When job descriptions talk about ‘soft skills, the list has always tended to be headed by communication, presentation and leadership. These have always been important and will continue to be. But at a time when markets, customer expectations and what is required from employees are changing at a phenomenal rate, a further set of skills are now coming to the fore. These include the creativity needed to forge new ideas and lead the market. They also include the flexibility and adaptability needed to respond to fast-changing demands. 

After conducting our own survey, nearly 19,000 working-age adults in the UK were asked what they believed were their most important soft skills. The top five were:

  • creativity and problem solving (20%)
  • adaptability and flexibility (16%)
  • persistence, perseverance and patience (14%)
  • leadership and the ability to inspire others (8%)
  • communication and presentation skills (8%)

It’s telling that creativity, flexibility and adaptability are the attributes job-seekers want to promote, a long way ahead of communication, presentation and inspirational leadership, the latter perhaps being seen as a given rather than a differentiator. 

Soft skills are to some extent innate, though training schemes can be very successful. For example communication skills workshops generally focus on the importance of listening and putting yourself in other people’s shoes, something we can all learn and benefit from without necessarily being a natural communicator. 

Similarly, people don’t need to be born creative, flexible or adaptable to have these attributes. Indeed how people are organised, managed and incentivised are the really telling factors. 

Many organisations now stress the importance of giving all staff time to put forward and develop new ideas, rather than just promoting greater staff autonomy, as a way to boost flexibility. An example of this is, giving call centre staff sufficient licence to meet a customer’s request or sort out a problem, rather than constantly having to refer issues up the line. 

Line management is essential in promoting the necessary soft skills. Line managers are pivotal to how an organisation is run, they can be an aid or a barrier to creativity, flexibility and adaptability. As staff become more empowered, a lot of organisations now emphasise the importance of line managers being good coaches and good listeners, rather than just vocal leaders. Many also think that it should be staff who are sorting out problems for themselves, rather than always relying on their managers. For some line managers this can be difficult, learning to let go may be the hardest soft skill to acquire.