Cognitive Pliability: The Evolution of Traditional Soft Skills for the Future Workplace
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Cognitive Pliability: The Evolution of Traditional Soft Skills for the Future Workplace

Amber Grewal, VP, Global Talent Acquisition, IBM
Amber Grewal, VP, Global Talent Acquisition, IBM

Amber Grewal, VP, Global Talent Acquisition, IBM

Foundational literacies, including reading, writing, math, and science, are the cornerstone of our education system. But these skills alone are no longer enough to succeed in the 21st century workplace. Companies seeking great talent backed by a variety of studies underscore that school must also help students develop professional skills like problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity. These are essential competencies for the future of work, especially as automation rises.

Even beyond these, students need an evolved set of skills, critical for the 21st century, that use core cognitive abilities, in a more agile way, to enhance their ability to absorb new knowledge quickly and adapt to changing environments. This requires students to be prepared, beginning in the earliest grades, with the ability to exhibit the following behaviors:

• Motivation to want to solve a problem

• Curiosity to seek creative and innovative solutions

• Perseverance to be open-minded to think critically

• Desire to understand why people feel a certain way

In my 20+ years working in talent management in the tech industry, most recently at IBM, one of the trends I’ve seen occur era after era is the constant skills shift companies expect from employees. Traditional soft skills are important, but only individuals with the mental perspective and agility to adapt to rapid business changes will achieve performance success in their careers. I call this concept, cognitive pliability.

  Traditional soft skills are important, but only individuals with the mental perspective and agility to adapt to rapid business changes will achieve performance success in their careers   

Cognitive Pliability in the Classroom

The three skills that comprise an individual’s cognitive pliability include:

• Learning agility – willingness and attitude to want to learn new things quickly.

• Mindfulness – mental perseverance to bring one’s mind into the present and stay focused on outcomes.

• Empathy – desire to understand feelings of others by “walking in their shoes.”

Learning Agility

For young students, this is their willingness and positive attitude to learn, ability to learn new things quickly, and natural curiosity that keeps them wanting more.

When students are given complex problems to solve, those with learning agility are willing to take on the problem, ready to adapt to new ways of solving it, and motivated to see it through to the end. It’s not just about knowing how to solve a problem, but also having the willingness and curiosity to want to solve it.

With rapid changes in the workplace, businesses require talent that can adapt to multiple environments to solve business needs. Young students are naturally curious and need environments where they’re free to be inquisitive.


When faced with adversity, the ability to stay in the present, control emotions, and maintain focus on solving the primary issue is difficult, even for adults! Many schools are increasingly focusing on training students to have this kind of mindfulness and grit by convincing them they can learn and solve problems if they keep their minds in the present and adapt to sudden changes in the environment.

Equally important, students must be taught to understand if they don’t answer a question correctly, it doesn’t mean they failed. They must learn that failure means they can learn from the mistake and continue trying to solve the problem in a new or different way.


Individuals with strong levels of empathy can connect with the feelings of others almost as strongly as they can their own feelings. Empathy is natural and can be fostered to enable young people to express compassion, connect with people on a deeper level, and communicate effectively.

Teaching this to children beginning in their early school years helps build acceptance of one’s self and others, leading to a broader understanding of diversity and inclusion. Schools that continue teaching empathy throughout middle school, high school, and college help ensure that as young people move into leadership positions, our workplaces, and our great society, reflect these important values.

Empathy is a critical social skill, era after era, especially in the age of artificial intelligence (AI). The more empathy training students have when they enter the workforce, the better they will understand customers, co-create with colleagues, and ensure that these powerful technologies are used in service of society. This will lead to more effective leaders and people managers; two skills that will be coveted by companies in the future.

An Education Model That Adapts

Providing young people with the full range of skills they need to succeed is not the sole responsibility of schools. Industry has a role as well. To bridge the gap between skills students learn in school and skills companies need in future employees, educational models that combine the expertise of educators and employers offer great promise.

One powerful example is the P-TECH 9-14 School Model, a public education reform initiative that extends high school from four to six years, covering grades 9-14. When students graduate, they earn both a high school diploma and an associate, or two-year postsecondary, degree directly aligned to industry needs, along with the academic, technical and professional skills required for students to continue their education in a four-year postsecondary institution or enter competitive entry-level STEM careers.

P-TECH students are paired with professional mentors, participate in workplace learning, receive hands-on training to build career skills, and become eligible for paid internships with their industry partner. These experiences enable students to learn necessary skills and apply them in real-world workplaces. The P-TECH model is proof how business, education, and public sectors can collaborate to improve education and diversify the workforce.

Preparing K-12 Students for the Future Workplace

Regardless of age, children or adult, it’s critical to have cognitive pliability to think on your feet and seek a desirable outcome, in any environment. I practice this with my five-year old daughter: I give her a topic new to her to think about, allow her 15 seconds to plan her response, and have her talk about the topic for 60 seconds. This gives her an opportunity to exercise her cognitive pliability by training her to think quickly, adapt to something new, and stay motivated to complete the task.

Students need more training in cognitive pliability to ensure they’re ready for the future workplace. Our task is to help students learn traditional soft skills, but also enable them to develop mental awareness and agility.

As an industry leader in talent, I see that the most successful, and happiest, workers have high levels of learning agility, mindfulness, and empathy. Individuals with the mental capacity and desire to constantly learn new things in new environments, while staying mindful and empathetic, are the type of people companies will reward in the 21st century workplace.

Check out: Top Cognitive Technology Companies

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