- 85% of workers report experiencing some level of workplace conflict, and spending an average of 2.8 hours per week dealing with it.
- 25-40% of a manager’s time is hijacked by the need to handle personality clashes among staff.
- 60-80% of so-called “performance issues” stem not from a lack of skills or motivation of individual employees, but from strained relationships among co-workers.
Yet the costs of problems among employees are much more far-reaching than this. Engagement, productivity, collaboration, information sharing and idea generation, team trust and morale, and retention are also negatively affected – and can have devastating consequences on the organization’s ability to meet customer needs and business goals. In addition, interpersonal problems can give rise to violence and litigation.
Now factor in how other soft skills deficiencies can cause further damage to an employer. Think about employees who:
- Haven’t developed effective time and organizational management skills
- Lack basic etiquette and professionalism
- Communicate in a way that isn’t clearly understood by others
- Avoid taking initiative
- Are poor decision makers and problem solvers
- Resist change or fail to adapt to it
- Don’t understand or comply with unwritten workplace rules and norms
- Become demotivated when faced with adversity rather than embracing the challenge
- Possess less-than-desirable work ethic or integrity
While addressing these skills gaps may seem like an urgent business priority, employers are actually reluctant to take more than a small role, if any, in soft skills development. The vast majority believe that the responsibility for building one’s soft skills lies with “employees themselves,” and only 54% of them are willing to provide support in this area. Furthermore, these efforts are typically handled on a case-by-case basis rather than through formal organization-wide training.
This doesn’t mean that employers aren’t aware of the importance of soft skills on the job. On the contrary, 67% of employers would prefer to hire someone with strong soft skills and weak technical abilities than vice-versa.
Unfortunately, that’s not enough to ensure a workforce with well-honed soft skills and the ability to apply them appropriately. Some people master the art of selling soft skills to job interviewers, yet fail to deliver once hired. Others may have a limited set of soft skills that allows them to shine in certain situations, but flounder in others. And still others may not even realize that management has assumptions about the way in which they should communicate, conduct themselves, and approach their work.
So what’s an employer to do?
Soft skills training, whether eLearning or classroom-based, is an excellent start. It sets expectations and establishes a baseline level of knowledge and performance. But in order for employees to truly internalize the skills that soft skills courseware or instructors are attempting to impart, they need opportunities to practice them in a contextual setting.
Here are some ideas for reinforcing soft skills instruction in a meaningful and integrated way:
- LEAD BY EXAMPLE
Model the behaviors you’d like your staff to emulate. Communicate with respect and clarity, show an upbeat and positive attitude, work hard and well, value the perspectives and input of others, be honest in words and action, seek out improvements and solutions, and so on.
- CONVEY THE RELEVANCE
Ensure that employees understand how various soft skills relate to team functioning, customer service, and business success. Bring it home by making the connection to their own sense of pride in a job well done which, in turn, leads to career satisfaction and advancement.
People in job that aren’t “customer-facing,” particularly in the IT field, may find the idea of soft skills training inapplicable to them. To gain their buy-in, you must help them understand that the stronger their soft skills, the more equipped they will be to perform the specialized aspects of their job. A software program is unlikely to meet customer needs, for example, if effective communication with end-users and among the development team is lacking. Similarly, a disorganized payroll clerk may be prone to mistakes and missed deadlines, and a marketing manager who fails to take initiative can cost the company lost opportunities.
If your performance appraisals don’t already address soft skills, lobby HR to upgrade the forms, or -- even better -- to implement a 360 degree feedback tool. If you’re not familiar with 360 degree feedback, it is a mechanism for assessing employees from the point of view of peers, managers, and subordinates throughout the organization, as well as outsiders such as vendors and customers.
- PROVIDE FEEDBACK
It’s equally important to provide soft skills feedback outside of formal performance appraisals. As you observe or learn of relevant situations that an employee could have handled better, provide some constructive and confidential coaching or make arrangements for other types of support. Conversely, if you observe or learn about soft skills successes, be sure to recognize those as well!
When developing goals for the upcoming year, be sure to include those related to strengthening soft skills or applying them in new and challenging ways at work. Someone who is weak or lacks confidence in public speaking, for example, can be encouraged to join a local Toastmasters Club or lead a department meeting.
Set aside some time during staff meetings to examine soft skills or, consider scheduling separate sessions during which soft skills are the sole focus. Even if you can only spare 30 minutes each week or month, this will go a long way toward building an awareness and culture of soft skills among your team.
These gatherings can be as informal or formal as you’d like. You can simply ask employees to share their recent successes and challenges, then talk about which behaviors should be repeated in the future and which should be changed. Or you can identify a specific soft skill in advance, and prepare relevant case studies, group exercises, and/or role plays. Another option, which may be helpful in fostering a sense of team ownership in the learning process, is to assign employees, on a rotating schedule, to plan and lead the sessions in whatever way they see fit. You know best what will be most accepted and effective for your group.
But beware: To be successful, these types of activities require a great deal of trust – both in you as a manager, and among peers. Employees will only share openly, and fully participate in the learning, if they are convinced that it is a safe, supportive, and non-judgmental environment to do so. This means, among other things, that what you learn in these sessions will NOT be held against employees in any way.
Last but not least, distribute pertinent articles and information to your team as you come across it, and encourage your employees to do the same. This can either be paper-based, or via electronic means (such as email, a corporate intranet, or a free wiki-type of collaboration platform). If a resource is particularly valuable, consider using it as the basis for a soft skills exploration session.
As you can see, there are many ways to promote soft skills to your employees, whether your organization has the benefit of formal soft skills training or not. Your team won’t become excited and committed to the idea of developing themselves in this area unless you are, however, and consistency will be the key to keeping the momentum going.
 CPP. Workplace Conflict and How Businesses Can Harness It to Thrive. 2008. Web. https://www.cpp.com/pdfs/CPP_Global_Human_Capital_Report_Workplace_Conflict.pdf.
 Wayne, Ellen Kabcenell. "It pays to find the hidden, but high, costs of conflict." Washington Business Journal, May 9, 2005. Web. http://www.bizjournals.com/washington/stories/2005/05/09/smallb6.htm.
 Dana, Daniel. Managing Differences: How to Build Better Relationships at Work and Home. Overland Park, Kan.: MTI Publications, 2005, 4th ed. Print.
 Seattle Jobs Initiative. The Importance of Soft Skills in Entry-Level Employment and Postsecondary Success: Perspectives from Employers and Community Colleges. 2013. Web. http://www.seattlejobsinitiative.com/wp-content/uploads/SJI_SoftSkillsReport_vFINAL_1.17.13.pdf.
 OfficeTeam, HR.com, and International Association of Administrative Professionals. Fitting In, Standing Out, and Building Remarkable Work Teams. 2007. Web. http://officeteam.rhi.mediaroom.com/file.php/141/.
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