These days, having the technical skills and knowledge to perform a job will only take an employee so far. To become an admired and respected leader with strong leadership skills, you'll need other skills to succeed.
These "soft skills" are the skills you possess beyond your technical, measurable abilities. They're the behaviors, personality traits, and habits we rely on to help us relate to and engage with other people. You aren't born with them. Instead, you develop them as you move through work and life. So while your personality, background, and culture shape some aspects of your skillset, many soft skills can continually be developed and refined.
Unfortunately, many of us haven't been using or enhancing our soft skills over the past two pandemic-filled years. Now many of us are spending more time in the office, in the presence of our colleagues, likely confronted with various situations that require highly developed soft skills. Instead, we need to be in tune with our colleagues and how the pandemic affected them, their work, and their working style to do a better job together to achieve better outcomes.
Research also shows that 75% of job success stems from soft skills. In addition, McKinsey recently revealed that as companies invest more in digitization, automation, and artificial intelligence over the next 5-10 years, the human element of work will become more critical than ever before. And if we cannot retrain and reskill our employees to realize the potential from these investments, we'll fall prey to our competition.
Research also shows that soft skill training and development investment boosts productivity and retention. For example, a 2017 joint study between Boston College, Harvard University, and the University of Michigan found that soft skills training increases productivity and retention by 12%, a 250% return on investment. And that's not even counting the gains from improvements in customer service, sales, and collaboration.
If you Google soft skills, you'll find long lists of skills that are important for success in the workplace. And while they're highly transferable across jobs and industries, the challenge is that many of them are not easily measured, and they are difficult to separate. For example, an employee with solid workplace communication skills is likely to have strong collaboration skills or show empathy when needed.
So while the list of critical soft skills is lengthy, we think a handful of skills are essential for helping your teams integrate back into the post-pandemic working world.
Self-awareness is the art of seeing yourself in different situations. It's where you take a bird's eye view of yourself and try to understand how others will perceive your words, actions, and inaction. It's also the starting point for developing any soft skill. It would help if you listened, gathered feedback, and slowly understood how to adapt your words and actions depending on the situation and stakeholders.
No matter how you look at it, effective communication is essential to success in the workplace. According to a Holmes report, the cost of poor communication and the resulting mistakes and lost productivity is higher than $37 billion per year. On the flip side, this same report found that companies with leaders and employees with practical communication skills produce a 47% higher return to shareholders over five years.
These days, with our overabundance of collaboration tools, devices, round-the-clock work schedules, and more, there's no excuse for lack of communication. However, like many skills, it's quality over quantity that counts. Employees need to learn to listen effectively, understand, and take action on what others say and effectively communicate their ideas so others can understand and action them. In addition, superior workplace communication skills are essential for teams with remote members as they miss out on all of the non-verbal communication in the office.
Time management is one of those soft skills that everyone strives for but struggles to get right. There's no perfect recipe for effective time management. Instead, it's about understanding what works for you and working with your roles and responsibilities. Maybe you need to use a time tracking app, a collaboration tool, or a series of alarms to help keep you on track for the day. This skill will be critical as employees adopt more flexible and remote working schedules and need to manage their available and working hours carefully.
Compassion & Understanding
Returning to the office after the last two years of hybrid and remote working can be confronting for some employees, especially those dealing with pandemic-related mental health issues (as we wrote about last month). That's where compassion, the ability to feel motivated to help relieve someone else's suffering, is critical for business leaders and team members. Employees who show empathy can listen to others' concerns, fears, and challenges and genuinely help them work through them with a sense of ease and understanding.
Collaboration skills are the skills that enable us to work well with others. They include effective communication, active listening, taking responsibility for mistakes, and fostering mutual respect with team members. As a manager, you can build a team of qualified individuals. However, if they can't work together as a team, they will cost you a lot of time and money.
So whether everyone is back in the office or working in a hybrid or remote model, everyone needs to learn how to work together to achieve a common goal. They need to share their ideas, listen to each other, have mutual respect, and have a shared sense of purpose.
Flexibility and Adaptability
The pandemic working world has tested our ability as employees to be flexible and adapt to ever-changing work life. We had to juggle working under pressure, changing priorities, different business and industry risks, supply chain challenges, health issues, etc. However, it also showed that the employees who can adjust to new responsibilities and challenges are likely to be the ones who excel in a post-pandemic world.
As we return to the office, we will be faced with ever-changing business processes, software, systems, working arrangements, and other external factors. As a result, employees who aren't afraid of change or adversity and can adjust to new situations and technologies are likely to be more valuable in the long run.
As we come to rely more on technology and big data, there will still be a growing need for creative employees. We need employees who can question the status quo and think of better ways to do business, manage costs, improve processes, and tackle new and emerging challenges. In addition, we need to build teams that encourage idea-sharing, no matter how far-fetched they may seem. Because you never know who will come up with the next great idea!
Unlike teaching someone a technical skill, which is measurable and tangible, helping someone with a soft skill requires training and education, regular feedback, and much patience. It also takes time and, in many cases, money. Also, unlike many technical skills, soft skills tend to weaken if they are not utilized. It's therefore important to practice them on an ongoing basis.
A great starting point for improving soft skills is assessing your current strengths and weaknesses through a 360-degree feedback process. Research from McKinsey shows that no matter the size of your company, each one should have a 360-degree employee evaluation framework and methodology. That way, employees can evaluate their soft skills, know their strengths, understand how their peers perceive them and become aware of what needs attention now and in the future.
While there is no set recipe for improving soft skills, employees can make progress through training, mentorship, workshops, feedback, and evaluation. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Evaluate your current soft skills: While every company has its feedback framework, it's vital to make sure you're doing an assessment that incorporates an evaluation of soft skills (here are some top-ranked tools on the market). The results will give you a baseline and allow you to set goals for what you want to improve or change over the following year.
Shortlist which skill/s you want to develop: Using information you gathered from your 360-degree feedback process, choose 2-3 soft skills you want to enhance. Take time to understand your strengths and gaps, and then work with a mentor or your manager to identify at least three different ways to develop or enhance these skills. It may even help to write them down or share your intentions with your team so they can hold you accountable.
Regularly ask peers for feedback: Outside of the annual 360-degree feedback process, ask trusted colleagues and mentors to evaluate your soft skills and give frank feedback. You're likely to receive real-time information and gain valuable insights into areas you wouldn't realize required attention.
Sign up for some professional training: There is a range of different professional soft skills training available both online and in-person. Try a variety of courses or classes to understand the format and style that resonates most with you, and stick with those as you continue to work on a subset of soft skills.
Deepen relationships with your colleagues: A great way to build emotional intelligence is to practice your new skills with colleagues. For example, you can practice different communication techniques during work or even at lunch or a happy hour gathering. You could also volunteer to participate in a project or initiative outside your usual circle of coworkers and working environment. Maybe mentoring some summer interns or getting involved in organizing the company's employee picnic will help you build relationships and find a place where you feel more relaxed and open in the workplace.
Find a mentor: Employees tend to perform better when affiliated with a coach or mentor. It's sometimes helpful to talk to someone you trust about your work, what you're feeling, and how you can best manage a situation. There's no right or wrong type of mentor to choose, just one willing to give you time and honest feedback!
To sum it up, soft skills aren't a replacement for technical skills, but they will be increasingly more important as the workplace evolves into a more dynamic, flexible, and tech-driven workplace. Developing and recruiting for soft skills will prepare your employees for this change. Still, it will also improve employee engagement, productivity, and retention, which we all seem to be looking for right now!
As the corporate world starts to shift to building workforces with superior soft skills, what is your company doing to help its employees build and develop theirs?