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Why Soft Skills Matter and How to Develop Them

June 07, 2021 Leadership
scott clark
By Scott Clark

Soft skills are vital for business leaders, managers and highly effective employees. Working in the digital environment has made them even more important, not less so.

Broadly speaking, soft skills refer to a set of social, emotional and communication skills and character and personality traits that are extremely useful for building relationships, effectively expressing oneself, for being an effective and inspirational leader, for inspiring confidence and trust, and for being the type of person that others admire and enjoy working with. They're called soft skills not because they are unimportant, but rather because they are different from technical or hard skills specific to a profession or role.

For many business leaders, the experience of the past year put a spotlight on the importance of interpersonal connection during a time of forced separation, said Peter Jackson, CEO of Bluescape, a San Carlos, Calif.-based virtual collaboration platform provider.

“Now, as remote working environments become increasingly integrated into modern business practice, managers around the world are beginning to ask themselves: How can we continue to inspire and motivate our employees behind shared goals — encouraging them to be as productive and effective as they can possibly be?" he said. "The answer is simple: soft skills.”

Emotional Intelligence Is the Foundation of Soft Skills

Soft skills are an important indicator of a manager’s ability to build cohesion, boost morale and increase overall productivity while working remotely, Jackson said. And it all starts with emotional intelligence and connecting with employees in meaningful and compassionate ways.

“I often find that actions as simple as sending funny or inspirational messages can pay dividends in fostering a more interactive and casual relationship with my teams," he said. "In fact, sending short direct messages, texts and even emails can go a long way in helping employees feel appreciated, especially when it comes from the top.”

For many employers, soft skills are the currency of choice for management. Employers routinely inform universities that they want employees with soft skills, said Kathea Smith, assistant dean for enrollment, academic affairs and student services at the Merrick School of Business at the University of Baltimore.

“While they need students to know the basics of finance, marketing or human resources, what they really want are employees who can navigate the currents of the world of work,” Smith said.

The soft skills that are commonly mentioned fall into key areas: communications, emotional intelligence and empathy, “along with the ability to see and stay focused on the big picture,” she said.

Related Article: How Workplace Leadership Shifted in the Last Year

Self Awareness: A Leadership Superpower

There are many skills leaders have to master, but one stands out. Self awareness, the ability to be aware of the emotions you are feeling in the moment and to recognize when you have been emotionally triggered, is a leadership superpower, said Irvine Nugent, Ph.D., author of "Leadership Lessons From The Pub" and founder of Irvine Nugent & Associates.

“It enables the leader [or] manager to more thoughtfully respond rather than react by doing something they will later regret,” he said.

One method to improve self awareness is by practicing mindfulness, a mental practice that raises awareness of what one is feeling and experiencing. It can be done as a form of meditation that initially lasts a few minutes. The goal is to pay attention to emotions and the things or people that act as triggers, and more importantly, the feelings those emotions spark.  

One important thing to understand is that when events occur, immediate response isn't always the best answer. By taking a little time, leaders are able to take in what is happening and determine the appropriate response. This practice gives leaders the ability to act, rather than react, to a given situation or scenario.

Eyal Lifshitz, CEO and founder of California-based fintech firm BlueVine, believes that awareness is the most important trait in a leader. Awareness, emphasized Lifshitz, is not limited to just self awareness, but rather includes awareness of what’s going on around yourself and the company. This encompasses what’s happening in the market as well as the emotional needs of partners, investors and employees.

“This sense of awareness naturally lends itself to learning, which is equally important because, despite our best efforts, the pandemic has shown us that there is no playbook," he said. "As leaders, we can’t just say ‘I’m going to do what X did, and it’s going to work out,’ it simply doesn’t work like that. Leaders need to be in ‘receiving mode’ in order to learn, adapt and ultimately make the right decisions for their employees, customers, partners and business, overall.”

Related Article: The Role of Organizational Leaders in Building Employee Engagement

Practice Active Listening

Everyone appreciates it when the person they are speaking to actively pays attention to what they are saying. In the workplace, active listening is a soft skill that is not only appreciated, it facilitates the ability to perform more effectively and efficiently.

“One of the quickest ways to connect with someone at work is to offer them your undivided attention. Employees who feel they are listened to report high job satisfaction, lower turnover and greater productivity,” said Nugent.

Active listening is the process of listening attentively as someone else speaks, paraphrasing what they said back to show they've been heard and understood, all while withholding judgment or advice. It also involves paying attention to body language, facial expressions and hand gestures. Active listeners ask for clarification when necessary but don't push others to speak. They allow them to speak as they are ready to do so and give non-verbal feedback such as eye contact, leaning in, and mirroring the speaker's movements.

Many people can hear but relatively few actively listen to what another person is saying during a conversation. More often than not, they are composing their response in their head rather than actively paying attention to what the other person is trying to convey. 

Conflict Resolution Is Both a Leader and Team Skill

Disagreement is inevitable in the workplace. People have their own points of view, opinions and emotions and these quite often crash into one another. That makes conflict resolution a soft skill that can have a dramatic impact. It allows reason and rationality to return to a discussion while allowing each individual their say.

“Great managers, first of all, know if they avoid or move towards conflict. Knowing this, they are able to address issues directly noticing the comfort level of the other person,” said Nugent. “They are also able to inject calmness into a heated argument.” 

