“Soft skills” is a term that might not inspire much confidence. Perhaps the term itself needs a rebrand. However, what we know for sure is that soft-skills development can help you become a more-effective manager and enhance the performance of your direct reports.
What are soft skills? They include a variety of people-oriented abilities. They are habits, actions, and attitudes that good managers must use if they hope to work well with others.
Soft skills are important both on and off the job. People who practice soft skills in all situations will be better at them than those who use them occasionally or only at work. In fact, soft skills are vital for empowering employees at all levels of an organization to be successful and to keep improving.
What are the Benefits of Soft Skills?
One of the main benefits of soft skills is that they improve your technical skills. Soft skills (such as self-motivation, communication, and attention to detail) are essential to the specific tasks required in many different roles. Employees’ prowess with technical skills may matter very little if they can’t communicate effectively, work well with others, motivate themselves to stay focused, and so on.
If some of your direct reports have promising technical skills but are unable to achieve the job performance you expect, it may be that additional extrinsic motivation won’t help them reach that next level—or it will only help them to a certain point. Instead, they may need to develop their soft skills in order to fully use the technical skills for which they were hired.
Research from the Carnegie Foundation stated that only 15% of the long-term success of employees is determined by their technical skills; the other 85% is determined by their competence with soft skills.
In addition, employees who are already good at their jobs can use soft-skills development to increase their competence even further. If they have experienced any boredom or dissatisfaction at work, building soft skills could renew their interest in their roles, motivating them to keep learning and find additional opportunities to contribute.
Which Soft Skills Need to be Mastered to Achieve the Biggest Impact?
If you require your direct reports to develop their soft skills without improving your own, they may subconsciously assume that soft skills are not truly important to you.
For that reason and others, it’s important to develop your own soft skills. Plus, if you’ve already learned all the core technical skills you need, developing your soft skills may be the only way to catapult you to greater effectiveness.
Below are seven critical soft skills that all leaders should develop. Pick one skill to focus on at a time, starting with the one that will boost your managerial performance right away.
Your direct reports have to trust that you’ll tell them the truth about what is happening in your organization, what you expect of them, what you really think of their job performance, and so on. Holding back won’t help them in the long term, even if it makes you friends in the short term. Modeling this behavior, mixed with appropriate courtesy, can also help your direct reports be more candid with you and with each other.
Growing up, you may have had a parent who you knew would help you whenever you needed it. That’s exactly what your direct reports need from you (but adapted for a professional context). They should be able to predict your behavior and rely on you to help them. Similarly, everyone on your team needs to know the type of behavior they can consistently expect from one another.
3. Community Creation
Watch your team carefully to find opportunities to create stronger ties between your team members and the rest of the company. Use activities, information, and whatever else you can to help your team sense that they are part of a larger community—and help them participate in it.
Communication is vital in business and most areas of life. If you’re already noted for your excellence in verbal communication, learn how to improve the quality of your writing. If you could stand to improve your ability to speak in front of a group, join a public-speaking class or club. Consciously practice communicating better with those above, below, and beside you on the org chart.
5. Passion for the Work
Your team needs to see you being the one in the group who is most passionate about your work, the company, the products, and so on. Model the type of passionate engagement in work that you want from your team members.
6. Openness to Change
One of the worst types of managers to work for is one who is overly rigid in his or her thinking. Don’t be that person—the one who can’t adapt to changes in the marketplace, new rules, or direct reports with innovative ideas.
Expect constant change and you won’t be disappointed. Learn to adapt quickly and plan for changes. You should develop the confidence that you’ll be able to manage change and find great solutions to new situations.
An organized manager makes direct reports feel that their team is appropriately under control and orderly. Learn to know where all resources are supposed to be, to remember which of your direct reports is working on what projects, and so on. Develop your own attention to detail, and use a system that helps you keep track of all the relevant data. Your team depends on you to accomplish this.
Beyond these seven soft skills, some other in-demand soft skills include:
- Being friendly
- Being a great team player
- Critical thinking
- Social intelligence
Remember, whatever skills you build will be models for your direct reports. No matter how independent or self-directed they are, your example will play an important role in building the habits and culture of your team.
What Are Some Examples of Soft Skills in Action?
Forbes noted that more and more technical tasks are being automated, so humans must develop soft skills that can’t be replicated by a computer or robot.
For example, an employee could demonstrate soft skills through having the ability to manage a new hire who is confused and needs extensive leadership. That would require patience, friendliness, organizational skills, and more.
You could show good communication and candor by starting every meeting or conversation with a clear statement about what the time spent in the meeting will accomplish. Never call a meeting without a clear agenda, goals, and time limit. Also, be courteous but honest when your expectations aren’t met.
An employee practicing adaptability could always be ready to help the team, even when new tasks fall outside of his or her normal skillset. Such employees think about what is good for the team and the whole organization and then do what is necessary. They might join a training program to learn new software, for example, and could possibly volunteer to train others after the fact.
How to Teach Soft Skills
Training your direct reports in soft skills can start before you hire them. Since an investment in soft skills can bring a significant return, anticipate that developing your employees’ soft skills will be an important aspect of your role.
First, during the hiring process, ask potential employees questions that can help you discover how interested they are in learning new skills. Find out if they have ever solved difficult challenges in unexpected situations. Probe for past demonstrations of commitment to continual growth.
Second, help each of your direct reports recognize which soft skills they need to develop. Have them write down their main struggles when it comes to their roles in the workplace and then consider which soft skills would help to solve those struggles. Is it hard for them to be organized? To keep track of details? To interact with difficult people? Give them individual feedback on the soft skills they should build.
Third, provide your direct reports with access to a world-class learning management system (LMS). Ensure that it’s easy for anyone to use and that it tracks each employee’s goals and progress.
Finally, give your direct reports time and opportunities to practice their soft skills. Allow them to try their newly acquired skills in business situations and invite them to discuss their results with you and their peers. Give them enough time to develop new habits and make sure no one feels left behind.
Remember, soft skills allow you and your direct reports to more effectively use technical skills and are extremely vital to success.
You may want to focus more on teachability in new hires than on technical skill. Soft skills make them whole people—people who you’ll want to be around when you have to stay late, and who will make the team stronger in many different ways.
When you learn to value and develop soft skills in yourself and your direct reports, you’ll be on your way to building a happier and more-effective team.