There are two things we know for sure about soft skills in the workplace. One: Everyone thinks they’re hugely important. Two: We feel they are lacking at all levels – from graduates to managers.

There are any number of surveys and studies out there demonstrating both points. A 2018 survey by LinkedIn is as illustrative as any. Interpersonal skills, the social network found, were the number oneskill lacking from the workplace. Not technical brilliance, innovation, or advanced qualifications. Interpersonal skills. The ones we’re supposed to start developing at preschool

We have no reason to assume that rarefied campus air would make HE any different in this regard. For universities increasingly susceptible to market forces, forced to act as businesses, this question takes on pronounced importance.

Soft skills are about getting the most out of your teams. One might argue that this is the very essence of management. Again, there’s no shortage of literature out there showing how soft skills are connected to hard results.

Here are three examples of soft skills that should be instilled in every office. These are relevant when hiring, when training/reflecting, when feeding back, and – most importantly – in your own day-to-day conduct.


To run a team successfully, ideas, instructions, and concerns must be able to freely circulate. This is key in avoiding the dreaded siloes, and the concomitant duplication of efforts or contradicting goals.

Everyone has a different way of communicating, so it’s important to be able to speak different workplace languages. Reflect: are people getting what you’re saying? Are you getting what they’re saying? If not, think about how you could come to understand each other.

One practical fix is to ensure as many channels of communication are open as possible. One person may prefer formal meetings, another discreet email chains, while others are most at ease over lunch. Be open to all of these and more.

And remember: communication is also listening, not just speaking. If you find that something you’re saying is not getting through, listen to work out why. You may just come to understand an error in your own thinking…

Problem solving

This is a wonderful example of how soft skills contribute to hard success. In a perfect world, we would draw up a strategy, then watch it come to fruition just as we planned. Of course, this simply never happens. Requirements change. People become unmotivated. There are technical difficulties and algorithm changes. Wider events shift the paradigm in which we operate.

Ergo, problem-solving skills are absolutely central. Dealing with problems is a multidisciplinary exercise. It involves motivating people, understanding technical demands, resource allocation, often public relations, and more. The overarching theme, however, is an ability to think on one’s feet; to work towards results in a flawed environment. Judgement is key; particularly where reward must be measured against resource.

Seek this in new hires. For current staff, training can play a part. This could range from executive education, to away days and workshops, to simply leading by example. Understand that problems willhappen, and remain calm and proportional under pressure. Cultivating such an environment may well see solutions being generated in previously unexpected quarters.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is really the beating heart of all soft skills. This is something it’s very hard to instil in those who don’t possess them. (That is, unless you have a time machine and access to their infant selves…).

The people you are working with are just that: people. They are humans with feelings, motivations, and ideas. We are seeing the term ‘human resources’ fall out of favour for this reason.

Happy, motivated, and valued-feeling staff will get the best results for you. Be alive to stress, boredom, anger – and their dark cousins, depression and anxiety. If you detect these, you must strive to ascertain why – and if steps can be taken to fix or at least alleviate them.

Conduct mental health audits of your workplace. Read annual feedback. Build around team strengths, rather than forcing people into roles in which they’re uncomfortable.

While emotional intelligence can be difficult to teach to an individual, you can foster a more emotionally intelligent workplace. Make it part of your values, and a hiring priority. Speak regularly about the importance of looking after one another above anything else. Call out insensitivity.

Above all else, try to show it, constantly asking questions of others and yourself. Those who are treated with emotional intelligence by others are the most likely to treat others the same way.

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