Why Is Soft Skills Training Optional?

The Situation

In my twenty-plus years in the training industry, I’ve worked both as an employee or in-house consultant purchasing training and as a vendor offering off-the-shelf and customized training. Topics such as compliance, regulatory changes, and health and safety are understandably often mandated training. Yet, the suite of interpersonal and personal competencies, typically known as “soft skills,” too often collects the digital version of dust on organizations’ learning management systems. Then, after time passes, training professionals and senior management recognize that critical soft skills remain lacking despite the availability of these optional courses, leaving them in no mood to upgrade or even continue this library due to employees’ seeming lack and interest and low use.

 

Simultaneously, according to one large survey, 92% of executives say that soft skills are equally important or more important than technical skills. And 89% of executives say that it is difficult to find people with soft skills. In the same survey, 44% of these same executives responded that the biggest skills gap among employees involves soft skills.

 

But the Research Says . . .

Employees with strong soft skills benefit companies. For example, research from Boston University, Harvard University, and the Ross School of Business at University of Michigan reveal that training employees in self-awareness and other soft skills produces a 256% return on investment. Conversely, employees with poor soft skills can actually cost organizations time and money due to problems resulting from poor communication, performance management, and leadership. With such strong evidence backing the need for soft skills training and proficiency, why aren’t more companies genuinely focused on improving these critical skills? This contradiction occurs time and again. A recent Adecco survey finds, “Of the executives who believe there is a skills gap, 89% say that apprenticeships and training programs could help. But 42% say that in-house training programs would be too expensive.”  

 

What’s Behind the Disconnect?

Frankly, what executive, shareholder, and other stakeholder wouldn’t welcome a 256% ROI? So, what’s clouding leadership’s thinking? One issue is not addressing the soft skills gap holistically. For instance, according to a Learning House report, “Despite pointing the finger at colleges and universities for not helping to address the skills gap, almost half of employers (43%) are not extending their hand in collaboration to these institutions to help ensure the necessary skills are being addressed.”

 

The same report finds that 74% of companies only invest $500 per employee on training and development in the workplace, regardless of topic.

 

Sometimes, leadership holds employees responsible for not taking optional soft skills training. However, research by the staffing company Randstad finds that 66% of US employees between 18 and 34 years old say they need to strengthen their interpersonal skills — where is the organizational support?

 

Some organizations fantasize that one-time training suffices. How many of us learned to ride a bike the first time we tried? Or mastered tying our shoes or kicking a soccer ball on the first attempt? Even more to the point, how many of us developed the technical skills that serve as the backbone of our professional experience after one course? Yet we expect individuals to demonstrate mastery of critical soft skills competencies after a single training session?

 

One’s confidence about new knowledge and skills doesn’t happen overnight. To wit, not enough organizations invest in and commit to a comprehensive training program involving effective soft skills courseware, role plays, supplemental learning materials, various delivery modalities, different learning styles, and so on.

 

How Organizations Can Close the Soft Skills Gap

First, organizations should make soft skills training a priority and requirement. They need to prove that they’re devoted to personal and professional development so that their employees succeed. According to LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report, 94% of employees would stay at a company longer if it invested in their career development. Further, 56% of employees would spend more time learning if their manager directed them to take a specific course to improve their professional skills.

 

Companies can also augment soft skills training programs with strategies like building a coaching and mentoring program, retention training, prescriptive learning paths tailored to specific job roles, and including soft skills assessments in hiring and performance reviews.

 

Bottom line: Investing in and fully supporting soft skills training may seem like an unnecessary expense and afterthought, but actually it can become one of the best initiatives an organization takes to remain competitive in our global economy.

5 Ways Emotionally Intelligent People Handle Conflict

Workplace Conflict: An Inescapable Reality

It’s no surprise that conflict is a regular and unpleasant reality in many workplaces. When a group of employees from various backgrounds and with different work styles is brought together to achieve a shared business goal, tensions are inevitable. Competing priorities, stressful deadlines, heavy workloads, and poor communication can cause a minor misunderstanding to snowball into a full-out argument or simmering resentment.

A 2008 study by CPP, developers of the Myers-Briggs assessment, found that US employees spend 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict, equating to approximately $359 billion annually in paid hours. According to another study by the University of North Carolina, HR managers spend 24 to 60 percent of their time dealing with employee disputes. Worse, 53% of employees said they spend time at work worrying about a past or future conflict with a coworker. How to reverse these troubling statistics? Managing conflict at work takes more than patience and good communication. It requires emotional intelligence.

The Relationship Between Emotional Intelligence and Conflict Management

Think of emotional intelligence as a toolkit - an internal resource to draw upon when conflict arises. According to emotional intelligence and negotiation expert Dan Shapiro, “The moment you feel threatened in a conflict, a whole set of emotional forces turn your conflict into an adversarial battle: It becomes you vs. them. Suddenly the problem feels nonnegotiable because you can’t imagine working things out with the other side.” In these moments, emotional intelligence may help transform a destructive argument into a productive learning opportunity. Individuals with high Emotional Intelligence Quotients (EIQs) have an easier time controlling their feelings, display greater self-awareness, and are able to take time to process their thoughts before reacting. These abilities are particularly useful in conflict management and resolution.

