How to Develop Soft Skills in the Workplace

Developing soft skills must be personalized and connected to the work experience to help organizations keep up and to drive meaningful growth in individuals.

Technical skills such as software programming and data analytics have been in high demand over the last several years, and for obvious reason. In the era of digital transformation, these skills were key enablers of the digital economy. The world needed STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills, and organizations responded with learning and development programs aimed at upskilling and reskilling employees in these critical areas.

But we’ve reached a turning point.

Technical skills now can be acquired and fulfilled fairly quickly. Kids today learn to code as early as kindergarten. Classrooms are equipped with iPads, and many schools teach programming basics as part of their curriculum. More than 25 percent of children under the age of six already own a smartphone. Millennials and Gen Zers—the first true digital natives—are graduating from college and entering the workforce. A lack of technical skills is no longer the key constraint.

In the workplace of the future, an entirely new set of skills will be needed to succeed. Developing skills such as adaptability, communication, and teamwork—which have been given the unfortunate misnomer of “soft” skills—is now mission-critical because these skills underpin long-term organizational agility and are foundational to adapting to the future of work.

Why Soft Skills Are the New Currency

The need for digital skills hasn’t diminished, it’s simply that soft skills have surpassed them in importance. For years, organizations have been investing heavily in learning and development initiatives aimed at helping employees acquire the technical skills they need to stay competitive. But during this time, the soft skills gap has grown.

According to a 2018 IBM study, even executives’ views regarding the priority of skills has shifted from digital and technical to behavioral in nature. Soft skills—including adaptability, time management, teamwork, and communication—now dominate the top four of six core competencies global executives seek. As the IBM study reveals, “The digital era has provided the opportunity and the need for speed—and that, in turn, has led to new ways of working. Remote working, always-on access, transparency, less hierarchy, pop-up teams operating across functional and organizational boundaries, and organizations operating within an ecosystem of partners all require a cultural of agility and, in turn, new skills for the workforce.”

Facing a new world of work driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, changing job roles, and growing skill gaps, organizations must adapt to succeed in this new talent reality. So how can L&D leaders help their people develop these critical yet hard-to-master capabilities?

Tips to Develop Soft Skills in Your People

Developing soft skills isn’t an easy task, but it is a necessary one. As analyst Josh Bersin so succinctly sums up, “Hard skills are soft (they change all the time, are constantly being obsoleted, and are relatively easy to learn), and soft skills are hard (they are difficult to build, critical, and take extreme effort to obtain).”

Here are three ways you can help your people develop the behavioral skills and capabilities your organization needs to thrive:

1. Take a cue from neuroscience.

When designing learning programs and content to support soft skills development, drawing on elements from brain science—such as emotion, loss aversion, and social storytelling—can help motivate your people to learn and make the material “stickier.” The reason for this is that what motivates us to learn new skills and behaviors is hardwired into our brains.

Learning is an emotional process, so use this to your advantage by tailoring the learning experience to tap into the intrinsic needs and desires of each employee. Making learning personal, emotional, and memorable is good for the employee, and it’s also good for the business. In fact, Brandon Hall Group research found that 54 percent of companies with high-impact learning connect learning to personal objectives—compared to just 8 percent of their peers. 

2. Engage learners through relevant context.

Unlike a course on Drupal or Excel, developing soft skills can’t be learned in an hour-long course. It can take people their entire careers to master skills such as leadership and communication. It’s why establishing a formal mentorship program and helping connect employees with people who can serve as mentors—both inside and outside of the company—is invaluable to developing behavioral competencies.

Developing soft skills also requires context and the ability for employees to apply and put into practice what they’ve learned. When 13,000 leaders around the world were asked what prevented them from learning and applying new skills and behaviors, Development Dimensions International (DDI) found that the second most frequently cited barrier to development was not enough opportunities to apply new learning. By identifying application opportunities as part of the learning and development process, you can give employees the chance to try new skills in a safe environment, building their confidence and competence along the way.

3. Nurture a growth mindset.

Many people mistakenly believe soft skills are fixed: You’re either born a “people person” or you’re not. But this simply isn’t true. People may be born with potential, but nobody is born with skills or talent. This, essentially, is a growth mindset: the belief that our innate talents are merely a baseline to build upon and can be improved through effort, instruction, and practice.

Soft skills, just like technical skills, can be learned—even if they might require more time and effort to develop. By cultivating a growth mindset culture in your organization—one where continuous learning, coaching, and feedback are the norm—L&D leaders can help guide people to improve their skills and empower them to take ownership of their own growth and development.

Embedding Soft Skills to Drive Organizational Agility

As part of its Project Oxygen study, Google identified eight behaviors common among its highest-performing managers. And even Google found STEM skills aren’t the most important skills. The study found that the most important behaviors—yes, even at an organization built entirely upon technical innovation—are skills like the ability to coach, empower a team, be inclusive, and effectively communicate.

No matter your industry, organization, department, or job title, behavioral skills are now more important than ever to both individual and organizational success. With the technical skills gap narrowing—coupled with changes to the way we work brought on by the digital age and the COVID-19 pandemic—behavioral skills will be an important source of competitive advantage into the future. And by giving employees the tools, resources, and coaching they need to cultivate these critical soft skills, Learning leaders can pave the way for long-term viability and success.

As Saba Software’s vice president of People and Learning, Mary Stanton is a proven HR Leader with nearly 20 years of experience in building and developing high-performing teams. She enthusiastically collaborates with colleagues to develop and implement new strategies and organizational structure to drive increased productivity and efficiencies. Stanton earned her Juris Doctorate (JD) at Santa Clara University School of Law and her Bachelor of Arts in Economics at College of the Holy Cross. She is a member of the California State Bar. She also is certified in 360-Degree Feedback for Managers and Executives and is a Myers-Brigg (MBTI) Certified Facilitator. Past leadership includes positions at EMC, Siebel Systems (an Oracle company), and PeopleSoft.

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