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How Employees Can Build Soft Skills

In this series, The Ultimate Guide of Soft Skills for Managers, our primary focus has been on developing soft skills that will serve you well in your management role. Organizations, however, should not wait until people assume management roles.

Providing soft skills training for employees at all levels has direct and measurable benefits.

3 Benefits of Soft Skills Training for Employees

Benefits of providing soft skills training for employees -- at multiple levels of the organizational chart -- include:

1. Improved work quality and results

  • “Strong relationships at work lead to better work.” (Blanchard)
  • In companies where 6 out of 10 employees report having a friend in the workplace, there are 36% fewer safety incidents, 7% more engaged customers, and 12% higher profits compared to workplaces where only 2 of 10 have at-work friends. (Gallup)
  • Having relationships at work that eventually became friendships significantly increases employees’ performance. (Rutgers University)

Graphic Showing Passing Happiness2. Improved levels of employee retention

  • 37% of employees say “working with a great team” is their primary reason for staying. (Gusto)
  • 53% of millennials say learning new things or having access to professional development opportunities would make them stay at their job. (EdAssist)
  • 33% of employees would change to more empathetic employers for equal pay, and 20% would switch companies for less pay and more empathy. (Businessolver)

3. Higher levels of employee loyalty and commitment

  • 33% of employees say the ability to collaborate makes them more loyal. (The Economist)
  • 78% of employees who say their company encourages creativity and innovation are committed to their employer. (ReportLinker)
  • The quality of information received from co-workers is directly correlated to levels of job satisfaction and commitment to the organization. (Journal of Communication Studies)
  • 79% of employees say that their relationships with co-workers is a top condition of remaining engaged at work. (SHRM)

Why So Few People Train Soft Skills

Despite these benefits, there are some alarming findings that indicate too few workplaces are paying attention to soft skills development and co-worker relationships.

  • 28% of employed Americans are not satisfied with their relations with co-workers. (Gallup)
  • 15% of employees said their top source of workplace stress is co-worker conflicts. (Accountemps)
  • 74% of employees say a lack of training is the biggest hurdle in achieving their full potential at work. (Middlesex University for Work-Based Learning)
  • 80% of Americans agree there is a soft skills gap, and 35% say it affects them personally. (2017 Skills Gap Report)
  • Hiring managers listed critical thinking, problem solving, attention to detail, and leadership as the skills most lacking among job seekers. (Payscale)

Soft skills development helps people thrive in their current jobs and prepare for next-level jobs. Growing talent from inside the organization gives organizations a competitive advantage. This webinar explains why and how developing employees is a smart business strategy.

For many employees the amount of time spent with co-workers exceeds the amount of waking hours spent with family. If you’re going to spend that much time with people, it’s advantageous to have good interpersonal connections. That requires soft skills for all parties.  

We can’t deny that humans are social creatures and need human-to-human connections. We don’t flip a switch when we get to work and become automatons. If anything, due to stress and a desire to do well, we need people we can trust and people we like at work.

According to one Zenger Folkman study, “Great leaders recognize the value of people’s social needs at work and are fully aware that, in the right work context, relationships with people can make good organizations great.”

Relationships with colleagues give people a network of trusted advisors and confidants. Having relationships gives them a safe place to ask questions and solicit feedback. And, of course, having strong relationships gives people extra motivation to do good work so as not to disappoint friends who are counting on them.

It’s easier to be at work when you:

  • Feel supported when you’re stressed
  • Have people you can talk to when you aren’t sure how to proceed
  • Enjoy the time you spend there

Without workplace relationships, people may feel isolated or lack a sense of belonging. Feeling that way doesn’t bring out the best in people.

What Soft Skills Do (Almost) All Employees Need?

Many of the soft skills we’ve alluded to so far are the ones required for forming and maintaining interpersonal relationships or being an effective team member.

Who doesn’t need continual work on communication skills? Who wouldn’t benefit from improving collaboration and shared decision making? Who already knows all there is to know about resolving conflict and engaging in healthy conflict?

These are universally popular and common skills for teams to work on. Most employees need at least some of these soft skills.

As obvious as these universal options may seem, they do get sidelined. They are so basic that many people assume they’ve got all they need. Unfortunately, this neglect inadvertently gets reinforced. Take listening.

Listening in the Workplace

Everyone with the ability to hear listens every day. It comes naturally. It’s a survival skill. So we leave it at that.

There are no classes that focus on listening. In middle school and high school, communications classes heavily focus on preparing and delivering speeches. The rest of the class tunes out until it’s their turn to be front and center.

In business meetings, it’s similar. People are complimented, congratulated and evaluated on their ability to deliver content. No one leaves a meeting and says, “Nice job today on your listening!”

This is why we become so good at semi-listening. That habit can be hard to break, especially if we have little awareness about its negative impacts on relationships and our effectiveness.

Because listening is such a crucial skill -- one that every employee could work on and one that instantly improves interpersonal relationships -- you may wish to consider starting here. An excellent approach is to administer an ECHO Listening Assessment and then conduct training that includes learning about the four dominant listening habits revealed through the ECHO profiles.

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Other Important Workplace Soft Skills

There are additional soft skills that aren’t specifically related to relationships. According to one study, these are the five soft skills that show up most in recruitment ads. Employers and recruiters are looking for people with strong, demonstrated skills in:

  • Problem Solving
  • Adaptability
  • Time Management
  • Organization
  • Oral Communication

Only the last one, oral communication, is a soft skill needed for strong workplace relationships. For employees who work independently or in jobs that don’t require workplace connections, these are the soft skills to focus on. All employees may find value in building skills in these areas.

