When you think about skills, where does your mind wander? Maybe you imagine cooking lessons, or changing a tire. Or maybe you think about more career-oriented skills like programming and public speaking.
Chances are, your first inclination isn’t to think about skills like inclusion, empathy, and collaboration. But that’s exactly where Deb Bubb’s mind wanders — and stays. And as the Chief Leadership and Learning Officer at IBM, a global corporation that has made learning a top priority over the last several years, Deb cares a great deal about building more of these soft skills in her employees amid an AI revolution that threatens to eliminate millions of jobs.
There’s no ‘inclusion gene’
While Deb no doubt understands that hard skills matter — computer science isn’t going anywhere anytime soon — she still believes people define “skills” far too narrowly.
“I think one of the biggest pivots we’re making is to this whole concept of skills as a currency, and when you break down any topic or any capability into its component skills, you can see a lot more of what’s happening,” Deb said on a recent episode of NLI’s podcast, Your Brain at Work.
In other words, it does employees a disservice to think about soft skills strictly as a matter of personality. People can learn to be more inclusive, and practice it as a habit on a daily basis, Deb argues. They don’t possess some elusive “inclusion gene” that naturally endows them with the ability to build strong teams.
All they need are the building blocks of that skill to know what practicing it looks like.
“We haven’t really thought about soft skills broken down into their components in this way precisely,” Deb said. “When you break them down in a sort of science-based way and start to think about [how] these are actually skills I can practice and apply… it can be quite empowering.”
Being inclusive about new skills
However, Deb also acknowledges that such intense change can feel threatening to employees. Having done the same work for years, perhaps decades, some people may rightfully feel like they have limited options, simply because they have limited skills. What Deb encourages managers to do is broaden people’s scope. She wants to help them see more of their people’s capabilities as actual abilities, separate from temperament or preference.
For example, someone who considers herself shy may feel like she will always stay shy, and that no amount of practice will get her to feel naturally outgoing. The skills-as-a-currency idea would encourage her to think of the skills that make up a given set of behaviors and build on those, perhaps by learning the mechanics of public-speaking and the tools underpinning emotional self-regulation.
Suddenly, a self-limiting descriptor has given way to a feeling of empowerment and ability.