Much has been written about the increasing importance of soft skills in the workplace. But one is foundational to all others. It’s the source of competitive advantage, the differentiator for the executive, the employee and the organization. It’s communications, the spoken and written word. The pandemic-forced mass migration of business to the virtual realm, where technology changes the experience, makes communication effectiveness not only a power skill, but an imperative.
Employers are Finally Taking Notice
Numerous studies back the assertion that deficient communication can cost companies mightily. An International Data Corporation study based on surveys of 400 U.S. and U.K. companies with 100,000 or more employees estimated that poor organizational communication cost the average company $62.4 million annually in lost productivity. The same study found that organizations with leaders skilled in communications generated a 47% higher shareholder return over a five-year period.
Many C-suite leaders who are outstanding communicators have told me, “I continue to pursue development opportunities to improve my communications skills because any enhancement translates into enhanced productivity with my employees, more equity with our analysts and investors, and demonstrable product and service differentiation with our customers.”
Powerful data like this has led companies to increasingly recruit based on social skills. For example, a 2015 study by labor analytics software company Burning Glass Technologies analyzed 25 million employment ads and discovered that communications skills were the number one sought-after qualification, even in engineering, finance and IT fields. For several years, the National Association of Colleges and Employers has documented the increased premium organizations place on soft skills, culminating in its 2020 annual survey, which found that three of the top five aptitudes now sought by recruiters are problem-solving, ability to work in a team, and written communication.
Why the Shift?
While the 1980s and 1990s saw an emphasis on careers reliant on so-called hard skills—computer programming, engineering, finance, and other STEM-related fields—a shift recognizing the value of communication skills in particular has been underway through the 2000s.
Because surging artificial intelligence is expected to threaten lucrative jobs in industries like finance and IT, “knowing how to critically think and assess from a global perspective, I think, is going to be more valuable” than skills such as computer programming or accounting,” celebrity U.S. billionaire entrepreneur and investor Mark Cuban said during a SXSW conference.
At the same time, the ability to think critically is irrelevant if the resulting analysis can’t be articulated or conveyed, so expanding upon Cuban’s remarks, strong communications skills can be the linchpin to success. It’s not difficult to imagine the number and quality of groundbreaking ideas and research that never reach their potential because individuals or organizations are unable to communicate about them effectively to the workforce, customers, investors, or the general marketplace.
While AI is expected to eliminate millions of jobs, its growth also is projected to create new opportunities for professionals who possess communication skills. After analyzing a decade’s worth of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the Pew Research Center predicted that occupations that require average to above-average aptitudes in interpersonal, written and spoken communication, and management or leadership skills will grow by more than 8% between 2014 and 2024, versus 4.4% for occupations requiring below-average proficiency.
“Increasingly, people are valued based on their ability to do what machines can’t do,” wrote Kimberly Paterson, founder and president of CIM, a financial services employee coaching and change management consultancy. “Reacting, interpreting social cues, adapting, and playing off each other’s strengths are skills that have evolved in humans over thousands of years. The ability to manage these interactions is at the heart of humans’ advantage over machines.”
Listening is essential to the communications equation. “Good listening—the active and disciplined activity of probing and challenging the information garnered from others to improve its quality and quantity—is the key to building a base of knowledge that generates fresh insights and ideas,” business consultant and author Bernard Ferrari wrote in McKinsey Quarterly. “Put more strongly, good listening, in my experience, can often mean the difference between success and failure in business ventures (and hence between a longer career and a shorter one). Listening is a valuable skill that most executives spend little time cultivating. Start by letting go of assumptions, Ferrari advised. Don’t consider, “How will I counter that comment?” Instead, fully absorb what is being said.
Good News: Communications Skills Can Be Learned
Communications skills can be learned and improved, experts advise. For training to be effective, it must be immersive and regularly refreshed, rely on mentorship, made tangible (by tools such as 360-degree evaluations), offer safe opportunities to practice, provide continuous feedback, and be modeled by managers and executives, according to members of the Forbes Human Resources Council.
Stronger communications skills can benefit any organization, regardless of the product or service it offers. Engendering such abilities require a top-down recognition of the value they offer a company, and a commitment—in both time and resources—to effectively develop them. An important first step is to jettison the description “soft” and adopt a moniker that signals the importance and power in developing these proficiencies for competitive advantage.