Sending Out an SOS for Soft Skills

Clinical Researcher—September 2021 (Volume 35, Issue 7)


Zoran M. Pavlovic, MD


Periods of crisis, extreme uncertainty, and severe threats to corporations experienced due to globalization, several economic recessions in the last two decades, and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted the conduct of clinical trials worldwide. They also led to reconsiderations of current clinical trial project management best practices and called for new models, capabilities, and innovative techniques to meet the challenges of clinical research activities in the upcoming “next normal.” The vital aim of “A New E-R-A in Clinical Project Management” is to facilitate these processes by discussing key factors that will transform mindsets and skillsets of clinical project managers, project teams, and organizations by efficiently promoting, developing, and boosting their Excellence (E), Resilience (R), and Agility (A) capacities, so they can continue to support patient-centric clinical development of innovative treatments efficiently.

According to surveys of employers worldwide, soft skills are in high demand, and companies usually struggle to recruit people with high levels of these capabilities.{1} The reason is simple—these skills are highly predictive of success in the labor market.{2–4}

The concept of soft skills originated way back in 1918 when, during the regular meeting of the Joint Committee of the National Engineering Studies, many engineers were interrogated about the skills and abilities they considered vital in ascertaining success in the building engineering profession. The term itself was coined in 1972 and became widespread after 1990, though the topic has been addressed with many synonyms: life skills, transversal skills, transferable skills, future work skills, skills for social progress, critical competencies for lifelong earnings, and others.{5}

According to Robles,{6} soft skills represent a combination of interpersonal (people) skills and personal (career) attributes, as shown in the equation he made: Soft Skills = Interpersonal (People) Skills + Personal (Career) Attributes. For instance, interpersonal (people) skills are the foundation of successful customer service because they foster a happy attitude, effective communication, courteous engagement, and remain composed in stressful situations.{7}

On the other hand, personal characteristics typically include personality, likeability, time management, and organizational skills,{8} while career attributes pertain to communication, teamwork, and leadership skills.{9} A recent review article on soft skills gave a more granular description categorizing them as inter-, intrapersonal skills, and their combination (see Table 1).{10}

Table 1: Types and Forms of Soft Skills

Types of Soft Skills Forms of Soft Skills
Intrapersonal Skills Commitment



Positive work attitude

Creative problem solving

Strategic thinking

Willingness to learn

Time management

Interpersonal Skills Communication




Conflict management

Combination of Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Skills Commitment






Problem solving

Decision making

The most comprehensive list of soft skills is given by Simplicable, which distinguishes around 87 of these skills.{11}

Importance of Soft Skills in the New Normal Economy

A recent report from The Skills Network in the U.K. identified the top 10 soft skills currently sought by employers, based on the number of times they are requested in job postings.{12} Strong communication skills are the number one soft skill required by employers. However, the demand for management skills has also generated headlines. With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations are willing to invest more in their managers’ coaching to lead, facilitate, and motivate their colleagues, particularly with people feeling the additional pressures while working remotely. Soft skills like enthusiasm, planning, and detail orientation were also highly ranked, indicating the need for today’s workforce to plan and execute work efficiently.

Further, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently reported that the COVID-19 pandemic increased employer demand for a specific type of  “classical” transversal skills like “communication skills”. According to their findings , it’s crucial to be able to communicate effectively, especially when people are under pressure to give and receive precise instructions, or when they need to use new tools to communicate without the opportunity of having face-face interactions. The same applies for being able to work in teams (teamwork).{13} On the other hand, a recent United Nations Industrial Development Organization-European Training Foundation survey showed that creative thinking, analytical skills, and multitasking potential are also highly valued by businesses.{14}

State of Soft Skills Training

Unfortunately, too little attention is given to soft skills improvement by many senior executives. All too often, organizational leaders may view the concept of training for soft skills as requiring a simple seminar to motivate employees, but such activities provide minimal value to the firm that pays for the training in terms of any learnings being applied on the job or other business-related benefits.{15}