The 5 Ways Emotionally Intelligent People Handle Conflict

Consider these actions that individuals with high EIQs demonstrate the next time you find yourself in conflict:

  • They address issues privately. Responding to a frustrating coworker or situation in the moment (especially publicly) can cause lasting damage. Ask the other person if you can speak in private. If you need time to cool down before engaging in a dialogue, it’s completely acceptable to ask for it. Setting boundaries around conflict can preserve professional relationships. For example, consider the following responses:
    – “Let’s not engage in this sort of serious discussion over email.”
    – “Could we talk about this in person either later today or tomorrow morning?”
    – “Can we please talk about this privately after I take a few minutes to process everything?”
  • They ask questions. Asking open-ended questions is a useful technique for employees, managers, or mediators. Some examples of these questions are:
    – “So how did you feel when _____ happened?”
    – “Can you tell me a bit more about why you found the situation so frustrating?”
    – “What do you think the other person might have been feeling/thinking?”
    – “How do you think you could respond or change to resolve this issue and what would you like in return?”
    These questions encourage the parties involved to self-reflect and even arrive upon solutions on their own.
  • They listen. Emotionally intelligent people don’t merely listen to what the other person says, they also restate and clarify to make sure they accurately understood. The action involves saying something like, “So, what I hear you saying is that you were upset because it felt like the manager was taking credit for your idea during the meeting. Am I right?”
  • They pay attention to their words and tone. It’s important to use neutral language and a calm tone when talking about sensitive issues. Avoid accusations such as, “You’re always making me look bad in front of our boss! What’s wrong with you?” This phrasing sounds confrontational and makes the other person feel defensive. Changing the statement to make it about yourself instead of him/her demonstrates another way to change the tone of a conversation: “It makes me feel embarrassed to have errors in my work pointed out publicly, especially in front of our manager. Would you mind sharing that feedback with me privately next time?”
  • They find common ground. Ultimately, the biggest disagreements arise from passion. Most people feel strongly about their work or opinion, sometimes to the point where they’re unable to absorb a different perspective. Reminding yourself that you and your colleague share common goals may help neutralize a disagreement about the best way to achieve those goals.

To Conclude

There’s enough to worry about during the workday. Conflict — between and among coworkers, managers, and their direct reports, and even between and among larger groups or departments — takes time and energy away from achieving shared goals. Any steps you take to make your organization (and yourself) more empathetic and peaceful will bring major payoffs: happier employees, clearer communication, a more positive environment and, ultimately, greater organizational success.

Critical Thinking: An Essential Soft Skill in the Age of Apps and Automation

At the 2018 World Economic Forum, Jack Ma, founder of global e-commerce sensation Alibaba, said, “We cannot teach our kids to compete with the machines who are smarter – we have to teach our kids something unique.”

Indeed, an increasing concern for employers and employees alike is the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of apps and automation in a wide variety of fields from accounting to manufacturing to retail. A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that soon an average of 15% of work activities across the globe could be displaced by automation.

What is critical thinking and why does it matter?

So what is this “something unique” we should be teaching our children – and employees? Many experts believe it’s critical thinking.

Problem-solving in the workplace can be complex, and decisions may have serious consequences. The foundation of effective problem solving is critical thinking: the ability to analyze information objectively, assess different perspectives, and reach a logical conclusion uninfluenced by emotion or personal bias. Essentially, workers need to be able to think creatively, solve problems in new and unexpected ways, communicate and collaborate effectively, and understand how to apply data to real-world situations.

The McKinsey study predicts, “Demand for higher cognitive skills such as creativity, critical thinking and decision-making, and complex information processing will grow through 2030, at cumulative double-digit rates.”

According to Professor Joseph Aoun, author of the book Robot Proof, “When I talk to employers, they tell me that they would give their right arm for more systems thinkers – quarterbacks who can see across disciplines and analyze them in an integrated way….be culturally agile, able to communicate across boundaries, and to think ethically.”

The state of critical thinking in the workplace

Although critical thinking skills are more in demand than ever, the workforce as a whole is significantly underprepared to take on high-level cognitive challenges.

A global study by MCAT reveals that 84% of managers believe their company suffered a financial loss due to a lack of critical thinking among employees. Other research finds that the higher up the ladder an employee is, the more important critical thinking becomes. A minor mistake by a low-level employee is easily fixed, but a CEO’s error in judgment could lead to disaster. And yet, 62% of respondents said their organization does nothing to recruit, hire, and train critical thinkers.

And so…

One important takeaway is that critical thinking can be taught and existing skills sharpened. However, 80% of those surveyed in the MCAT study were never offered training to improve their critical thinking skills.

