Teach Old-Fashioned Basics to Bridge Gap in Soft-Skill Behaviors

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek June 28, 2016

Showing up on time for work. Staying at work all day. Working while you're on the job. Dressing appropriately for work.

Those are "old-fashioned basics" of professional behavior that exemplify so-called "soft skills"—skills that are in greater demand than ever but are missing in the workplace, Bruce Tulgan told attendees at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition.

Increasingly, though, job candidates and employees lack workplace behaviors that demonstrate a mastery of soft skills, Tulgan said June 21.

He is the founder of RainmakerThinking Inc., a New Haven, Conn.-based firm that has been researching generational workplace issues for 23 years. He spoke at the June 21 concurrent session "Bridging the Soft Skills Gap in the 21st-Century Workforce."

He lectures regularly at the Yale School of Management and other business schools and is the author or co-author of 20 books. Those titles include Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials (Jossey-Bass, 2016) and Bridging the Soft Skills Gap: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today's Young Talent (Jossey-Bass, 2015).

While it's well-known that a technological gap of science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills exists, Tulgan said, there is a growing soft skills gap in the workplace. Mastering the soft skills leads to work habits that contribute to what he calls "old-fashioned professionalism."

"The way people are showing up in the workplace is not meeting the needs and expectations of business when it comes to these basics of professionalism," he said.

It's a problem that has been "growing in plain sight for decades" among all ages but that is greatest among the youngest, least experienced employees and job candidates. Hiring managers tell him  it has gotten progressively worse in the last 23 years, said Tulgan, an internationally recognized expert on leadership and performance management.

One of the reasons is that the old management model—a willingness to put in many years with the same company in the hope of career advancement—is no longer working.

"It's not that they're disloyal. ... They just want to know 'what do I get?,' " he said of young workers. It's not enough that they get to keep their job, Tulgan noted, because they operate with short-term, transactional thinking.

And because they've been reared to believe that all personal styles are valid, they're not willing to conform for long-term rewards. A prime example, Tulgan noted, was the young employee who was repeatedly told he was expected at work at 8 a.m. but who reasoned that he was "not a morning person."

Younger people have not been taught soft skills and their resultant behaviors, including the importance of a "service mindset—what it means to be a good citizen in this organization and in the workplace," he said.

They want to be taken seriously, Tulgan said, and it's up to organizations to spell out the soft skills that most matter. When hiring for a mechanic, for example, is your company looking for a great mechanic or a great mechanic with a good attitude who's polite and helpful to customers?

Starting with onboarding, communicate to everyone how important your standards of behavior are, Tulgan advised, and ask yourself:

  • Are these behaviors taught on an ongoing, rigorous basis?

  • Are they monitored, measured and documented?

  • Are you rewarding your people for practicing these behaviors?

Just because the skills are considered "soft" doesn't mean they are easy to door unimportant, Tulgan said. Teach managers to coach employees. Managers can systematically build an individual's or a team's soft skills by:

  • Naming and describing what a specific behavior—punctuality, for example—means to the organization.

  • Making employees care about the soft skills that matter to the organization, such as explaining that checking a hand-held device during a meeting makes employees appear inattentive. That can negatively affect a supervisor's and colleagues' opinion of an employee.

  • Explaining how cultivating a soft skill can benefit a career.

  • Spelling out exactly what employees need to do, step-by-step.

Tulgan cited the example of a young man who habitually reported late to work, arriving after his 8 a.m. start time. Tulgan asked him how long it took him to drive to work. The answer: 45 minutes. Tulgan asked him how long it took him to get ready for work. The answer: 45 minutes. Tulgan asked him what time he set his alarm for work. The answer: 7 a.m. Solution: Set your alarm for an earlier time.

  • Use ready-made lessons and exercises.

  • Get employees involved by giving them credit for self-directed learning.

  • Spotlight opportunities to practice the soft skill on the job.

"It's got to be part of the day-to-day culture," Tulgan said about cultivating soft skills among employees. That happens through the manager-employee relationship.

"People get hired for their hard skills but get fired because of their [lack of] soft skills."


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