Like communication skills, these are often not taught in school. Some schooling and business practices may actually work against development of these soft skills. If people aren’t challenged to solve problems and rely on others to do that work, they will stagnate in this area. If schedules are predetermined or work is repetitive and follows a stringent process, employees may not develop an ability to adapt, to manage their own time, or to practice organizing and prioritizing.

This handicaps employees when they move into next-level jobs or management. Unless there has been supplemental training and stretch assignments to build these skills, they will flounder and possibly fail.  

How to Determine the Soft Skills Your Team Needs

For a team of people who work together to accomplish mutual goals, prioritize development of the soft skills needed for:

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Shared decision making
  • Conflict resolution

Each of those four areas has a long list of associated skills. For example, communication includes but is not limited to:

  • Listening skills
  • Presentation skills
  • Body language
  • Expressing empathy
  • Asking quality questions
  • Constructing and delivering assertive messages
  • Reaching mutually understood conclusions

If your team is customer-facing, communication and conflict resolution skills are also essential. Good critical thinking skills are also needed so these team members can “think on their feet” and resolve problems effectively. An ability to empathize without becoming emotionally entangled with customers will also serve these team members well.

Teams where people work autonomously may have less need for interpersonal skills. Not zero need. Less need. Certain skills may be of higher value in these roles, including:

  • Maintaining a positive attitude
  • Resiliency when faced with obstacles
  • Dealing with ambiguity
  • Exercising good judgment in prioritizing
  • Adapting to change

If there is little interaction with others, there is less support in stressful situations. These soft skills can help an independent worker navigate through stress and challenges.

Survey Says:

To determine more specifically what the gaps are for any team, you first have to ask team members what they think. A confidential survey, conducted by a neutral, outside party, is the best way to gather information about what’s working and what’s not working in a team. The survey instrument should be based on observed behaviors and outcomes, not on personal feelings about others.

Survey questions should include a Likert rating scale based on frequency. This defuses tension about the survey and provides a baseline for comparison to check progress in the future. Open response questions can probe for examples and allow for commentary on the quality of interactions.

When considering the team’s needs for soft skills development, don’t forget to look at root causes for any problems that emerge. For example, working to increase the frequency of a behavior like “shares information in a timely manner” won’t produce any change if the reason people don’t share is that they believe they can’t trust the folks they’re supposed to share with.

A lack of trust is frequently a hidden culprit. Sometimes people have the soft skills needed but don’t have trust. So they don’t engage in communication and collaboration, or they don’t see the point of resolving conflicts.

When a survey reveals a fundamental lack of trust, that should be the starting point for a team. Learning about the 12 Dimensions of Trust, repairing relationships hampered by breaches of trust, and getting a fresh start precedes the development of any additional soft skills.

In addition to focusing on short-term needs and benefits, training for soft skills also sets up a solid foundation for the future. Develop the soft skills employees will likely need as they climb the career ladder. Prepare people today for the work they might do tomorrow. That helps retain top talent and enables succession management so you won’t have to recruit from outside the organization.

Ways You Can Build Soft Skills for the Entire Team

You don’t need a big budget to develop soft skills. You can start with simple in-house training in brown-bag lunch sessions. You can create settings and experiences where people have a chance to focus on soft skills vs. the functional skills they use throughout their typical work day.

Here are seven ideas, all proven to boost engagement and retention while creating a positive workplace culture.

1. Promote collaboration and give people opportunities to get acquainted.

Form cross-functional task force teams to work on projects. Choose different people each time for fundraising drives, birthday celebration coordination, and other tangential experiences.  

2. Provide communication skills training.

Since communication skills are the most universally needed set of soft skills, point people in the right direction. There are numerous ways you can deliver this in-house or work with an outside trainer to discover the needs of your team and meet them.

3. Conduct team building activities using assessment tools.

There are many proven tools that reveal personal insights and help team members bond as they get better acquainted:

  • The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)
  • Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Instrument mode
  • ECHO Listening Assessment
  • Leadership Practices Inventory®
  • Team Assessment Report

The accompanying workshops, when conducted by certified practitioners, are high value and lots of fun, too.

4. Set up social time for employees to mingle.

These social times serve a purpose. They give people a chance to know each other. There’s more to every employee than the work they do. Having social time to learn about and enjoy each other is important.

Here are some ideas:

  • Team lunches
  • Team-building outings and workshops
  • Pre-meeting coffee time
  • Office parties
  • Happy Hours

5. Encourage ongoing development and show that you value soft skills.

Make soft skills a part of your culture:

  • Offer resources frequently
  • Talk about soft skills openly
  • Compliment people when they show empathy or demonstrate good critical thinking

Don’t let soft skills be an afterthought or a luxury. These are must-haves, not nice-to-haves, for any organization.

6. Make sure managers (including the C-suite) are demonstrating soft skills, too.

People emulate what they see exhibited by the management team. You can’t encourage others to develop active listening if they don’t feel listened to.

Start at the top and make sure your senior executives demonstrate strong and consistent soft skills. If there’s a gap here for one or two people, consider retaining an executive coach to accelerate their development. If there are widespread gaps, bring in a leadership development program like The Leadership Challenge® (an evidence-based workshop that transforms leaders and boosts employee engagement).

7. Include desirable soft skills (traits) in your hiring and review processes.

Inspect what you expect. If soft skills are important to your organization (and they should be!), set goals for annual development and create accountability for development. Review your job descriptions and align your interviewing and selection processes accordingly. If, for example, someone must be a “team player,” screen for the soft skills that make someone a great team player.

All Hands on Deck

Soft skills are not mysterious or difficult to acquire. They are not reserved for a select group of people with innate characteristics.

These are skills that can be learned, practiced and mastered. But first they have to be introduced, and a pathway for acquiring them need to be provided for all employees.

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