By Steve Kelman

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The hard benefits of soft skills

meeting (SFIO CRACHO/

David Deming is an economist who works on the economics of skill development and a colleague at the Kennedy School who recently became our academic dean. He spoke a few weeks ago at our weekly faculty research seminar lunch on “soft skills,” and I found the presentation really fascinating and highly relevant to blog readers, so I am sharing it here.

Social skills are growing in importance for jobs in our economy, and incomes for those with jobs requiring social skills are growing faster than for others. I suspect that many readers will be surprised to learn that if you compare occupations requiring high social/low math skills and those requiring low social/high math skills between 1980 and today, the proportion of the former in the economy has grown while the proportion of the latter has declined. (The biggest increase is among high math/high social.) Even more dramatically, wages during the same period have increased far more rapidly for low math/high social workers than for high math/low social ones.

Deming notes there are many studies showing that teams tend to produce more than the sum of individuals performing alone. Yet the research has had a hard time mapping average differences in individual skills to team performance. In some really fascinating research, Deming randomly assigned different individuals to teams and used individual skill scores to predict group performance. He amazingly finds that there are some groups who outperform their predicted performance based on individual skills when a certain person is randomly assigned to them. Deming defines these people as good team players.

Who are these people? One test that consistently predicts who will be a good team player is that individual’s score on what is called the “reading the mind in the eyes” test, which shows people a picture of the expression in someone’s eyes and asks them to predict the person’s emotional state. (This is a well-established test of social intelligence and emotional perceptiveness.)

How might the presence of individuals who are team players aid group performance? Deming finds that groups with a team player “rushed” less -- defined as submitting answers with more than 15 seconds to spare -- than other groups. (There is a negative association, he notes, between “rushing” and performance.) He also suspects that high levels of social skills facilitate a more efficient allocation of group members to those tasks in which they have a comparative advantage. But, he says, we still have a lot to learn about the mechanisms linking soft skills to hard team performance.

Note that Deming’s research has real practical implications for managers. Using the RMET test seems to be a valid way to identify team players. I can’t imagine why HR bureaucrats in agencies would object to using this test for hiring decisions for jobs where teamwork helps (especially since teamwork skills as measured by this test are unrelated to gender or race). Feds, go for it!

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 15, 2021 at 6:35 AM


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