Being gifted at performing the technical aspects of a job can take an employee only so far. To become a stellar employee or an admired leader requires an arsenal of skills that are harder to measure but critical to success.
Dubbed “soft skills,” they are behaviors, personality traits and work habits, such as collaboration, critical thinking, perseverance and communication, that help people prosper at work. Think of it this way: A talented graphic designer might wow people with her creations, but if she constantly misses deadlines or doesn’t listen to feedback—leading to costly project delays or upset clients—her career might stall.
There are many ways a lack of soft skills such as dependability, time management and critical thinking can derail an employee with solid technical skills. According to LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends report, 89 percent of recruiters say when a hire doesn’t work out, it usually comes down to a lack of soft skills.
Perhaps realizing this, many employers are prioritizing soft skills during hiring. Monster’s The Future of Work 2021: Global Hiring Outlook reported that when employers were asked to name the top skills they want in employees, they cited soft skills such as dependability, teamwork/collaboration, flexibility and problem-solving.
While most people are hired for their technical abilities, their soft skills give them “career durability,” says Alexandra Levit, a workforce futurist and author of Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for the Workforce of the Future (Kogan Page, 2018). She defines that term as the ability to acquire the skills, knowledge and mindset needed to be an engaged and productive member of the team.
“For someone to be successful 10 years down the road, they need to be resilient and be able to reinvent themselves in different learning environments,” she adds.
Sorting Soft Skills
The beauty of soft skills is that they’re highly transferable. Creativity, responsibility and excellent communication skills can be applied to any job. But how can HR professionals tell which soft skills need shoring up or matter most in their workplaces?
Conducting a skills or training needs assessment can be a great way to find out, and the HR team might already have much of the information it needs, says Abby White, SHRM-CP, CEO of Gró HR Consulting, based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Ask managers to look through their team members’ past performance reviews to identify soft-skill weak spots as well as proficiencies such as how employees respond to e-mail or their attitudes during and involvement in team meetings.
“Watch for those types of behaviors where there’s a chance for improvement,” White says.
Self-assessments and 360-degree feedback reports can be used in combination to prioritize the soft skills employees need to work on, says Di Ann Sanchez, SHRM-SCP, founder of DAS HR Consulting LLC in Hurst, Texas. She points to the surprising results of her own past 360-degree feedback as an example of how employees can learn from the way others perceive them.
“The lowest score in my 360 was always communication, which shocked me because I think I’m a great communicator,” Sanchez says.
But after learning that some co-workers found her style intimidating, Sanchez asked to work with a communication coach, who she says helped her to be more aware of her audience. She stresses that it’s also important for companies to consider bias and cultural and gender differences when evaluating soft skills.
“An aggressive communication style, for example, might be treated as more acceptable in men,” she says. “You need to be sensitive to different gender perspectives but not hold people to wildly different standards.”
To find out which soft skills are most needed in an organization, look no further than your most successful employees. See if there are certain traits they share that allow them to prosper in your workplace. Sanchez also recommends that HR professionals ask executives what their top four or five most-wanted employee soft skills are to ensure buy-in. And when in doubt, reread some of your company’s literature.
“Take a look at your company’s value statements and think about your company’s culture,” Sanchez says. “Those are your company’s priorities when it comes to soft skills.”
Are They Teachable?
The path to teaching someone a technical skill, such as how to drive using a stick shift, is tangible. The process might not be pretty—picture lots of herky-jerky braking and clutching—but it’s fairly clear.
Conversely, teaching someone how to be more patient, a better team player or more innovative may not follow a predetermined formula, but it still can be done. While it’s true that some people have innate personality traits that allow them to evince certain soft skills more naturally, these skills are also honed over time.
“Companies have a lot to gain by treating soft skills as they would any technical skill,” says Liz Cannata, vice president of human resources for Chicago-based talent acquisition company CareerBuilder.
Sometimes an employee is deficient in a certain soft skill because of a lack of experience or a previous situation. White cites the example of one of her employees who appeared unable to solve problems independently. But it wasn’t because the employee lacked the ability to make decisions. It was because she had previously worked for a micromanaging supervisor who never allowed her to offer solutions. White encouraged the employee to come up with a potential solution or two when an issue arose before bringing the problem to her attention.
In cases like that, it’s important for companies to foster an environment where it’s OK for employees to make mistakes and be vulnerable. Kristina Johnson, chief people officer for San Francisco-based identity and asset management company Okta Inc., says if such an environment doesn’t exist, organizational culture can be at the root of the problem.
“Imagine an organization where leaders approach questions and concerns and mistakes with empathy and understanding,” Johnson says. “Then consider a workplace that’s aggressive and blame-focused, where employees are afraid to make mistakes and too embarrassed to ask questions. As you can imagine, employees will stick around at one of those organizations much longer than the other.”
A recent Yale University study found that people with emotionally intelligent supervisors—those who are self-aware and empathetic—were happier, more creative and more innovative. On the flip side, 70 percent of the employees whose managers were identified as having little emotional intelligence said their main feelings toward work were negative.
Like technical skills, soft skills can weaken if they go unused. That’s why it’s important to practice them continuously.
