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Cultivating Critical Soft Skills

Problem solving, time management and adapting to change are the most important soft skills, according to HR professionals and hiring managers.

Employees putting together large blocks titled, "Networking," "Teamwork," "Time Management," "Communication," and "Negotiation"

A worker’s gossiping was creating conflict among his team members. Neither his direct manager nor the team’s supervisor knew quite how to correct the behavior that was causing distrust among the group.

April Metcalf, SHRM-SCP, was the company’s HR director at the time. She used role playing with the manager and supervisor to help them learn how to address the situation, prepared them for possible responses from the employee when they met with her, and reviewed how to help prevent a repeat of the behavior.

“Role playing with the manager and supervisor helped them show more confidence and be prepared to discuss this [behavior] with the employee,” Metcalf says. “Going further, detailing potential situations with the employee helped her to see the discord that it was causing and [why it] was not helpful to the team.”

It was an example of soft-skill development—in this case, the skill of problem solving. Forty-two percent of HR professionals and hiring managers have identified problem solving as one of the top soft skills they are focusing on developing in their organizations, according to a report released by publishing company Wiley. The report captured survey responses from 600 HR professionals and hiring managers in the U.S.

Respondents indicated that time management (36 percent) and the ability to adapt to change (35 percent) were other needed areas of development. Half of the survey’s respondents said they think jobs require more soft skills now than when the COVID-19 pandemic began. “The push to remote work is one [reason], affecting how people work as members of virtual teams,” explains David Capranos, co-author of the report.

Training Should be Ongoing

As with hard skills such as digital communication and project management, soft skills need periodic updating. Wiley’s research found that:

  • 44 percent of respondents expect workers to need continuous training to maintain soft skills.
  • 43 percent said soft and durable skills wane within two years.
  • 27 percent expect soft skills to last at least five years.

“You need these tools to carry with you throughout your career, but the way you apply them may change,” says Capranos, who also serves as director of market strategy and research at Wiley University Services.

Problem solving as an individual contributor is one thing; it’s different when you are put in charge of a team or managing a project, he explains.

What Managers Can Do

Higher education has taken notice of the need for soft skills in the workplace, and some schools are offering their students instruction in them. “More and more universities are trying to layer softer skills into their curriculum,” such as learning how to work effectively in teams, says Capranos. Sometimes companies will partner with universities to offer this type of education to their workers.

Wiley found that a number of its survey respondents leverage mentoring and reverse mentoring to develop soft skills, according to Capranos. Coaching is another strategy that can help employees develop or improve a soft skill, says Jennifer Dole, director and principal analyst at 3Sixty Insights, a research firm headquartered in North Billerica, Mass. Dole compares it to working with an athlete. “I’m going to observe you, I’m going to provide you some feedback and I’m going to observe you again,” she says.

And just as athletes have practice time, employees have role playing for practice. Game time is when employees use their newly developed soft skills to deliver a presentation or interact with a client, Dole explains.

Tips for Soft Skill Development

Consider the following strategies for helping your employees develop and improve their soft skills:

Give Clear Feedback

“If you're giving an employee feedback on something like time management, it’s important to define what that means in the context of their role and the impact of their experience, the team’s experience and the manager’s experience with the work,” Dole advises. “There might be a right answer, for right now, for what that skill is. And putting it in context of their job helps them to build that motivation to change their habits. It’s giving them next steps.”

Check in Regularly

Is there feedback you can offer regarding the soft skills the employees are working on? What have the employees done to improve in that area and feel proud?

Managers can provide employees with opportunities to practice a soft skill, says Addie Swartz, the founder and CEO of reacHIRE, an organization in Concord, Mass., that helps companies build and retain diverse workforces. “Often, there are assignments that come up last minute,” she says. Encourage them to raise their hand, “or go on a limb and say, ‘This project is coming up. Would you be interested in doing it?’ ” to create opportunities for stretch assignments. “Problem solving on those kinds of things has high visibility,” she says.

Working on time management skills could include meeting with employees to help them prioritize tasks, Swartz adds. Before meeting with employees, ask them to send you their five priorities for the week and the month. Then, during the meeting, reprioritize with the employees their short- and long-term tasks.

At that time, be open with the employees to enable them “to feel OK to say, ‘I’m underwater and I need help.’ ”

Know How Your Employees Learn Best

While managers can help employees develop a particular soft skill, it starts with an awareness of how the employees best learn, says Metcalf, who today is director of human resources for Bell County in Belton, Texas.

“From my experience, I believe that managers first have to take time and interest in their employees—beyond data and goals—to uniquely understand them as a person,” she says. “As managers, we must then determine with the employee how they best learn to be able to effectively help with that learning process. Some employees are going to learn best by observing, performing and building those skills, while others need a more formal classroom training.” Role playing and thought-provoking exercises, Metcalf says, “may help [develop] situational awareness.”

Manage Your Employees’ Growth

At Weaver, an independent accounting firm based in Houston, all newly promoted managers attend Pathways—a three-day training program—and undergo a year of coaching. Time management is one of the skills the coaching focuses on, according to Linc Ashby, chief talent officer at Weaver.

Alexis Robison, senior manager for learning and development at Weaver, found it helpful to set large and small individual goals to accomplish before the next coaching session.

“For my coaching clients, setting goals has really helped them feel more successful and like they’re accomplishing something great, no matter how big or small. Some of my clients have since put into effect monthly goals with each of their own team members,” Beebe says. 

Managers must already possess the soft skill that they’re trying to develop in their direct reports, Dole points out. “Managers need more maturity in the soft skills to be able to coach employees on [them]. And we need to work on development into the daily routines and habits,” she says. “That’s why investing in leadership development is so important for the future, because it impacts the team experience.”


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