In recent years, discussions around the importance of soft skills in the workplace have become much more common, and soft skills are starting to seem increasingly less “soft” and increasingly valuable. The ability to work well with teammates, to lead groups, and to communicate effectively are seen by many as equally important to the ability to use spreadsheets or balance account statements. While an electrician may not be able to do their job without knowing how to wire a house, the argument goes that they also can’t do their job very effectively if they’re constantly fighting with customers and colleagues or failing to keep up with deadlines.
But if we accept that soft skills are an important part of an employee’s toolset, where does that really leave us? Can companies train workers to develop soft skills? Or are such skills purely innate and someone one either has or doesn’t have? If training soft skills is possible, which companies are doing it and how does the training manifest itself? How is success measured?
We reached out to industry experts to get a better understanding of the landscape around training soft skills in Corporate America.
Soft Skills Aren’t So Soft
For starters, let’s get back to the notion that soft skills are somehow less valuable or “fluffier” than more traditional job-specific skills. Human resources leaders are increasingly pushing back on that idea for a variety of reasons. Alex Seiler, Chief People Officer with GHJ says he struggles with the term “soft” skills because such skills are actually more difficult to develop than other types of job skills.
Instead, Seiler prefers to use a different term. He and GHJ, he says, are focused on developing “durable” versus soft and hard skills, he says. “Durable skills are ones that will stand the test of time—technology cannot replace critical thinking, understanding how to create a psychologically safe environment or showing up as an inclusive leader.”
Soft Skills for Different Employee Groups
Soft skills encompass a wide range of abilities. Those who require the use of some soft skills may not necessarily require the use of others, at least not to the same degree. “We find that more junior employees lack basic communication skills and understanding what type of language is appropriate in a work setting compared to a personal setting, as well as time management, considering we experience different busy seasons within our Firm,” says Seiler. “For senior level employees, it’s more about communicating for impact and delivering clear, real-time feedback that tells a story. Cracking the code on this is key to talent management and ensuring that employees are consistently held to the same standards.”
Mark Pierce, CEO of Cloud Peak Law Group, argues that employees who have experienced two years of remote work in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic have strengthened some soft skills while atrophying with respect to others. “In general, the soft skills that employees are lacking the most in are non-verbal communication and interpersonal skills,” Pierce says. “I believe that the reason for this is that employees have spent so much time working on their own with remote work that these skills are simply out of practice for many of them. The soft skills that employees have generally mastered are time management and problem solving. These are skills that they’ve relied upon for the past two years, and the rapid change to remote work was a big driver for helping them make these skills a strength for many employees.”
The Role of Technology
One of the considerations Seiler touches on is the importance of technology in Corporate America and how advances and changes in technology can quickly render certain “hard skills” obsolete. For example, there was a time when engineers and mathematicians had to perform complex calculations by hand or with relatively simple calculators.
Today, advanced computer programs and computers with massive processing power can do the work of many such engineers and mathematicians. This is one factor that has arguably contributed to the increasing relative importance of soft skills, which Seiler points out have a better shelf-life in the face of new technology. While there are advanced computers to help us with math equations, there aren’t any technologies on the market today that transform someone into an inspiring leader with a few screen clicks.
A Variety of Training Formats and Opportunities
A consistent theme we noticed in the input we received from industry leaders is that those who offer soft skills training opportunities tend to provide a variety of formats and opportunities, with the goal of embedding flexibility into the training. That might mean the availability of on-demand micro-courses on topics like time management and effective communication. Or it could mean visiting lecturers on topics like leadership.
The Challenge with Measurement
Admittedly, it can be much more difficult and subjective to evaluate someone’s leadership abilities than it is to test their knowledge of auto parts. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to evaluate someone’s soft skills, however, and companies have various strategies to do so.
“At the macro-level, we are looking at traditional measures around career mobility and promotions, as well as look at feedback from employees through monthly surveys to understand how employees feel about resources they have access to, and how we can adjust to meet their needs,” says Liberty Mutual Associate Vice President and Sr. Director of Learning and Talent Services Alex Hall.
Tools like 360 degree feedback can also be a useful way to evaluate soft skills, because they involve soliciting feedback not just from managers but everyone an employee may work with as part of their role.
Soft skills have long been overlooked, even disregarded, in Corporate America. However, as the economy and workplace technology continue to change, such skills are getting increasing attention from managers and trainers alike. We can expect to see a continued–even increasingly prominent—role for soft skills training into the future.
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.