Business Leaders Emphasize Importance Of Social And Emotional Skills In The Workplace

There is now widespread consensus that young people need much more than proficiency in traditional academic subjects in order to be ready for college, the workplace, and civic life. A richer and deeper definition of readiness includes intra-and inter-personal skills and dispositions such as self-efficacy and growth mindset.

At the same time, the American workforce is experiencing a skills shortage that is slated only to grow. Record-breaking numbers of job openings combined with a relatively stagnant hiring rate provide compelling evidence that employers are searching for qualified candidates but struggling to find them. Recent evidence suggests that the health care, education, and tech sectors are particularly hungry for skilled employees, and more broadly that the U.S. is short 1.4 million professionals with “skills like communication, reasoning, and working in teams.”

Citizen Schools, a leader in project-based learning, actively partners with leading corporations and members of the business community to bridge this gap. By bringing talented business professionals into the classroom, Citizen Schools ensures middle school students have access to content experts and experiential learning opportunities that build social-emotional skills spark interest in college studies and future careers. Recent evidence associates improved social and emotional skills with significant increases in future earnings and probability of employment, tendency to go to college and avoid violent crime, and countless other desirable outcomes.

Last summer, the Aspen Institute National Commission for Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, in partnership with Citizen Schools, virtually convened leaders from industries including technology, finance, consulting, healthcare, energy, and philanthropy to discuss the business community’s perspectives on social and emotional skills and development. Commissioners Jorge Benitez and General Craig McKinley and Citizen Schools CEO Emily McCann led the focus group in discussing the following topics:

  • What social and emotional skills are important in the corporate sector, and with what language are they discussed?

  • How does the business community measure and value social and emotional skills?

  • What do the learning environments of the school space and the business space have in common when it comes to cultivating social and emotional skills?

Key Takeaways

The focus group’s discussion revealed the broader array of skills that today’s employers value such as intellectual curiosity, willingness to give and receive feedback, personal ownership of problems and challenges, and recognition of unconscious bias. The group also revealed many businesses are taking steps to intentionally prioritize these skills by embedding them within key organizational practices such as explicitly measuring and rewarding social and emotional skills in hiring and performance. A few of the most important insights from the conversation follow.

  1. The business community values a very broad range of social and emotional skills, including many the Commission has not previously named

    Each participant was asked to list the top skills valued by his/her company or industry. Some skills were expected -- communication, teamwork, adaptability, tenacity -- but many more were named that the Commission had not yet specifically articulated as important. The corporate leaders’ inclusion of skills such as intellectual curiosity, willingness to give and receive feedback, personal ownership of problems and challenges, recognition of unconscious bias, and more demonstrates powerfully that the set of social and emotional skills that are widely valued is much broader than often believed.

  2. Social and emotional skills are explicitly measured and heavily rewarded in hiring and promotion practices across the corporate sector

    Corporate leaders don’t just claim to value social and emotional skills, or appreciate them in the abstract; they define their hiring and promotion criteria around them. Several corporate leaders described advancement rubrics that weight “what you do” equally to “how you do it” – meaning that actual productivity is just as important as how an employee interacts with teammates, communicates ideas, adapts to challenges, and projects passion on the job. Some firms also described skill development rubrics that outline how employees should be growing their teamwork, communication, and leadership skills throughout their careers, and others describe hiring interview techniques designed to test applicants’ abilities to communicate and adapt under pressure.

  3. Finding common and accurate language on social and emotional development is key to promoting common understanding

    While participants did not necessarily agree on what terminology to use when talking about social and emotional development, they did agree that establishing common language is essential to moving toward valuing and discussing it effectively. One speaker even said “I believe we’re all talking about the same things; we’re just using different words.” In particular, the group expressed its distaste for the term “soft skills” and its implicit devaluation of skills that are not “hard” or technical.

  4. Corporate leaders think globally about the assessment and development of social and emotional skills

    Throughout the discussion, corporate leaders emphasized a multicultural perspective on social and emotional skills as a priority. Some mentioned cultural sensitivity and the ability to work with diverse teams as key skills for employees. Others, when prompted to describe the ideal learning environments for skill development, mentioned the importance of maintaining diverse spaces for leadership training. One speaker sparked discussion by cautioning against using a universal standard to judge social and emotional skills, pointing out that different cultures might perceive and judge certain skills differently, and that leaders must be understanding of those differences, especially when thinking about hiring or promotion.

  5. Business leaders have plenty of ideas about what schools can do better, and the National Commission can do more to bring them into the effort toward school improvement

    Many members of the focus group offered their perspectives on how schools fail to properly cultivate social, emotional, and academic development, and what measures they might take to improve. One speaker criticized feedback and evaluation systems wherein students are graded on and commended for their academic success, but not for social and emotional excellence. Another speaker sensitive to the tight time and resource constraints affecting schools stressed the importance of embedding social and emotional learning into academic curricula. It is evident from our discussion that the corporate sector is rich with thoughts on how our schools can develop social and emotional skills more effectively, suggesting that the National Commission stands to benefit from engaging the business community directly in school improvement efforts.


The facts are clear: our students’ need for learning environments in and out of school that foster social and emotional development is reflected in the American workforce’s growing need for skilled workers. Organizations like Citizen Schools that create rich partnerships between schools and the business community offer unique insights into how we might continue these important conversations. Before it sunsets this December, the National Commission will release a final Report from the Nation, including a research agenda to guide social scientists toward the questions that will most productively advance our understanding of social, emotional, and academic development; as well as a set of consensus recommendations for policy and practice to advise teachers, school leaders, policymakers, and other stakeholders toward implementing evidence-based best practices to support the comprehensive development of each and every young person. We must commit to ensuring all children have the skills, relationships and mindsets necessary to thrive in all settings - including the workforce.

About Citizen Schools
Citizen Schools is a national nonprofit organization that partners with middle schools to re-imagine the learning  day for underserved adolescents across the country. Citizen Schools mobilizes AmeriCorps educators and volunteer “Citizen Teachers” who work in the classroom setting to share real-world knowledge and challenge students with hands-on projects and problems.  The experiences are designed to ignite curiosity, engage students in their unique learning process, and develop skills and mindsets required for success in high school, college and beyond. For more information, please visit

About the Aspen Institute’s National Commission for Social, Emotional, and Academic Development

The National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development is a coalition of more than 100 leaders in education, youth development, business, research, policy, health, the military, as well as parents and youth. The Commission has gone through a year and a half of listening, learning, and creating consensus in order to engage and energize communities to support a more comprehensive preK-12 education system that reflects the integrated nature of the social, emotional, and academic dimensions of learning. The Commission is in the process of developing recommendations across research, practice, and policy that are aligned and de-siloed, as well as an implementation plan for the recommendations – also known as the “change agenda” – that will serve as a roadmap for how this work will be sustained and amplified in years to come.