Companies who invest in critical thinking development have an opportunity to ahead of the curve. Isn’t it time to give your employees this higher-level skill to help themselves – and your organization?

The Number One Reason that Employees Leave

A recent Gallup poll of more than a million U.S. employees found that the number one reason people quit their jobs is a bad boss or immediate supervisor. Even with this well-publicized statistic, most managers fail to accept their role in high turnover. A year earlier, Gallup found that only 18% of managers demonstrate a high level of talent for managing others. Put another way, 82% of managers aren’t very good at leading people. Further, Gallup estimated that managers who are poor communicators, delegators, negotiators, and lacking in other interpersonal skills cost U.S. corporations up to $550 billion annually.

Poor, or a lack of good, training is the culprit

A recent study by CareerBuilder.com found that an astonishing 58% of managers said they receive no management training. Even those with a natural affluence to lead could benefit from proper training on how to manage others in a corporate setting and, in turn, become better at leading their team.

This troubling statistic is causing good employees to leave. It also is negatively affecting a company’s recruitment, employee engagement, reputation, productivity, and revenues. And it also causes the added expense of recruiting new employees who, getting a taste of their new managers, may soon be leaving themselves.

Why good training matters

Good training for managers must go beyond the technical skills that come with the role. It must include the full range of soft skills. (Soft skills include interpersonal skills as well as managing oneself. For example, managing employees through conflict and managing yourself through conflict are both soft skills.)

How important are well-developed soft skills to a manager and organization’s success? Take one interpersonal skill, Emotional Intelligence (EQ), as an example. An empathy index published in the Harvard Business Review found that the 10 most empathetic companies increased in value more than twice as much as those at the bottom of the index. Plus, they generated 50% more earnings defined by market capitalization, from one year to the next.

Further, according to another survey, 90% of employees are more likely to stay with an organization that empathizes with their needs and eight in 10 workers are willing to work longer hours for an empathetic employer. Even in such primarily “hard” skills industries as tech, engineering, healthcare, and financial services, employees focus less on salary if it means working for an empathetic employer.

In closing…

Companies owe it to themselves, their managers and employees, business partners, and customers, to invest in learner-centric and effective soft skill training for its people leaders. Worried about ROI? Ask yourself, “Does it cost more to improve my managers and attract and keep top talent or suffer the loss of revenue, reputation, revenue, and employee engagement, satisfaction, and loyalty?

Soft Skills and Hard Skills: The Perfect Match

An essential software upgrade falls apart because your team fails to work together. Conflict arises and the blame game gets underway. You’ve given your your technical workers world-class coding training, so why aren’t they be better communicators and collaborators? In today’s economy, superior technical skills are not enough to ensure your organization’s success.

The critical importance of interpersonal skills, or “soft skills,” has become a much-discussed topic among academics and business leaders. Sociologists Philip Moss and Chris Tilly define soft skills as “skills, abilities, and traits that pertain to personality, attitudes and behavior rather than to formal or technical knowledge.” Communication, empathy, teamwork, creativity, flexibility, and listening are all essential competencies which employers need —and yet finding candidates and employees with these competencies is an ongoing challenge.

The Case for Soft Skills
A recent survey of over a decade of Google’s HR data concluded that STEM expertise is one of the least important qualities of Google’s top employees. The seven top characteristics of success are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others’ different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem-solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas. Other studies report similar trends: A recent report by iCIMS Hiring Insight  finds that 94% of recruiters believe an employee with stronger soft skills has a better chance of being promoted to a leadership position than an employee with more years of experience but weaker soft skills.

The Soft Skills Gap
According to a survey by Adecco Staffing, 92 percent of senior executives in the U.S. acknowledge there is a serious gap in workforce skills: 44 percent of respondents cited soft skills, such as communication, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration, as the area with the biggest gap. In fact, only 22 percent cited a lack of technical skills as the culprit for the U.S. skills gap. In an interview with CNBC, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner noted, “[I]nterpersonal skills is where we're seeing the biggest imbalance. Communications is the No. 1 skills gap across major cities in the United States.”

The Importance of Soft Skills Training
Organizations would be well served by developing soft skills among their new hires and current employees. There are a variety of ways to make soft skills a priority in the workplace, from making them part of performance assessments, to setting goals incorporating soft skills, to modeling the same skills in workplace interactions. In addition, online microlearning is a natural fit for employees motivated to improve their communication and other soft skills. According to the LinkedIn report mentioned earlier, “The modern employee wants to take time to learn when they’re in the office. They want opportunities to learn at their own pace and to access learning at the point of need.”

And So…
Many business leaders already know that who an employee is is just as important as what an employee can do. As former Porsche CEO Peter Schutz put it, “Hire character. Train skill.” Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson adds: “We look for people who are friendly and considerate, and who like working with others.” In the end, it’s not a competition between soft skills and hard skills, it’s about recognizing that an employee with both skill sets has greater potential, potential not even a robot could outmatch.