What the Academic Research Says About Power Skills

Posted on July 27, 2022


Daniel Stein, PhDPower skills/Soft skills

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How power skills can improve Quality-of-Hire and organizational diversity

In my former life as an academic, I had the opportunity to help teach MBA classes at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. What I always found interesting was that the full-time MBA students (typically junior professionals with a few years of work experience) were most excited about the classes that taught “technical” skills, such as accounting, finance, and marketing. However, the Executive MBA students (typically advanced professionals with 10-20 years of work experience) were most excited about the classes that taught “behavioral” skills, such as leadership, communication, and ethics. 

As you may expect, it turns out that the advanced students knew something critical that the junior students did not: non-technical, behavioral skills are critical for success in the workplace. What advanced students craved to learn were power skills. In this post, I’ll share what these power skills are, why they matter and how Talent and L&D professionals can measure them. 

What are Power Skills?

Power skills are the non-job-specific attributes required to successfully perform a job. A skill is job-specific if only certain jobs require it to be successful. For instance, computer programming is not necessary to be successful at food preparation; as a result, it is not a power skill. 

Thus, power skills are general, job-free attributes — such as personality and working style — which promote success across jobs and organizations. Examples of power skills include problem solving, coachability, resourcefulness, empathy, persistence and charisma. Power skills were formally called soft skills, but recently, People, Talent, and L&D professionals renamed “soft skills” to “power skills” because these skills are not “soft” but critically important for success.

The opposite of power skills are hard skills, or the technical (job-specific) attributes required to perform a job. Examples of hard skills include computer programming, foreign language proficiency, data analysis, architecture and business acumen.  Whether or not a specific hard skill is required to perform a job depends on the role and even the specific organization. For instance, among software engineers, different organizations have different technology stacks (e.g., React vs. Angular) and thus require software engineers to have different hard skills. In contrast, power skills are universally applicable and relevant, such that possessing power skills can positively boost success at a wide range of jobs and organizations.  

Why are Power Skills Important?

According to decades of academic research, power skills are very important for work and life success more broadly.

#1: Power skills matter for job performance — and can matter more than cognitive intelligence.

A study of 316 full-time human resource representatives at department stores found that certain power skills (such as persistence and empathy) positively influenced job performance (as rated by direct managers). Even more, the study found that the predictive power of power skills was larger and more consequential than the predictive power of cognitive intelligence. In this situation, being “smart” was less important to success than having these relevant power skills.

#2: Selection procedures that include power skills can increase the diversity of an organization.

In the college admissions context, research with nearly three thousand college students has found that selection based on cognitive intelligence and power skills leads more ethnic minority applicants to be admitted as opposed to selection based on cognitive intelligence alone. Generalizing these results to hiring, holistic selection procedures that incorporate attributes such as power skills may increase the diversity of new hires, which is an important goal at many organizations.

#3: Power skills promote better self-regulation, leading to positive life outcomes. 

A randomized controlled experiment (the gold standard in economics and behavioral science) found that teaching children power skills causally produced the following outcomes in adulthood: better academic achievement and a lower likelihood of committing a crime (both misdemeanor and felony). In summarizing the research, the author of the research, James Heckman (a Nobel Prize-winning economist) said: “We now have very hard evidence that you have to have soft skills in order to succeed.”

How are Power Skills Measured?

At Searchlight, we lean into the research and measure an individual’s power skills as part of our 360 People Assessment. Our power skills assessment is both unbiased and comprehensive. Here’s how we know. 

  • Unbiased: We self-audit, conducting ongoing adverse impact analyses to determine whether ratings on a given power skill are different depending on gender and ethnicity. If a power skill does show potential signs of adverse impact, we remove it.
  • Comprehensive: We built our power skills assessment building on established theories in organizational psychology and behavioral science (e.g., warmth and competence model of leadership), ensuring that our assessment does not exclude power skills that have predictive power.  

With Searchlight, we ask the individual and their prior managers and colleagues to nominate the individual’s power skills that are strengths and opportunities. Our power skills assessment currently includes 31 power skills that can be strengths and 28 power skills that can be opportunities. (However, the exact number of power skills in our assessment is evolving as our database grows and our predictive insights become stronger.) See below for a partial section of our current assessment:

Because power skills can affect Quality of Hire, Searchlight’s power skills assessment enables organizations to reduce mishires and select job applicants more likely to become happy, engaged, high-performing employees. Learn more here and check back next week for a new post where I dive into one specific power skill and analyze how it affects Quality of Hire. 

Daniel Stein, PhD

People Data Scientist As a People Data Scientist at Searchlight, Dan combines subject matter expertise in organizational psychology with data science methods to uncover actionable people insights backed by science. Dan has a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from the University of California, Berkeley, and his research has been published in Harvard Business Review and Scientific American.

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