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4 things you need to know about soft skills

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Lessons once relegated to aptitude tests and playgrounds are finding new homes in cubicles and C-suites. Here are some important things to remember about the implementation of — and incentives for — soft skills, from MIT Sloan faculty and researchers.

Defining a problem is the most underrated skill in management.

Critical thinking, problem solving, and working well with others are necessary for employees at any level, but MIT Sloan professors Nelson Repenning and Don Kieffer, along with alumnus Todd Astor, found that leaders who can directly answer the question of “what problem are you trying to solve” will be a step ahead in the game.

According to Repenning and Kieffer, a good problem statement has five components that include: 

  • a reference to something the organization cares about, and connects that to a clear and specific goal.
  • clear articulation of the gap between the current state and specific goal.
  • measurable targets.
  • neutrality toward causes and solutions.
  • an achievable and appropriate scope.

“In our experience, leaders who can formulate clear problem statements get more done with less effort and move more rapidly than their less-focused counterparts,” the experts wrote in MIT Sloan Management Review. “Clear problem statements can unlock the energy and innovation that lies within those who do the core work of your organization.”

Read “The most underrated skill in management” in MIT Sloan Management Review.

Understanding the value of soft skills takes time.

Millennials soon will be the leaders in the business world, and those same future leaders also come with a set of challenges. Among them: soft skills.

While millennials’ technical skills are far ahead of other generations, professor John Van Maanen said at last year’s MIT Sloan CFO Summit, they “are often lacking in soft skills, like communication and problem solving.”

A lack of soft skills, however, does not spell immediate doom for an organization’s success. While demand for some soft skills “is occasionally predictive of hiring problems,” according to MIT Technology Review, most of those skills — like cooperation and teamwork — don’t necessarily point to hiring difficulties.

That isn’t to say soft skills aren’t helpful, but they need to be connected to a particular job requirement and employer needs, writes Andrew Weaver, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Read “Coaching millennials has its hurdles — and it’s time to get over them” at MIT Sloan Executive Education and “The myth of the skills gap” at MIT Technology Review.

Soft skills could help bridge the economic divide.

MIT Sloan professor of information technology Erik Brynjolfsson said soft skills can help bridge the gap between poverty and wealth in the United States.

Brynjolfosson proposed during an Inclusive Innovation Challenge panel that the problem is not a lack of work, but “finding the right people for the right jobs.”

A solution to that problem is teaching critical thinking over something like memorization. This in turn helps address the need for soft skills.

Read “Soft skills, partnerships needed to bridge economic divide.”

Soft skills training brings substantial returns on investment.

A study by Namrata Kala, an assistant professor of economics at MIT Sloan, along with colleagues from the University of Michigan and Boston College, found that in-factory soft skills training returned roughly 250 percent return on investment less than a year after the training’s end.

The study also found that employees who did not participate in the training but worked alongside employees who did showed some improvements in workplace productivity.

“Our interpretation of the results is that skills like time and stress management, communication, problem solving and decision-making, and effective teamwork are ‘soft’ inputs into production,” the study said. “Reinforcing these skills thus directly affects productivity."

Read “Soft skills training brings substantial returns on investment.”

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