As digital technologies become more prominent in how organizations work, employers are balancing the need for employees with digital and other hard skills with the need for employees with “soft” social, interpersonal, and communication skills. In fact, employers are increasingly prioritizing social and emotional skills; McKinsey, for example, predicts that skills such as communication, pattern recognition, logical reasoning, and creativity will be in high demand in the coming decades.
With these soft skills in high demand, Jake Bullinger proposed in a recent article at Fast Company that for-profit organizations consider hiring trained social workers to fill that need. Bullinger talks to Michàlle Mor Barak, a University of Southern California social work professor, who notes that companies today require expertise in societal good as they are increasingly under pressure to prioritize things like corporate social responsibility, work-life balance, and diversity and inclusion which weren’t on their radar a few decades ago. Social workers and other experts in social and emotional issues could be particularly helpful in people management and community engagement, Bullinger writes:
A human resources department staffed with therapists could better handle harassment claims, and recruiters working with social scientists could better target minority candidates. Corporate philanthropy arms would benefit, one can surmise, from case workers who understand a community’s greatest needs. The people best suited to run diversity and inclusion efforts might be those who study diversity and inclusion for a living.
I graduated with a master’s degree in social work in 2005 and have spent most of my career working in for-profit organizations. From my vantage point, social workers can provide an array of benefits, but organizations need to be realistic about what they can and can’t do.
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In recent years, soft skills like communication and critical thinking have become an increasingly important differentiator of talent, and employers have reported having a hard time finding employees with soft skills to round out their set of hard skills. As a greater share of work is automated, these soft skills may become even more important if social interactions indeed turn out to be the hardest human tasks for robots to learn. With all that in mind, Dan Kopf argues at Quartz that the most important job skill for the future generation of employees isn’t being taught in US schools:
US students are judged by how well they score on math, reading and science tests. US educators are assessed by their student’s improvement on those tests. The US labor market, however, is increasingly placing a premium on pleasant personalities. Schools that focus narrowly on cognitive skills without teaching social skills may be overlooking a key component to workplace success.
Research from the Harvard Economist David Deming shows that, since 1980, the proportion of jobs calling for social skill-related tasks rose much faster (pdf) than jobs calling for basic math and reading. In other words, as the labor market has changed, a lot more Americans are finding themselves working at places like Starbucks coffee shops than at Ford manufacturing plants. Deming estimates that, from 1980 to 2012, the proportion of jobs that called for math tasks increased by 5% while routine tasks (repetitive assignments that don’t require analysis) declined by 10%. Meanwhile, jobs calling for social tasks and service tasks increased by over 15%.
How important is civil behavior in the workplace? Very, according to Georgetown professor Christine Porath. At McKinsey Quarterly, Porath, who has studied this question extensively, lays out some of what she has found in her years of research about how incivility at work not only harms morale, but also decreases productivity:
Nearly everybody who experiences workplace incivility somehow settles the score—with their offender and the organization. Of the nearly 800 managers and employees across 17 industries that I polled with Christine Pearson, a professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, those who didn’t feel respected performed worse. Forty-seven percent of those who were treated poorly deliberately decreased the time spent at work, and 38 percent said they intentionally decreased the quality of their work. Not surprisingly, 66 percent admitted their performance declined and 78 percent said their commitment to the organization had declined. Part of the performance penalty is related to how employees internalize stress levels. Eighty percent lost work time worrying about the incident, and 63 percent lost work time in their effort to avoid the offender.
So what can employers do to maintain a civil atmosphere at work? “Make it clear to employees that they need to hold their managers and colleagues accountable for living up to your norms of civility,” Porath recommends:
Office politics is a delicate game: Previous research has found that over-investing one’s time in cultivating alliances and winning the office popularity contest can backfire on employees once their colleagues realize what they’re up to. But what about employees who eschew personality politics and try to curry favor with their superiors by making unsolicited innovations that help their organization operate more efficiently? Surely that’s a better way to get ahead, no?
That’s not always the case, a recent study found. At the Harvard Business Review, Andreas Wihler and Jon M. Jachimowicz describe the study, co-authored by Wihler, which found that employees who take the initiative to push change often receive scorn rather than credit from their colleagues and managers:
Whether proactivity was perceived as helpful or obnoxious hinged on employees’ levels of political skill. Those with more political skill were also more accurate in their perception of how much their organizations valued proactivity, while employees lower in political skill were essentially “blind” to the opportunities they faced – no matter how many cues the organization offered that proactivity would be rewarded. Employees low in political skill were also more likely to behave proactively when the organization didn’t favor it.
FiveThirtyEight’s Andrew Flowers explores some new research suggesting that soft skills have overtaken technical skills as a key differentiator of talent in the labor market:
“The days of only plugging away at a spreadsheet are over,” David Deming, an associate professor of economics at Harvard, told me. Deming is the author of a new working paper, “The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market,” which shows how today’s high-skill, high-paying jobs — like consultants and managers — increasingly require interpersonal skills.
It’s not that hard skills are suddenly less desirable. Training in mathematics, computer science and other STEM fields (what Deming would count as “high cognitive skills”) is still a great investment; that “plugging away at a spreadsheet” is still valuable. “High-cognitive-skills workers still earn more,” Deming said, “but social skills increasingly are a complement to cognitive skills.” He argues that having strong cognitive skills is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a high-paying job. …
David Bruemmer, the co-founder of 5D Robotics, is pretty optimistic about the robot revolution, believing that robots will become our peers, not our replacements, and create more good jobs than the low-paying, menial jobs they destroy. Writing at TechCrunch, Bruemmer recalls a conversation with his hairdresser that got him thinking about the intangible, creative, human aspects of some jobs that he doubts robots will ever be able to take over:
I seem to have very interesting discussions whenever I get a haircut. One day I was explaining to my hairdresser that I work with robots and she stopped cutting, visibly upset and remarked that she would probably be out of a job before too long because of the development of robotic intelligence. I thought about it, and realized that robots would most likely replace my job before they replaced hers.
Her job was really, really hard. She had to take hopelessly vague tasking like: “Give me a George Clooney haircut but kind of a bit more fun and crazy.” What does that mean? I can pretty well guarantee that a robot won’t ever know what that means. Regardless of trying to understand the semantics, a much harder task is figuring out how many small scissor cuts will result in an emerging look. Cutting hair is not an easy job; I know I could never do it. I believe it would scare any robot as well.