By Anna Lawrence, Vantage Consultants
Most companies proclaim to hire for attitude and train for skill. But the “attitude” most sought in potential employees is actually soft skills, which are widely believed to be unteachable. Therefore, the training provided to employees once hired is predominantly focused on the hard skills needed to do a specific job, even though it is soft skills which better guarantee employee success and longevity, and lately, seem harder to come by. According to a report conducted by Udemy for Business, 72 percent of companies surveyed provide training that is only related to employees’ roles. But soft skills can indeed be nurtured, and for those companies who do so, the effort can provide tangible, bottom-line results.
What are soft skills?
Soft skills are those which are perceived to be innate – skills that a person either has or does not have. Yet most soft skills are driven by emotional intelligence (EI) which has been proven to be modifiable, unlike IQ, which is static.
Some of the soft skills most desired in long-term employees are:
- Leadership – the ability to supervise and direct others, cultivate relationships both horizontally and vertically within organizations, assess, discern and motivate
- Teamwork – the ability to take on versatile, beneficial roles within a team setting and/or collaborate with others even when working alone
- Communication – the ability to speak clearly and concisely, listen actively, demonstrate appropriate body language and effectively write for a variety of formats
- Problem Solving – the ability to thoroughly analyze a challenge from multiple sides and systematically formulate workable solutions
- Strong Work Ethic – the practice of self-management derived from a high level of integrity with outcomes including being on time, completing the required work, performing tasks without errors, meeting deadlines and possessing the initiative to go a step beyond the expected
- Flexibility/Adaptability – the ability to shift gears or change direction smoothly
- Interpersonal Skills – the ability to build and maintain relationships, practice diplomacy, give and receive constructive criticism and demonstrate consistent respect and tolerance
Although it is proven that soft skills can be improved, it is important to understand that improvement does not come simply through study. Soft skills can only be learned through a process of change and practice which can be both difficult and, at times, uncomfortable.
Effective Steps for Inspiring Soft Skills Development
Before anyone can develop their soft skills, they must possess a willingness to change. One way to encourage this willingness is to convey the benefits of growth and advancement available as a result of soft skills improvement. Those with a desire for opportunity will likely be open to the process. Those who cannot open themselves up to the challenge, regardless of the possibilities presented, will do better to move in a different direction.
For employees who are willing to change, submergence into the culture of soft skill development can set the tone and mindset for success. Reading, comprehension and discussion of books such as Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won’t Get You There are great starting places.
Evaluation and assessment, both self-assessment and the input of others, are key to identifying areas for improvement. Self-reflection requires that participants are humble enough to accept their own flaws, and willing to do the hard work needed to overcome. Gaining input from respected others, both equals and higher-ups, can validate self-assessment and open eyes to blind spots. This part of the process sets the benchmarks as well as the strategy for all efforts.
Following the assessment, it is important to determine three to five goals to work towards as well as how progress will be measured. Sharing these goals and benchmarks with others will help to keep the process top-of-mind while also setting a stage where progress can be observed and recognized.
Change exercises should provide opportunities to practice skills in real-life scenarios. Following are some practical ideas to incorporate into everyday situations.
Practice active listening to improve teamwork. Discuss the components of active listening, which includes a concentrated effort to be mindful of others’ verbal and nonverbal cues, while acknowledging both their presence and their contributions with active responses. Encourage associates to focus on these skills at each meeting they attend, making notes and sharing their experiences.
Invite employees to lead meetings as a way to practice their speaking skills. Encourage them to prepare by summarizing what needs to be covered and developing an outline of key points that keeps the conversation on point. This practice will not only help with communication organization, but also with confidence.
Recognize teamwork and collaboration and lead by example. Make special practice of providing opportunities that encourage dialogue during meetings, as opposed to relying on lecture style. Ask others’ opinions and encourage input from all. A culture of teamwork works best when cultivated from the top down.
Offer company mentorship programs, where those who excel at specific soft skills are paired with those who struggle in the same area. Allow the mentorship relationships to develop organically through mutual respect and trust. Not only will this grow the intended skills, but also offers practice of interpersonal skills and relationship building.
Fostering soft skills in employees is not the simplest training a company can provide, but it could be the most beneficial. It is important to remember that the takeaway comes from the process, and some failures should be expected. But with patience and diligence, results are achievable.
When looking at the most successful teams, it is worth noting that they consist of members who utilize a combination of soft and hard skills that are both appropriate to the position and that complement other members accordingly. Employers who invest in training, both in soft and hard skills, cause employees to feel valued and motivated to exceed expectations, resulting in bottom line rewards.
6 Steps to Improving your Current Employees Soft Skills – Fast Company, October 2014
The Importance of Practicing Soft Skills in the Workplace