Experts say these are the soft skills workers need most

Leaders have long heard to “focus on soft skills.” And during a time of great disruption, like the pandemic, a focus on these capabilities is more important than ever.

People need training on technology and on the specific skills required to do their jobs, but it is competencies, such as communication, empathy, collaboration, and problem-solving that will move organizations in the right direction for years to come. Prioritize these skills and make the commitment to drive them deep into your company.

Every year, LinkedIn analyzes its huge professional social network and publishes a “Top Skills” list ranking the skills that are in top demand but low in supply. The 2019 and 2020 reports from LinkedIn place soft skills at the top, and in 2020, the top five skills listed by them were creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and emotional intelligence. You might wish to expand this list, adding navigating and leading in a network of teams and solving problems from the customer’s perspective.

In a study that correlated soft skills with performance, global HR consulting firm DDI found that empathy was the number one interaction skill driving overall performance, decision-making, coaching, engaging, planning, and organizing. Unfortunately, empathy was one of the lowest scoring skills among the frontline leaders they assessed.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) took a slightly different approach by looking at the top skills missing in job applicants. In short supply were problem-solving, the ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity, and communication.

One of the reasons organizations hesitate to invest in soft-skills development is that these programs have not demonstrated much impact, primarily because organizations do not define upfront why they are targeting such development and the goals they want to achieve. Even if they define the purpose, they do not align it with business objectives. You can develop a more successful soft-skills strategy with the following approaches.

Determine the right development team

The HR team cannot tackle the project alone. Put together a team of 10 to 12 people who have strong soft skills and represent various operational functions: field employees, frontline employees, and middle managers, along with a couple of leaders who will champion the cause. Include one or two high potential employees who, if they have been identified wisely, will possess many of the skills you want to develop in others.

Start with a business focus

What’s going on in your business? What are your top two or three business strategies? What aspects of your business have priority? For example, do you want to improve employee engagement and talent retention? Do you need to increase revenues from existing customers? When you begin with focusing on business needs, you avoid falling into the trap of implementing “programs du jour.” More importantly, you lay the foundation for measuring the impact of your initiatives on business performance. For example, if increasing innovation is a business need, you can determine the value of your programs by looking at increased patents applied for, increased revenues from new products, numbers of expanded product lines, or other measures of importance.

Consider your culture

Consider your culture, including your purpose and values. How will your development programs support, align with, and reinforce your corporate culture in a consistent manner? For example, if teamwork is a core value, reinforce this value by creating cohorts of participants who coach each other on implementing the concepts taught in their training.

Determine what is important

Determine the soft skills most impactful for achieving your business strategies while aligning with your culture and values. For example, if customer satisfaction scores are low, look at the skill sets demonstrated by your customer interaction personnel. Are they friendly? Are they good listeners? How well do they manage their time and follow-up? What are the typical service complaints? Are they product related or people related?

If a goal is to increase innovation, what behaviors are lacking that drive innovation? Are talented employees micromanaged, for example? Are managers good at supporting risk-taking or are mistakes harshly criticized? This is a simple yet compelling and relevant way to perform a business-focused needs analysis and tie your interventions to business impact. When most employees are working from home, the importance of these skills is amplified. Communication skills are more vital than ever during online conferencing, in email, and in chat tools.

Consider the importance of empathy

As discussed earlier, empathy is essential, but it is in short supply. There are many definitions of empathy, perhaps the simplest being the ability to sense and be sensitive to others’ feelings coupled with the ability to imagine what they might be feeling or thinking. Empathy is tied to emotional intelligence, and many researchers have proven empathy to be a requirement for successful leadership. No matter what your other business needs are, you can safely assume this gap exists in your organization, especially if remote work is in the mix. The challenge is to determine where these empathy gaps lie and what the associated behavioral gaps are.

Consider assessment tools

Assessment tools that can help include the MBTI (Myers Briggs), which is useful for determining personality styles and whether you have a balanced workforce, and the Personal Strengths Profile (PSP), which gives insight into personality, communication, and problem-solving styles. Harvard’s Professional Development Extension School recommends MindTools Quizzes, along with other resources like the Institute for Health and Human Potential and TalentSmart.

Tools like these can help you analyze gaps more specifically so you can develop programs to address them. Three-sixty assessments can offer insight into your management and leadership soft skills, as do data from employee and engagement surveys. Look for patterns of gaps and concentrate on your most important issues. We coach clients on how to use these tools effectively because there are pitfalls when 360 tools are poorly executed, but when they are done well, the value of the information gained is significant.

Plan your curriculum and delivery methods

Once you have a solid understanding of your business needs, the soft skills required to drive them, and the gaps in your organization, you are ready to design your program strategy. Take into consideration that such skills require practice and feedback. With many employees working remotely, self-paced online programs or live online coaching are necessary and effective approaches (when done right). Consider cohort development as well, where you create groups of peers who coach and give ongoing feedback to each other following meetings, team discussions, or agile scrum sessions. With the right technology, these all can be handled online.

Measure progress and results

Develop a simple, visual scorecard to track your progress quarterly. Data points to include are relevant business metrics including customer satisfaction scores, feedback from program participants, shifts in 360 scores, data from spot employee surveys, and turnover.

Base your tracking on the goals you established at the beginning of the process. Report on results regularly to your leaders.

Do some customization

Off-the-shelf programs rarely resonate with participants. Learners need to see the connection between content, your culture, your business, and your work environment. If your organization does not have learning and development capacity in-house, partner with a vendor who is adept at content and delivery customization.

Long-term job and organizational success depend heavily on soft skills mastery. That can be accomplished online, but it takes time. So the sooner you start, the sooner there will be a positive impact on your organization.

Excerpted from Culture Ignited: 5 Disciplines for Adaptive Leadership by Jason Richmond and self-published by Ideal Outcomes, September 2021.

Jason Richmond is the CEO and president of Ideal Outcomes, which guides organizations in creating company culture of continuous improvement.