Soft Skills: a close link between business and Ethics
Definition of the issue
I would like to start with a question, essential for the purposes of our investigation. Why are we so concerned with “Soft Skills”? In fact this question really anticipates our objective, that of giving Soft Skills a “definition”, an “expression” and an “application”. Why, then, do we believe Soft Skills are so important that they have to be “measured”, “certified”, “developed” so that they can eventually be “activated” in the world of work?
Soft Skills refer to all that goes beyond technical competence (Hard Skills). Yet in our modern and globalized world, technology and science seem to play the most dominant role. From 1750 up to now, about 260 years, the dramatic development of technology and science has produced changes that are not even remotely comparable to the very meager progress that took place over the previous 2.5 millions years of human evolution. Nowadays progress moves at such a staggeringly fast pace that is impossible to predict future implications and scenarios, even over the next 50 years.
And so our question is legitimate. Why are we questioning something of apparently secondary importance?
Probably because the uses, applications and aims of this technology let us see the need for a “control-room”, since technology knows how, but does not know why, as Plato affirmed (Political Philosophy, 304A – 305A). Probably because our society’s control-room should not be run by technology, bent on blind self-development, but by Man, so that it can be used with total respect for other men and in all parts of the world where he has imposed his domination.
And this question is also seminal in a work context, for companies and businesses, which are among the most important pillars of society. The unstoppable development of technology requires increasingly specialized and focused skills and, at the same time, the ability to follow The Great Transformation, as Polany said.
Soft Skills give Hard Skills an aim, a reason for existing; but they also give them, technically speaking, the required plasticity to develop and keep up-to-date in changing circumstances. Companies need people who are capable of adapting their skills to changing needs.
The main reasons why Soft Skills are so indispensable are two. To stay on theme, I would define the first as hard, the second as soft.
The first is technical: the technological world will develop in such a way that the most obviously hard aspects, as happened in the two previous Industrial Revolutions, will be run by machinery and technology, but dynamic people will still be necessary, capable of constant interaction and control, of flexibility of purpose, constantly keeping up-to-date with the advances of technology. These skills are neither merely mathematical, nor tied up with cause-effect logic, nor simply economical. They are diverging abilities that trigger relationships, creative abilities that lie within Man’s plastic intelligence and allow him to be proactive in any situation: such rare abilities are indispensable.
The second reason is social, and envisages a social role for work. If we do not want to reach the situation described in The End of Work – Jeremy Rifkin’s famous dark prophecy – then it is necessary for work to be a fundamental and structural element on which society is based, in parallel with its role of development and health. Remembering Kant’s lesson, it is necessary for the world of work to consider Man as an end and not merely a means. And Man should consider his work as an integral part of his ultimate goal, as an essential part of his self-determination (together with his family, affective needs etc.).
In order to achieve these two objectives, two requirements are essential: a generative (and not repressive) context where Soft Skills can be applied, and the readiness of the individual to be involved. The reasoning that underlies Soft Skills is thus the reasoning behind a meeting. A dialectic between inside and out. A perpetual squaring of the circle, making elastic what tends towards rigidity.
“Genetics-Hard” and “Intelligence-Soft”
We are familiar with the words that define Soft Skills: leadership, creativity, communication, empowerment and self-empowerment, emotional intelligence, resilience, and so on. We recognize them in the workplace, when they are already in play. We are impressed by such talents and understand how positive they are. We try to select people endowed with these qualities, because we know they are the real added-value: they are contagious! However, understanding where, why and in what particular moment these skills come into being is more difficult. Understanding exactly what they consist of is even more difficult: as well as being recurrent, the elements making them up are not scientifically determinable. Furthermore, reconstructing them in a lab is an impossible task, in that they are intrinsically linked to the individual who embodies them, not to any model. There may be guidelines, examples. For this reason, business training is based on storytelling and business-cases, but there is never a precise cause-effect relationship between the model taught and its application. The variables of reality are infinite and unknowable in advance. Certainly, we can know what they are, but their use is inextricably linked to the situation. This is the most difficult aspect of the relationship between education (or university teaching) and world of work: Soft Skills cannot be taught in a traditional lesson, just as feelings or love cannot be taught: we need a context in which they are allowed to emerge. Reading a novel can let us understand love, but this does not mean we can actually love. Thus it is crucial to understand what the conditions that create them are.
I have mentioned human evolution, noting that Man is about 2.5 millions years old. Man’s history (Homo Sapiens) dates back only 200,000 years. Neuroscience is making great strides, but so far we know little about our “control room”, our brain. We do not know why Man is capable of reflective or abstract thought, where feelings originate, where art comes from. Soft Skills are closely related to plastic, rational, elaborating abilities, typical of the prefrontal-cortex, which have only come into play in the last 50,000 years and so far elude technical explanation.
It might be useful to dwell on this aspect for a moment and to appreciate an important correlation. There is a difference between genetics and intelligence: the former acts like a default setting, at the service of the species and responds to the iron commands of its survival code. The latter is younger, barely developed, and does not respond in any way to the economic dictates of life. As Lamberto Maffei (Neuroscientist at Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa and Chairman of CNR Neuroscience Institute) said: “Intelligence is antagonistic to the evolution that generated it”, human intelligence is an epiphenomenon of life.
