This article was first published in the January 2020 International edition of 
Accounting and Business magazine.

In a 2019 survey by the Institute of Directors of India, 44% of executives identified soft skills as the biggest proficiency gap in today’s workforce. But why is this suite of personal tools so important?

Today’s workplaces are increasingly multicultural and multilingual, with staff regularly moving between geographies and organisations. This calls for inclusive strategies and skillsets and the ability to understand and manage cultural differences.

A further trend is automation, which is freeing up professionals’ time so that they can take on the role of strategic adviser – a change of emphasis that requires finance professionals to have a good understanding of what makes others tick. Empathy allows us to come up with solutions based on subjective information, helping us to reach out to others. In the age of automation, those equipped with the ability to communicate, collaborate and convince have an advantage over those armed only with hard business skills.

Soft skills are also vital in situations that require persuasion and negotiation. Persuasion is about using logic and emotion to change the attitude or behaviour of others. Negotiation is about resolving differences to reach an agreement, and requires strong communication skills.

Competitive edge

Soft skills can give you the edge over the competition. All sorts of industries have a growing need for staff and managers to engage on a personal level with suppliers and customers. In a connected and digitised world, businesses cannot just expect to deliver products and services; they also have to solve customers’ problems. Competition demands a people-centric perspective.

So how do we ensure these skills exist across the workforce? It is essential to clearly define what is expected of employees so that the desired soft skills can be standardised, imparted and measured. However, it is not easy to train employees in soft skills, and management runs the risk of becoming, or being seen to be, a ‘nanny’. Nor is it easy to link the use of soft skills to performance and remuneration.

The right balance

No one person will possess all the soft skills an organisation needs. Building a team is like completing a jigsaw puzzle: every individual brings something different to the table, which is why the recruitment process must consider how potential employees can complete the bigger picture.

In the real world, soft skills and hard technical skills are both needed. Hard skills are required to perform a specific task; soft skills support the hard skills, enabling us not only to know what to do, but also how and when to do it.

Soft skills are paramount to getting ahead in the workplace. Your worth is based not only on what you know, but how you learn and adapt.

JS Ahluwalia is president of the Institute of Directors of India.