Research Suggests Employers Seek Candidates With Strong Social Skills

Strong cognitive skills–those that can be measured with IQ tests, for instance–are always in demand in the marketplace. However, new research by economists finds that employers are also increasingly searching for applicants with other strengths: “non-cognitive” soft skills such as teamwork, collaboration, and oral and written communication skills.

This is a strong affirmation for the leaders I know who have been putting in the work to strengthen their self-knowledge, listening skills, executive presence and other aspects of emotional intelligence.

“Strong cognitive skills are increasingly a necessary — but not a sufficient — condition for obtaining a good, high-paying job,” says David J. Deming, an economist and professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. “You also need to have social skills.” One reason for this, he suggests, is that in many jobs there is currently no robotic or computer replacement for social interaction. Deming reported on his work and that of others showing a growing need for so-called non-cognitive skills such as communication and teamwork in the report The Value of Soft Skills in the Labor Market. “New research finds that from 2000 to 2012, jobs that require “non-cognitive” skills, such as the ability to communicate and work in teams, grew much faster than jobs mainly requiring skills measurable by IQ or achievement tests,” summarizes writer Peter Coy, who covered the subject recently for Bloomberg Business.

Deming’s work also shows some other interesting trends:

  • Between 1980 and 2012, social skill-intensive occupations grew by nearly 12 percentage points as a share of all U.S. jobs. Wages also grew more rapidly for social skill-intensive occupations than for other occupations over this period. 
  • In contrast, both employment and wages grew more slowly for occupations with high math but low social skill requirements, including many STEM jobs.

Of course, “social skills” is a somewhat general term. As Deming defines them, these skills are not just what is required for simple social exchanges, but are more complex, focused on really understanding others and their motivations in a way that strengthens teamwork.

” Psychologists call this “theory of mind” — the ability to attribute mental states to others based on their behavior, or, more colloquially, to “put oneself into another’s shoes,” writes Deming.

We know that developing social skills benefits everyone through better conversations, smoother, more open meetings, and happier employees. This research shows that these skills can also have a measurable impact on your career.

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