Recently, a large group of public school teachers participated in a summer workshop focusing on workplace changes and improvements. During the workshop, the facilitator asked this question of teachers with more than 10 years of experience: “How do kids of today differ from kids of 10 years ago?” The response was nearly universal: Kids of today are more technologically savvy and dependent; however, there has been a definite erosion of their interpersonal skills (e.g., solving problems, dealing with conflict, being civil and working in teams). This blog post focuses on that erosion and uses the following words interchangeably: people skills, soft skills and emotional intelligence.

Before we start challenging our thinking about the potential systematic erosion of people skills, it would be prudent to share a foundational definition. One of the best definitions comes from author and researcher Dr. Reuven Bar-On. He said people skills are “an array of non-cognitive capabilities, competencies and skills that influences one’s ability to succeed in coping with environmental demands and pressures.” They are skills in areas such as intrapersonal, interpersonal, stress management, adaptability and general mood.

Dr. Daniel Goleman, author of “Emotional Intelligence,” often states that emotional intelligence is what we used to call maturity. Emotional and social intelligence are the more common terms for people skills. A 2012 study by Marcel Robles identified the top 10 people skills perceived as most important by business executives: integrity, communication, courtesy, responsibility, social skills, positive attitude, professionalism, flexibility, teamwork and work ethic.

Soft skills encompass interpersonal qualities and personal attributes. Conversely, hard skills are those skills requiring technical expertise and job-specific content knowledge. Executives consider soft skills an important attribute in job applicants, so an erosion of those vital skills reduces the number of quality candidates. There is a saying that hard skills help you get in the door, and soft skills determine how long you stay and how high you climb. For example, Southwest Airlines has a success mantra that they “hire for attitude and train for skill.” This strategy seems to have served them well over the decades.

People skills are eroding, maybe at an even more hectic pace than ever. Consider the connection between technology reliance and people skill erosion. Regardless of your own reliance on technology, consider technology dependence as a potential root cause of the declining emotional intelligence. The teachers in that summer workshop are perhaps some of the most highly qualified to make this observation, as they see students of all ages each day and have for 10 or more years.

The coworkers and leaders of today mirror that trend. Of course, we all know how powerful the technology we have at our fingertips is today, from smartphones and Googling to “asking Alexa” and ordering a product for delivery in mere hours. Incredible? Sure, but at what cost?

Do you have people on your team who, when faced with a people issue, will plead, “Can I just send an email?” Their formative years pushed them to a place where it feels safer to fire off an email or text or tweet than look into someone’s eyes and have a real conversation – to make a real connection, human to human. Those public school teachers said something quite shocking: When faced with a problem, today’s kids crave the chance to pick up their phone and text their parents to ask them to solve the problem for them rather than working it out by trying, perhaps failing and learning from that failure.

If you believe people skills are important (and the research shows these competencies are vitally important for humans to thrive, survive, and live and work together today and tomorrow), what can you do about it?

  1. Be aware of this trend.
  2. Find out where you are with your own people skills; take the assessment at the end of this post (designed based on the work of Bar-On, Stein and Book). Care enough to become self-aware; it’s the biggest step toward improvement.
  3. Ask others who know you well how skilled you are, or how eroded you are, in the area of people skills. Give copies of this assessment to at least three people who know you well enough to complete it.
  4. Finally, share the results with those who filled it out, and tell them the one or two actions you plan to implement thanks to their feedback on your people skills.