singh says it's better to be approachable than liked.
"I think it's more important to be fair and consistent than to be liked. If you are fair and consistent and known how to be a good manager who is respectful, then likeability goes with that."
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