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Managers Can Help Employees Hone Critical Soft Skills

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

A man and woman giving each other a high five in an office.

​A worker's gossiping was creating problems among team members. Neither the first-time manager nor the group's supervisor knew quite how to correct the behavior that was causing distrust among co-workers.

April Metcalf, SHRM-SCPApril 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 recently identified that soft skill as one of the top three they are focusing on developing in their organizations, according to Closing the Skills Gap: Employer Perspectives on Educating the Post-Pandemic Workforce, a report released in January by publishing company Wiley. The report captured survey responses from 600 HR professionals and hiring managers in the U.S.

Time management (36 percent) and adapting to change (35 percent) were the other top soft skills. 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.

A study in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also noted the impact of the changing workplace on soft skills.

"Overall, we found a decay in soft skills among early-career women in STEM working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic," note the authors of the article, titled Preventing Soft Skill Decay Among Early-Career Women in STEM During COVID-19.

"Now that a large share of the professional workforce plans to operate on a hybrid or fully remote basis indefinitely, employers must develop new methods to help employees cultivate the soft skills required for building effective operational and strategic networks virtually," write the Stanford University researchers who authored the study.

The researchers based their longitudinal study on 44 women working at a biotech company and used Aurora, an online program whose curriculum covers soft skills such as resilience, influence and communication.

Aurora is a product of reacHIRE, a Concord, Mass.-based company that works with corporate partners to create career off-ramps and on-ramps and paths to leadership for women.

The women in the Stanford study, who had less than 10 years' experience and were under the age of 34, reported a 3.5 percent decline in soft skills from pre-pandemic baseline levels. They saw a 9 percent growth in their soft skills after participating in the online intervention.

Training Doesn't Stop

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

  • 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 the Manager Can Do

The Wiley research found that a number of respondents leveraged mentoring and reverse mentoring to develop soft skills, according to Capranos. Digital learning partnerships can also help an organization develop those talents among its employees.

"More and more universities are trying to layer softer skills into their curriculum," such as learning how to work effectively in teams, he says. "A significant portion of companies have digital learning partnerships" with groups such as Harvard Management Co., and "a lot of those have content on how to be more persuasive, better at project management."

Jennifer DoleCoaching is another strategy to 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.

It's akin 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," Dole 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, she explains.

Tips for Soft Skill Development

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

Be clear when giving 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 with employees.

Is there feedback you can offer around 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, reacHIRE founder and CEO.

"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.' "

Be aware of how 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, 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."

Invest in your managers.

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 Beebe, 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 said. 

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 the soft skills. And we need to work the 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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