Soft skills go beyond “people skills” and provide a solid foundation for organizational growth. Improving soft skills through coaching and training is key for any organization facing changes in technology and the future of work.
I hate the term “soft skills.” Let’s just put our cards on the table. “Soft” is a terrible descriptor. According to Thesaurus.com, synonyms for “soft” include comfortable, easy, mushy, and fluffy. “Soft” sounds like a fluffy cushion for “hard” skills to rest on.
We may think debating what to call “soft” skills is silly, but language influences how we think. When we label skills as “soft,” we label them as “easy” and imply they aren’t important. Yet when I coach executives and other leaders, “soft” skills are often the hardest skills for them to master.
So, why do we call them “soft” skills? To understand the “soft,” let’s start with the “hard.” Traditionally, organizations have focused on “hard” skills, such as technical skills and competencies. “Hard” skills tend to be easier to define, teach, and assess. In other words, hard skills are more tangible. By comparison, “soft” skills seem more intangible. We struggle to clearly define “soft” skills. For example, what are the specific skills required to be an expert in “interpersonal communication”? How do we teach someone “resilience”? As a result, it can be more difficult to understand “soft” skills and how to develop them.
So, before we dive into a discussion about “soft” skills, I want to plant a seed. I vote to rename “soft” skills as “Critical Intangible Skills,” or “Critical Intangibles,” for short. I may not yet have swayed the rest of the world, but throughout the rest of this blog post, I challenge you to think “Critical Intangible” when you read “soft,” and see how this change affects your thinking.
What are soft skills?
Soft skills are sometimes equated with “people skills,” but that isn’t the whole story. Soft skills include mental qualities like persistence, resilience, problem solving, emotional regulation, and creativity. They also encompass practical skills of self-regulation through time management, organization, and the ability to prioritize tasks. Finally, soft skills include “people skills” like communication, teamwork, and leadership.
Soft skills apply broadly and can be transferred easily between jobs and industries. They have been called “durable”, because, unlike technical requirements, they remain constant.
Soft skills are the “secret sauce” for long term organizational success in a changing world.
Teaching critical intangible skills in the workplace
Contrary to a common misperception, soft skills are not hard-wired or unchangeable. According to research conducted by McKinsey, Deloitte, PwC, the Harvard Business School, and Forbes, organizations can help people improve their soft skills through coaching, mentoring, and training. When people improve these skills, they are better prepared to adapt to changes in technology and the workplace.
Teaching soft skills requires planning, execution, employee buy in, and assessing success.
Survey the organization’s needs. The first step is to determine which soft skills are most in need of development.
Look at both gaps in performance and high performance. What skill gaps may have contributed to negative customer feedback? What skills contributed to rave reviews? What skills are bubbling up most often in employee performance reviews? What skills are leveraged most by the highest performing teams? What are the skills on which you want to focus, and how can people best develop these skills?
Develop teaching strategies. With clear development priorities, the organization is ready to create an action plan. HR Partners and People Partners may find it useful to leverage consultants to help deliver programs and coaching to support development efforts.
Use a mix of approaches. Different skills and personal learning styles will require different learning strategies. Developing skills requires acquiring knowledge and putting that knowledge into practice. Here are some examples of learning approaches to help people develop their skills:
- Skills workshops that include role plays focused on real work scenarios with self-reflection and feedback.
- Other learning methods that people can then put into practice, such as online courses, webinars, podcasts, etc. to build knowledge and insights, upskill or reskill.
Continuing efforts, as opposed to a “one and done” approach, will be needed. After all, we don’t expect people to master skills in a single session.
Get employees to buy in. To invest in people development, employees need to understand the importance of soft skills and how coaching and training will help them develop these skills. Organizations can further emphasize the importance of soft skills through recognition, performance reviews, and requiring soft skills as criteria for promotion.
Measure progress. One mistake to avoid when assessing teaching programs is simply measuring “inputs,” such as the number of training sessions offered, “butts in seats,” or the number of hours completed. It’s more useful to design ways to measure outcomes. Metrics will vary by organization but may include assessments of individual performance, employee engagement, team dynamics, customer satisfaction, sales volume, and similar data points. The goal is to be as objective as possible, and to keep the workforce informed.
As the world of work changes, soft skills (or “Critical Intangible Skills”) will only become more important, and strengthening these skills will provide an enduring foundation for success.
Please contact us if you would like more information about soft skills and employee development.
Rachel Burr is an executive and leadership coach with over 20 years of experience working with CEOs and the C-suite across all industries, in organizations of from 20 to 10,000 employees. Rachel holds dual master’s degrees in Organization Development and Clinical Psychology, and numerous certifications in the field of executive coaching. Rachel is a “people expert” who works with clients to unleash their leadership potential, through coaching soft skills, among many other areas.