A few years ago, the Northern Virginia Technology Council released a report that assessed the workforce skills requirements in Washington’s technology sector. One of the key findings was that soft skills are in high demand and low supply. In fact, around 80% of employers in the survey rated soft skills as the most important skills evaluated for hiring decisions.
Employers reported that they look for written and verbal communication, critical thinking, and problem solving when making hiring decisions. These were so important, that they also reported a willingness to train employees on technology-related tasks if they possessed these skills. The rationale is that emotional intelligence is tougher to come by, so employers are more easily able to “upskill technical competencies” than they are soft skills.
Written and verbal communication were the most in-demand skills sought, with 95% of employers surveyed reporting that these skills are a precondition for employment. One article noted that three different CEOs actually shy away from hiring computer science graduates in favor of liberal arts graduates because the latter tend to have better communication skills.
Why the Deficit?
These findings may seem counterintuitive, given that tech training has been touted as a high-demand skill set and because nearly every industry is undergoing massive technological disruption. What’s more, the significance of liberal arts degrees has often been downplayed, with the narrative revolving around the lack of specialization inherent in liberal arts programs and how this gap sets students up for failure in the “real world.”
Tech columnist and entrepreneurship educator Jonathan Aberman posits the opposite is actually true: “The better businesses get at using technology,” Aberman says, “the [higher] the premium on having humans that can communicate and interact with other humans.” So it would appear that the drive to push STEM skills may have actually relegated soft skills to the backseat, even though the soft skills are more necessary than ever in a tech-enabled world.
Taking it a step further, even after prospective employees are hired, many tech companies have a strong focus on cognitive culture (i.e. how people think) but place a lesser emphasis on the emotional culture (i.e. how people feel). This is understandable as cognitive culture is much easier to manage; cognition tends to be conveyed verbally, while emotions are usually expressed by nonverbal cues. Even in workplaces where emotional culture is on the radar, it’s usually managed less deliberately than cognitive culture.
Here’s the rub: emotional culture has far-reaching implications. It influences everything from “soft” KPIs like employee satisfaction to “hard” measures like financial performance. It goes without saying that positive emotions are associated with higher levels of performance. On the other hand, negative emotions are associated with high levels of absenteeism and turnover.
What’s the Fix?
In many senses, organizations of all sizes are placing more of an emphasis on the emotional health of the workplace. It’s not uncommon to see mission statements that include “fun” as an underlying principle. That said, branding oneself as a fun company without follow-through does little to actually affect overall emotional culture.
The key is to infuse the environment with cues and micro-gestures that signal that caring and compassion are core elements to the workplace. This may include:
- Encouraging a playful spirit. This comes from the top down, and may include things like having a CEO volunteer to do something fun or lighthearted if a company challenge is met (e.g. CEOs that participated in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and agreed to have ice water dumped on their heads).
- Quickly identifying signs of negative emotions and changing the root cause. When fear, boredom, or anger are present, it’s important to seek out the underlying cause and find ways to improve or rectify it. “Harmless” notions like the belief that pitting employees against each other will produce a better work output can actually breed envy and mistrust instead.
- Get in touch with employee emotions. Some companies conduct regular surveys to tap into employees’ emotions. These may also gauge how comfortable they are expressing frustrations, needs, or problems.
- Offer training on emotional intelligence. Companies — and tech companies especially — are keen on offering on-the-job training (or reimbursing employees for outside training) on hard skills, and emotional intelligence training should be no different.
- Foster companionate love. Love is one of the most popular human emotions but rarely mentioned when it comes to business, even though companionate love promotes better job satisfaction, commitment, and personal accountability for work performance. Workplaces that facilitate genuine relationships between employees (and between employees and clients) are better positioned for success.
Tech organizations are living, breathing things made up of people who carry emotions. Keeping a finger on the pulse of these emotions — and how the work environment impacts them — is key to determining what motivates teams to reach their goals. This will continue to be especially important as technology takes over more basic tasks from humans. There will always be a need for humans to bridge the gap between other humans — technology or no technology. To best position employees to succeed and thrive, managers must tap into the positive emotions that facilitate better communication, performance, and satisfaction — and find ways to cultivate a culture around them.