Learning to be better at conflict resolution involves learning to be better at some of the other soft skills, such as problem solving, stress management, communication, emotional agility, active listening, empathy and patience. Additionally, group collaboration projects that require employees to work together foster the team's ability to effectively and peacefully resolve conflicts when they occur. 

Develop Communication Skills Across Platforms

Communication takes many forms including email and text messages, Zoom conferences and video chats, and voice and phone messaging. Employees found themselves with a new tool in their toolbox when they moved to the remote workplace and platforms like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Workplace by Facebook became more prevalent. While the methods of communication may have changed, effective communicators adapted and found new ways to communicate with team members, managers, leaders and co-workers. 

Although communication has always been a fundamental skill, the digital and remote workplace has made transparency and clarity paramount, said Ablorde Ashigbi, CEO and co-founder of 4Degrees, an AI-powered relationship intelligence CRM provider.  

“For example, in an office setting the idea is that everyone is expected to participate in brainstorming. The situation makes it easier to communicate, as you can see and read body language," he said. "Virtually, when you have an aggregation of traditionally siloed channels, new challenges arise and communication takes on a new importance. Being very deliberate about how you replace emotion, replace non-verbal, and make this a communicable skill will define the next generation of leadership."

Improving communication skills involves improving the other soft skills such as active listening, empathy and self awareness. It also involves being able to control emotions and non-verbal language, as well as becoming more aware of the differences between verbal communication and written communication, such as occurs in an email, text message or chat apps. Tone and body language are non-existent in text-based communications. This can allow the writer to more effectively set the tone they are actively trying to convey. 

“Each technology used requires a different type of communication skill," said the University of Baltimore's Smith. "As companies move communication into chat systems, text or the ever-present Zoom meeting, new employees are not gaining the art of the well-written email or phone call."

Related Article: What Enterprises Need to Look For in Unified Communications Offerings

Double Down on Empathy

Empathy for others is a key trait for leaders today, but it’s also a skill that all employees should encourage and practice. In fact, it’s at the top of the list of essential soft skills, according to the leaders Reworked spoke with.

“Empathy is having the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and talk to them as a peer, no matter where you sit in the organization or even outside of the organization. The ability to align yourself to another person’s needs and interests allows them to become comfortable enough to share what their real problems and fears are,” said Keith Sims, president of Integrity Resource Management at Sanford Rose Associates

Greg Pryor, senior vice president, people and performance evangelist at Pleasanton, Calif.-based enterprise software firm Workday said that the more senior the employee is, the bigger the priority strong soft skills are versus technical skills, and that empathy is one of the top skills we’ve needed most this past year.

“During the pandemic, successful leaders exhibited compassion for their employees and those around them, prioritizing supporting one another in unprecedented times,” said Pryor. “Exhibiting empathy created a sense of community that inspired team members, helping people stay motivated and focused during uncertainty.”

Given that soft skills are best developed by observing other people, it has become uniquely challenging to help employees build them in today’s hybrid work environment.

“Human connection helps us build our social agility, our ability to be empathetic, inspires creativity, and more,” said Pryor. “As the workplace becomes more distributed, decentralized and digital, and when we have the opportunity to responsibly and safely be together in the workplace, at conferences and company gatherings, we should take the opportunity to observe, learn and be exposed to leaders.”

Baltimore's Smith said that as research has moved away from being focused on IQ and has embraced EQ and its value in the workplace, companies highly value employees that can play well in the sandbox.

“This is not done by taking StrengthsQuest and blithely posting your results in your email signature. Instead, students need to learn how to correctly gauge their own EQ and apply empathy with boundaries in the workplace,” she said.

Other Essential Soft Skills

There are many soft skills essential in today’s workplace, and quite a few of them play a foundational role in the development or improvement of the skills already mentioned. By practicing and encouraging the development of these skills, leaders will see an improvement in a wide array of other skills:

Patience: The ability to be patient is a skill that is not only useful at work, but in other areas of life: school, work, home, relationships. It’s a skill that came in handy for employees during the past year, as everyone had to adjust to new ways of doing things. 

Positive Attitude: Bad attitudes are contagious. Conversely, being around a positive person tends to have a similar effect. It makes others happier, more content and more likely to be positive.

Adaptability: Adaptability facilitates innovation and creativity and lends itself to stress management and problem solving. Employees with adaptability skills were better suited to roll with the changes that came their way as the pandemic upended life and transitioned to working from home with relatively little impact on their productivity, level of engagement and efficiency.

Problem Solving: The ability to solve problems enables employees to find solutions in areas such as customer service, customer experience, sales, marketing and IT.

Time Management: With many employees working from home, the ability to manage time enables them to effectively get their job done, while managing to keep their work and home life separate. Hybrid working will make this even more important.

Stress Management: Employees with stress management skills likely fared much better than others over the months of isolation, social distancing, school closings and business shutdowns. 

The bottom line is that remote work made soft skills both more important and more challenging to develop. As companies return to the office and explore new ways of working in the digital workplace, soft skills like communication, empathy and self awareness will play an outsized role in whether or not they're successful.

Smart companies are actively seeking out job candidates that have both technical skills as well as soft skills, and will focus on developing the skills that facilitate stronger relationships, enhanced teamwork, greater productivity, more effective management, and happier and more satisfied employees.

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