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All In: Employee and Management Soft Skills Training

This series, The Ultimate Guide to Soft Skills, started with a look at the importance of leaders developing and demonstrating soft skills.

That’s the right place to start, for all the reasons described in our previous posts. It’s also the right place to start so that senior managers are modeling soft skills to employees throughout the organization.

It’s not, however, the right place to end. Employee and management soft skills training needs to be an all-in endeavor.

Why Employee and Management Soft Skills Training Is for Everyone

Soft skills are critical for every employee who interacts with other team members. These factoids illustrate why:

  • Graphic Showing Circle of Influence92% of employees say that employee retention would be stronger if they experienced more empathy in the workplace. (BusinessSolver)
  • 25% of employees say their top motivation for changing jobs is wanting a different workplace culture. (Right Management)
  • The #1 contributor to job satisfaction, cited by 67% of employees as “very important,” is respectful treatment of employees at all levels. (SHRM)
  • Friendly co-workers” ranked #2 among most highly desired work atmosphere traits. (NSHSS)
  • 69% of millennials say the people they work with are the primary factor in enabling their best work. (Millennial Branding/Randstad)
  • A “pleasant working environment” is among the top 3 employee attributes that job seekers value most. (Randstad)
  • 16% say co-worker relationships are a primary contributor to a positive employee experience. (Globoforce)
  • 46% of professionals worldwide believe that work friends are important to their overall happiness. (LinkedIn)
  • 87% of millennials say professional development opportunities are very important. (Gallup)
  • Only 54% of U.S. workers say they like the people they work with. (CareerBuilder)

Taken all together, these findings strongly suggest that people want to like their co-workers, believe they can do better work when they like their co-workers, and highly value workplace friendships, empathy, and respect.

Sometimes, it happens by chance. An employee lands in a workplace with people they like, respect, and get along well with.

Sometimes, it happens by choice. An organization fosters team camaraderie, culture, respect, and soft skills that improve co-worker interactions. They provide professional development and training opportunities that help employees develop their soft softs (not just their technical skills).

Sometimes, sadly, it doesn’t happen at all. When soft skills are lacking, employees are less satisfied, more stressed, less engaged, and more open to seeking other employment. Remember, 54% of people like their co-workers -- what about the other 46%?

Back to the management team. The business case for leadership development includes the impact managers can have on setting an example, creating inspiring and enabling cultures that foster good relationships, and demonstrating soft skills to show respect for and encourage others. But what good is a well-developed team of managers and executives if people still don’t like their co-workers?

Soft Skills Are for You, Me, Them, Us, and Everybody!

Ideally, every individual in the organization would have strong soft skills plus regular opportunities to develop soft skills.

That won’t happen, though, until soft skills are highly valued. Here are three strategies for increasing awareness, appreciation, and commitment to soft skills development and demonstration throughout your organization.

1. Increase Awareness About the Importance of Soft Skills

Stats like the ones that open this article are often not known. People feel this way but have probably not expressed or thought about those feelings unless prompted. Bringing them out into the open lays the foundation for paying more deliberate attention to soft skills.

You can increase awareness by educating managers, putting key soft skills into your hiring competencies, adding soft skills to your performance evaluations, and getting senior executives to talk more openly about soft skills.

If soft skills are not discussed and spotlighted, they will always seem less important than hard skills. Until people understand how important they are, they will always seem optional.

When soft skills are not expected, employees may feel they can get by without them. You’ll hear introverted people say they work better alone, and you’ll see them isolating themselves even to the team’s detriment. You’ll observe competitive people aggressively driving their ideas forward without inviting others’ perspectives and, when challenged, quashing others’ input. You’ll encounter people who are intolerant, rushed, aloof, or otherwise inaccessible simply because they just can’t be bothered with interactions that, to them, seem optional.

Build awareness of what soft skills are, why they matter, and what’s expected in workplace interactions.

2. Make It Clear You Value Soft Skills

You value soft skills because they are, by any measure, essential for optimum performance. What’s more, they make the workplace a better place to be. This is more than a warm, fuzzy sentiment. It’s a business imperative to build soft skills.

You can spotlight soft skills to let folks know how much you value them. When you see positive examples of soft skills, recognize and appreciate what you’re seeing. That’s the best way to make sure the behavior is repeated.

It may seem odd, at first, to praise or thank people for their soft skills. It’s not what we usually do in business. When’s the last time you left a meeting and someone said “Hey, great job today of listening!” or “Way to go on that empathizing!” Instead, we concentrate our compliments and rewards on results (no matter how they were achieved) and on demonstration of technical proficiency (hard skills).

