Soft skills: Why they’re not so soft after all

Soft skills: Why they’re not so soft after all

It used to be simple to screen job candidates in professional fields: Make sure they have the right education, technical knowledge and possibly a certification or license. If the person also has so-called "soft skills", such as good interpersonal communication, listening or problem-solving abilities, that was an added bonus, right?

Perhaps. But that was then. Today, soft skills aren’t just icing on the cake. They’ve become essential and they’re not to be taken lightly. It could even be argued that it’s time to abandon the term “soft skills”, given there’s actually nothing “soft” about them.

So let’s be clear: it’s not soft skills themselves that are dead; it’s the term.

Most companies expect people to work collaboratively, contributing to the firm’s success with knowledge sharing and new ideas. Even jobs that previously were more behind-the-scenes, such as administrative and information technology roles, have moved centre stage. Few jobs are totally independent anymore. Having strong social and communication abilities is an asset in virtually every profession.

In accounting and finance, for instance, chief financial officers surveyed by Robert Half said poor interpersonal skills are the number one reason employees fail to advance at their organisations. Yet only one in five (19 per cent) executives said their companies are likely to invest in interpersonal skills training for accounting and finance staff in the next two years.

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Why aren’t employers doing more to develop these abilities? One reason may be that there’s a misconception that you either have interpersonal skills or you don’t. The fact is, however, that they can be improved when people are given the right tools. Here are some tips:

Tell people what to do

Someone may be a master at selecting the right desktop systems and laptops for staff, but fizzle when it comes to negotiating deals with vendors for the necessary products. That’s because many degree and certification programs don’t delve into interpersonal skills. The right professional development can make a huge difference for people interacting with vendors, giving them the step-by-step advice they need to secure a better price.

Push them out of their comfort zones

Once you know people have developed the necessary interpersonal skills, give them opportunities to put the talents into practice. Someone who has just completed a class in public speaking, for example, might be charged with leading the next staff meeting.

Make sure employees are constantly stretching their abilities. Applying interpersonal skills in new and interesting ways will not only keep these aptitudes sharp, but it can also make jobs more engaging. This can lead to a satisfied workforce that’s motivated and less likely to quit.

Set the example with your soft skills

Keep in mind, too, that as leaders, you set the tone for the entire team. Make sure your own interpersonal skills are exemplary.

How to know? Ask a trusted colleague who will give you the straight scoop. Seek input on a range of abilities, including collaboration, listening and problem solving. What are you doing right and wrong?

Grade staff

Give people the motivation to make developing their interpersonal skills a priority by making these aptitudes part of the performance review and tying them into rewards, raises and promotions. This can give a real personal incentive to make improvements.

Build a solid team

Perhaps the best way to ensure your group’s interpersonal skills are strong is by hiring right in the first place. Make this expertise part of your screening process. During interviews, ask competency-based questions that help you better determine someone’s capabilities, such as, “Can you tell me about a time when you faced a difficult situation with a client and how you resolved it?” and “How would you describe your work style when collaborating with other employees on projects?”

Pay close attention to your impressions of candidates. Applicants who are enthusiastic, great communicators, adaptable and personable are likely to fit in well with any team.

There’s less and less distinction today between the importance of “hard” (i.e. technical) skills and what used to be considered “soft” skills. The latter can be a key success factor for your group, so take them seriously. With the right foundation, your employees can create a positive impression with colleagues, management, vendors, clients and other key business contacts.

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