Supercharging soft skills in the age of AI 

Two businesswoman having a meeting

In today’s increasingly AI-driven workplaces, soft skills are crucial for competitive advantage and career success. Steve Macaulay and David Buchanan show you how to stay ahead 

  • As artificial intelligence takes on more tasks, soft skills become more critical. 
  • Corporate competitive advantage and individual employability depend on soft skills. 
  • As technology gets smarter, we need to get smarter. 

Will you be replaced by artificial intelligence? Probably not. Unique human abilities such as empathy and creativity are becoming increasingly valuable. AI takes over tasks, not jobs. But it is now affecting non-routine and intellectual tasks that used to resist automation.

Soft skills are central to individual employability, corporate performance, and competitive advantage

Some of what you do will be done quicker and better. However, this will give you more time for the interesting and valuable stuff – for the things that hardware and software can’t do: adding value to customer and supplier relations, developing innovative solutions, solving complex problems, and dealing with ethically sensitive issues. 

Coaches and customers 

AI can’t handle the ‘soft stuff’ that we humans are supposed to be good at. Take interpersonal communication, for example, a skill we all think we have mastered. 

What football coaching and retail customer relations have in common is the need for good communication skills. One of us has a teenage grandson, Jack. He is good at football, so his team manager asked him to coach the juniors. This didn’t work out. Jack couldn’t raise the voice, presence or enthusiasm to energise and motivate his inexperienced trainees. Would an AI system do any better in this context? 

Soft skills like communication are often most obviously needed when they are absent. Daniel works in our local supermarket. When asked for a carrier bag, Daniel picked one up, crumpled it, threw it at us and walked away, with no eye contact, no conversation. Rude. One would expect a major retail chain like this to have trained its frontline staff better. 

Jack and Daniel highlight the need to bring staff up to speed in soft skills. A senior manager reading their email while speaking to someone is a symptom of the same problem. In short, this skills development needs to apply to all levels of the organisation. 

Soft skills: what are they? 

Whether it’s oral, written or non-verbal, communication is important but is just one of many soft skills, of which there are three kinds: cognitive abilities, interpersonal skills, and personal attributes. 

Cognitive abilities: 

  • Acumen. 
  • Continuous learning. 
  • Creativity. 
  • Critical thinking. 
  • Decision-making. 
  • Ethical sensitivity. 
  • Information processing and interpretation. 
  • Moral judgment. 
  • Problem-solving. 

Interpersonal skills: 

  • Collaboration. 
  • Communication. 
  • Conflict handling. 
  • Emotionally aware. 
  • Influencing. 
  • Interviewing. 
  • Leadership. 
  • Management. 
  • Negotiation. 
  • Political savvy. 
  • Presentation. 
  • Questioning. 
  • Teamworking. 

Personal attributes: 

  • Adaptable. 
  • Artistic. 
  • Creative. 
  • Empathetic. 
  • Entrepreneurial. 
  • Flexible. 
  • Innovative. 
  • Intuitive. 
  • Resilient. 
  • Tolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty. 

Until automated systems can handle these soft skills, human capabilities will be required. This suggests that some of the apocalyptic predictions about the impact of AI on work are overblown. Those skills will continue to be in demand, and probably more so. Having them will help to ensure your continued employability and career progression. 

If we think of technological development as a competition for tasks, between us and the machines, these are the areas in which (for now) we win, and AI loses. AI can’t do empathy, inspiration, rapport, trust-building, team motivation, conflict resolution, and other human capabilities central to personal and organisational functioning. And don’t expect AI to display an appropriate degree of emotional intelligence in sensitive situations. 

However, it’s more useful to think in terms of collaboration than competition. In many cases (assisting medical diagnosis, for example, or drafting online articles), we are not looking at AI but at IA – Intelligence Augmentation.  

AI may be able to perform a risk assessment, but AI systems are known to ‘hallucinate’ and to make mistakes. In a high-stakes setting, you will probably want to rely on human judgment when making a final decision. 

Is there a problem? 

Human interaction still underpins organisational effectiveness. But increasing reliance on technology can reduce the opportunities to use and to develop soft skills. The interaction that grandson Jack has with his friends is mostly online, with smartphones and computers. This has to change. 

As machines get smarter, we need to get smarter. Many people think they have these soft skills already. That may be true, but only to a degree. Asking questions is easy. Asking the right questions can be tricky, as anyone who has used ChatGPT will know. For the age of AI, we will need to supercharge those skills. 

Supercharging soft skill development 

Technology is only one reason for investing more heavily in soft skills. Increasing workforce diversity puts a premium on fostering mutual understanding and collaboration. As everyone is using similar technology, competitive advantage increasingly springs from engaged staff who ‘go the extra mile’ to improve performance. Driven by technological, geopolitical, and economic factors, the pace of events puts a premium on the ability to respond quickly. 

People development professionals can drive this investment through the following approaches: 

  1. Hiring for skills: Emphasise the importance of soft skills in addition to other capabilities in recruitment, selection, and promotion decisions. 
  1. Performance appraisal: Integrate soft skills development goals and their links to individual and corporate performance in routine appraisals and performance management. 
  1. Cross-functional teams: Set up inter-departmental projects to encourage information-sharing, collaboration, cross-training, and mentorship. 
  1. Creativity training: Yes, creativity can be developed, although most people will tell you that they are not creative at all. An increasingly complex business environment demands novel solutions. Training in creative methods and tools can deliver these. 
  1. Continuous learning: This is a skill in its own right. Signal its importance by running workshops on soft skill topics such as critical thinking, solving wicked problems, interview skills, influencing skills, data interpretation, and presentation skills. 

These skills need to be developed using a broad spectrum of methods; traditional structured programmes, simulations, mentoring and coaching, reverse mentoring, forming peer learning communities, and cultural sensitivity training. 

The pay-off 

Soft skills are central to individual employability, corporate performance, and competitive advantage. The skills may be soft, but returns on the investment are likely to be substantial. 

David Buchanan is Emeritus Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Cranfield University School of Management. He can be reached at: 

Steve Macaulay is an Associate at Cranfield Executive Development, Cranfield University. He can be reached at:

David Buchanan

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