You can also let others know how much you value soft skills by pointing out times when they were lacking. Candid conversations and coaching about how to be more effective are what employees want from managers. Offering feedback about soft skills need not be a personal critique. Rather, keep it behavior-based and specific.

Offer something like “I noticed in the meeting today that you were not responding to some pushback from other team members. It might help them to buy into your ideas if you listened to their concerns and empathized with their fears about this change. Let’s talk about ways to do that.”  

3. Offer Opportunities for Soft Skills Development at Every Level

Training need not be formal, lengthy, expensive, and driven by HR or senior management. You can access great resources for low or no cost. Look for content about:

  • Emotional intelligence
  • Listening
  • Critical thinking
  • Conflict resolution
  • Handling stress

You can conduct mini-training sessions with simple topics like “being open to others’ perspective.”

Doesn’t sound like something that’s a part of your job? Are you sure about that? If you have responsibility for delivering business outcomes, building soft skills in others ought to be part of your job. Soft skills development improves employee engagement, retention, productivity, and job satisfaction. Every employee has gaps in their soft skills, and every team can benefit from improved interaction.

The Impact of Soft Skills on Team Effectiveness

  • 86% of employees and executives attribute workplace failures to lack of collaboration or ineffective communication (Salesforce).  
  • 97% of employees and executives believe that lack of alignment within a team impacts the outcome of a task or project (Mckinsey).

Individual excellence isn’t enough. You can have superstars on your team and still fail. Remember the 1992 U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team, The Dream Team? It was made up of superstars, some of the best to ever play the game -- Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Patrick Ewing, and Karl Malone … Even so, in their first month practicing as a team, they lost to a group of college players in a scrimmage. Following the embarrassing defeat, Pippen said, “We didn’t know how to play with each other.”

The hard skills were already in place. The team needed to exercise soft skills, especially collaborating and communicating, to turn their team performance around. They did, winning the Olympic gold medal by posting over 100 points in every game, far out-scoring their opponents.

A McKinsey study found that the primary differences between a team of all stars and an all-star team are:

  1. Alignment on direction, with a shared belief on how to achieve the goal of the team.
  2. High-quality interaction characterized by trust, open communication, and a willingness to engage in healthy conflict.
  3. A strong sense of renewal, found in an environment where team members are energized because they feel they can take risks, innovate, learn, and achieve something that truly matters.

None of that is possible without soft skills

The McKinsey research concluded that a concerted effort to build a high-performing team through soft skills development and attention to team interaction and dynamics will produce real results within a year. This is true even for teams that start with a low base.

It’s Not Enough to Have Soft Skills ...

You’ve got to model them, too, in all you do.

Back to managers one more time. If managers don’t model soft skills, employees won’t demonstrate them as often. The manager can set a poor standard by exhibiting:

  • Lack of empathy
  • Poor listening habits
  • Inability to think critically and solve problems logically
  • Other gaps

What the manager does is far more compelling than what the manager or others say. Posting signs about values like “trustworthy” won’t overcome examples of untrustworthy behavior. Actions really do speak louder than words.

The Example of Dan

Consider Dan, a senior manager in an IT department. Dan’s team ran the help desk and managed the internal employee directory. It worked across all other divisions to support technology users. They were frequently invited to serve on task forces dedicated to improving data security and privacy for employees.

Dan had wallet cards printed for each member of his team that said, “We respond in a helpful, timely, and friendly way and are happy to be a part of your day.” A smiley face background on the card was meant to remind team members to smile even when the requests were tedious. This slogan and smiley face were also embedded in the email signature line for department employees.

For some reason, Dan exempted himself from the expectation to be friendly. In a noble effort to protect his team from excessive or unreasonable demands, he started asking people, “Can’t you figure this one out on your own?” His gruff voice and abruptness made that question even more intimidating. It didn’t take long for others in the department to start responding to requests with this same question. Sometimes it came out sarcastically. Sometimes it was condescending. Even when it was delivered with a “friendly” tone, it made people feel bad for requesting help.

What happened next is exactly what you’d expect. People avoided calling the help desk. They didn’t provide updates on their job titles or other information that would change their systems access in the employee directories. They limped through technology challenges even when it compromised their work output or quality.

What you model matters. Your soft skills and interaction with others have far-reaching impact that translates into real, measurable business outcomes.  If you want employees to develop and use soft skills, you’ve got to show them the way.