“Developing soft skills won’t be successful in most cases using a one-and-done approach like a single webinar or panel discussion,” Cannata says. “No one really develops their technical skills that way, either.”
Instead, the soft-skills training methods that tend to work best are “flexible, shorter and more frequent,” Cannata says.
It’s also a good idea for companies to offer a variety of learning experiences. “Some people will do better with written training; others are more experiential,” says Mel Hennigan, vice president of people at education software company Symplicity Corp., based in Arlington, Va. “Whenever possible, we work with the employee to figure out the approach that works best for them.”
While most people are eager to learn, Hennigan finds that gaps between a training program’s design and objective and between a training delivery style and an employee’s learning style often get in the way of a successful outcome.
Cannata recommends using a combination of larger-group training, mentoring programs, and self-guided programming such as short, on-demand videos or podcasts.
It’s critical to show employees why this training is important. That might mean drawing a direct line between improving soft skills and achieving higher pay or a promotion.
If the company doesn’t have the resources to start a soft-skills training or development program, it should consider partnering with a university or nonprofit that specializes in social emotional learning, emotional intelligence or conscious inclusion, Cannata says.
But there are also plenty of inexpensive and less-taxing ways to improve soft skills in the workplace.
Some methods can be as simple as challenging employees to up their time management game by using the Pomodoro Technique for a week. This method recommends picking a single task or project to focus on, setting a timer for 25 to 30 minutes, and working solely on that task. When the time is up, you take a two- or three-minute break and then get back to work for another 25 minutes.
Companies can also lean on in-house talent for informal training sessions such as lunch-and-learns. Instead of focusing on a technical skill, a session might center on time management or active listening skills. Also leave space throughout the day for employees to talk about what’s going well with their work and, more importantly, what’s not.
“If you want to work on improving communication and connecting within a small team, walk through everyone’s approach to different scenarios, like high-stress or time-sensitive situations,” Johnson says.
One of White’s favorite recent activities has been holding a weekly book group for her team. Every Friday morning, team members meet to talk about a different chapter of the book they’re all reading and discuss what they learned and how they will apply those lessons at work. So far, the group has read 13 books, including The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace (Northfield Publishing, 2012) by Gary Chapman and Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People (Simon and Schuster, 2011).
“I can hands-down say that someone has gotten at least two major useful items out of each book,” White says. “They’re also really good team-building exercises. People look forward to collaborating with their colleagues on Friday mornings.”
Types of Training
For more-involved training on soft skills, there are formats and technologies to meet every budget and desired outcome. But generally, those that require reflection and interaction from employees work best.
“If people just listen to a presentation or an online video, they’re not really getting a chance to practice the skills they learn,” Sanchez says.
Here are some soft-skill training methods to consider:
Virtual reality. Real-world experience is a terrific teacher, but virtual reality might be the next best thing. A 2020 PwC survey found that virtual reality learners were four times more focused than e-learners and felt 275 percent more confident to act on what they had learned.
Some companies offer virtual reality simulations that mirror real-world scenarios, such as asking employees to react to a customer complaint. Hotel and resort company Best Western attributed a 100 percent increase in its guest satisfaction and loyalty score to its virtual reality employee training program.
Online learning. There’s no shortage of online classes or learning programs that target soft skills. For added benefit, consider ones that provide dialogue simulations that allow employees to practice the skills they’ve learned.
Coaching/mentoring. Because of the expense, coaching is typically used at only the highest levels of leadership, Sanchez says, but companies would be smart to build employees’ leadership skills from day one—especially considering companies with higher levels of internal hiring have 41 percent longer employee tenure. One way to do that is through mentorship programs. Leveraging the soft skills of company leaders, whether it’s done one-on-one or in groups, is an affordable and beneficial practice. Nine in 10 workers who have a mentor say they’re satisfied with their jobs, according to a CNBC/SurveyMonkey survey.
Interactive workshops. “Interactive, instructor-led workshops are the most compelling and impactful methods to teach skills like emotional intelligence,” Johnson says. She recommends workshops that simulate real-world scenarios and give employees a chance to hear actionable feedback based on their responses.
Gamification. Gamification adds a gamelike element to a training session, which can be done in a number of ways.
Levit points to the innovative learning approach Slack uses with its employees. The messaging app company created interactive scenarios based on the Choose Your Own Adventure children’s book series by asking employees to pick a character, read the person’s role and job duties, and “then engage with a chatbot to perform tasks and hone skills,” Levit says. “The end result was a learning approach that allows employees to fail or make choices in a safe place and then evaluate and reflect on the outcomes.” One study found that adding a fun element like gamification boosts informal learning in the workplace.
As with any kind of training, it’s important to evaluate the impact of soft-skills training and tie it to your company’s key metrics, such as performance review conversations and goal setting, Cannata says.
It’s also helpful to evaluate employees before and after a major training session and follow up on their performance at the three-, six- and nine-month marks, Sanchez says.
“Done right, this can be a huge benefit for the company and the employee, especially for retention,” she says. “Even if the employee doesn’t like it at the time because it makes them uncomfortable, they can see you’re making an investment in their future.”
Kate Rockwood is a freelance writer based in Chicago.