Therefore, the most pragmatic ways to approach measuring financial and other tangible benefits tied to soft skills training are to start the process by identifying the type of training that will provide the highest possible payback. Once the topic is specified, a return on investment (ROI) evaluation using appropriate metrics should be implemented following the training completion (usually at the first, third, and sixth months). An excellent example of this practice was described recently by authors from Harvard University, Boston University, and University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business who evaluated the effectiveness of soft skills training in Indian workers. After training a randomly selected group of women laborers on a variety of soft skills, such as problem solving and self awareness, the study measured the impact of training on metrics such as productivity and retention. The results showed an astonishing 256% ROI.{16}

Another great example comes from Google, which in 2013 reviewed 15 years of hiring, firing, and promotion data. This project led to the surprising discovery that hard skills ranked lowest among the top seven qualities of Google’s top employees.{17} Among the top characteristics of a successful Google employee found in the study were:

  • Being a good coach
  • Communicating and listening well
  • Possessing insights into others (including their different values and points of view)
  • Having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues
  • Being a good critical thinker and problem solver
  • Being able to make connections across complex ideas
  • STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) skills expertise

Although acquiring or improving your soft skill armamentarium requires continuous professional coaching and everyday practice, certain tips from organizations that may be considered stakeholders in the pursuit can facilitate a quick start down the path toward soft skills excellence. Here are some suggestions from Indeed, a global recruitment agency{18}:

  • Be open to feedback.
  • Communicate often with your colleagues and managers.
  • Emphasize teamwork.
  • Build positive relationships.
  • Step outside your comfort zone.
  • Get ready to learn.
  • Adapt to workplace changes.
  • Observe others.
  • Work through conflict.
  • Take on a leadership role.
  • Arrive at work on time.

Meanwhile, Glassdoor, another job search and review platform, gives priority to these two ideas for improving your soft skills{19}:

  • Get a coach.
  • Practice with a friend.

Moreover, here is my four-step “Why Do You Create” approach, which I use to coach leaders, managers, and employees on how to most efficiently (quickly and effectively) acquire and improve their desirable soft skills:


  • First, I ask my client about his or her primary motivation to improve/acquire a particular soft skill.


  • Then we jointly develop their daily curriculum, and I teach them how to keep a soft skills diary and monitor their daily progress.


  • Then I assess my client’s personality traits, personal strengths, and ways of learning new things.


  • Finally, we formulate the creative homework assignments that he or she can practice on the job and outside the office (at home, during leisure time, etc.).


I want to conclude my first column installment for Clinical Researcher with a piece of straightforward, practical advice to all employers, leaders, managers, human resource partners, and talent acquisition and management professionals: Take care of your employees as you would take care of your diamonds. Their primary value multiplies a hundred- or even a thousand-fold when they are regularly “polished.” So, begin investing in soft skills training to prevent high turnover, low performance, low morale, and low engagement among your staff so that your company may not only survive but thrive in today’s VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity)–filled economy.


  1. Cunningham WV, Villasenor P. 2016.
  2. Bassi V, Nansamba A, Liberia B. 2017. Information frictions in the labor market: Evidence from a field experiment in uganda. Cited in:
  3. Deming DJ. 2015.
  4. Montalvao J, Frese M, Goldstein M, Kilic T. 2017.
  5. Cinque M. 2016.
  6. Robles MM. 2012.
  7. Evenson R. 1999. Soft skills, hard sell. Techniques: Making Education & Career Connections 74(3):29– Cited in:
  8. Parsons TL. 2008.
  9. James RF, James ML. 2004. Teaching career and technical skills in a “mini” business world. Business Education Forum 59(2):39–41. Cited in:
  10. Widiyono, SE. 2019. The Role of Soft Skills in Preventing Educated Unemployment: A Phenomenological Approach of University Graduates in Jakarta. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science 9(5).
  15. Onisk M. 2011.
  16. Adhvaryu A, Kala N, Nyshadham A. 2018.

Zoran M. Pavlovic, MD, ( is a psychiatrist and executive coach for life science leaders with Heruka Lifescience and Health Innovations. He is also an official member of the Forbes Coaches Council and a Fellow at the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School Affiliate.