Soft and Hard Skills behave in the same way. The hard ones follow a mechanical, mathematical principle, and can be equated with genetics: they allow Man to be what he is: an engineer, a physicist, a philosopher. Soft ones, on the other hand, have a specificity and a direction that are quite separate from their role and go beyond the strict demands of the profession: for this reason they can be associated with intelligence and develop in a context that is rich in stimuli and potential.
Role of Soft Skills and Ethics
Now we arrive at the “bottom line”. Soft Skills are not merely actors, like Hard Skills. The intelligence behind Soft Skills requires thought, and the outcome of this thought is not definable in advance. Soft Skills that are in captivity, tamed, domesticated, have about as much naturalness as a caged lion.
A business or enterprise is made up of elements that might be thought to militate against the intelligence of Soft Skills: it is underpinned by predetermined goals, has a strongly hierarchical structure, relegates the individual to a single function… However, the company is, and must be, simultaneously outside these constructs, “outside the box”, as it were: it must have a vision that extends beyond the present to understand the direction the future will take, it must relax control and encourage the delegation of responsibility, making employees more proactive.
The company thus has all the hard requisites for preparing the individual to accede to the intelligence of Soft Skills. But companies must also be aware of soft requisites, which are, once again, more important: communication must adhere to the reality of facts, encourage debate, avoid using authority in a coercive way, recognize due merit. These minimal and important requirements banish the fear of having to stick to the rules and unleash creativity, which is, if we like, the “Queen of Soft Skills”, and an essential component of all the others. No longer having this fear, everyone will think about the consequences of his/her own actions, putting this before personal interest or gain.
Working for this kind of freedom and for a workplace that empowers people to be proactive and creative has been the most encouraging experience of my working life, as manager, consultant or teacher.
It is true that people are not all the same and some have greater ability than others, in terms of Soft Skills. Identifying and being able to place the right person in the right job is a key element of management. Each man or woman possesses these abilities, whether latent or not. But, in my opinion, a key role is played by context (the workplace, in this case). It is the context that can inhibit or stimulate the abilities everyone has inside. Nobody will ever be able to precisely quantify the leadership skills of a young manager, for example unless a context is found where he can exploit his resources and abilities.
In my work as consultant every day I meet managers and workers who are facing this issue: how to succeed in staying on target but at the same time not be crushed by it; how to create a productive environment, but one that is also positive; how to keep technical competences high and up-to-date, without too much bureaucracy, and how to create a proactive climate that makes people engaged and committed. An obstacle is sometimes governance, which fails to allow this, or sometimes the lack of courage of the individual to modify his/herbehavior. In both cases there is the fear of departing from the track of hard competence; there is the fear that encouraging ‘freedom’ – and that does not mean anarchy – will deconstruct processes and vertical reporting. I often notice that this lack of courage derives from a lack of example, which is the most effective learning model: the contexts where this conscious freedom is possible are rare – there is no disguising the fact. The result is the annihilation of Soft Skills, lack of motivation and thus of results. And it is obvious that if, on one hand, education can make one aware of the problem, on the other, where one cannot be “on-the-job”, it may have more influence at a cognitive level, but fails to effect any real change.
For young people approaching the world of work, the matter is perhaps more complex. Firstly, companies demand a certain maturity that will allow them to be integrated immediately, but at the same time young people concluding their studies perceive that the moment is crucial, but not the real magnitude of the problem, because the experiential part of reality is missing. The gap between University and Work is not that University does not teach how to work (perhaps it should not, perhaps it cannot), but the two environments do not communicate as they should: their relationship should be seminal. There is a no man’s land, a dark area, where young people are left to their own devices: so all school work on social equality, on equal opportunity is lost, because only those students who are already information/reality-aware will be successful. So, it happens that young people, before discovering the value of experience on the job – and that means the passing of time – focus rigidly on technical competences: which, as we know, is crucial, but only up to a certain point: in job recruitment, Hard Skills being equal, candidates with stronger Soft Skills will prevail, because they are considered as an personal attributes, not as technical competences that can be learnt. These soft aspects cannot be conjured up out of nothing in front of an headhunter: it is necessary for them to be acquired, then practised, then become ingrained.
The issue of ethics has to be addressed: it is the hidden fil rouge of my whole speech. «Ethics, the non-economic thought» I say this jokingly, with my business hat on, «is the most innovative and technologically advanced product in the world». It is true: it is not yet widely disseminated nor is it an accepted guiding principle. Life is not yet sacred, the fundamental attributes of life, such as work, are not protected as they should be. Otherwise we would not see children starve to death. However it is true that the infringement of ethics is increasingly perceived as something to be condemned, and the world is making great strides in this direction.
In any case, ethics is relationship, reaching out towards others, spontaneous gestures of goodwill, frankness, absence of duplicity, considering the other as an end, not as a means. These are also the basic components making up the Soft Skills DNA.
Without exaggerating, we might say «the ethical intelligence of Soft Skill is equally economic anyway», because it gives results in terms of profit, but does so in a clean and virtuous way, and all stakeholders benefit. And this is really what I am trying to say.
Intelligence is measure, Soft Skills are synthesis: both are necessary to make the gains that should perhaps be limited for the common good. But that limited part would have unlimited positive implications.