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Soft skills in practice

While knowledge can be attained, as the adage goes, “people buy people” – it’s the soft skills that make individuals a success

To run a business, or to be successful in life, requires skill, knowledge and plenty of time. It takes at least five years to qualify as a vet, six years to qualify as a solicitor, 10 years to qualify as a GP and a human brain surgeon requires 18 years of training and study.

While these spans of time may lead to an individual being able to practise in their chosen field, having hard skills – knowledge – does not necessarily make them a guaranteed success for they still have to be able to interact with people. We have all come across an individual who is technically competent but who is irritating because they have poor interpersonal skills.

It is this that the art of soft skills training seeks to correct.

A vague definition

Clive Lewis, founder and CEO of Illumine Training, defines soft skills as “one of those somewhat vague terms that means slightly different things to different people. If ‘hard skills’ consist of the things needed to perform a specific job – say being able to reconcile a bank account as an accountant or fixing security settings on a computer as an IT specialist – soft skills is everything else – the generalities that help most people perform in their jobs and work with others more effectively.”

Putting it another way, Beck Chalmers, director of Holst – Workplace Effectiveness, says that “soft skills are ‘nice to haves’ or non-technical requirements for a role – skills such as communication, presentation and creative thinking. In contrast, hard skills might include computer literacy, project management or warehouse management.”

As to what soft skills may entail, they can be generally thought of as good communication skills, being self-motivated, having leadership qualities, being able to take responsibility, being able to work in a team, being able to problem solve, being decisive, being able to work under pressure and time constraints, being flexible and being able to negotiate and resolve conflicts.

So, whenever the question of “when does a soft skill become a hard skill” is asked, Beck Chalmers answers by saying that it is conditional on the role. For example, someone in business development pitching for business with high stakes prospects will need presentation skills and an ability to persuade as a hard skill; it is a necessity. But for someone in another position, these might be designated soft.

It is of note that Beck would never suggest that specific skills tend to be lacking per se. Rather, she thinks that it is more about the demands or requirements of a role – “the skills that a person requires to be successful in their job”.

The problem for employers is that everyone is different and so their strengths and needs are, by definition, going to be different. This means that soft skills can cover a wide range of subtopics such as the interpersonal skills of listening and rapport building. To Clive Lewis, “many people ‘get by’ with relatively low skill levels in some of what they do, but most,” he says, “benefit from making specific, targeted improvements”.

Chalmers believes that organisations benefit from taking time to identify the main competencies – behavioural and those that are hard, soft or technical – and considering the organisational values that are required for each role. This allows them to make decisions on where to invest. “The key thing to remember,” says Chalmers, “is that organisations fall down when learning – whether in the classroom, online or by coaching, etc. It can be linked to organisational initiatives and where there is no commitment or support to follow-up or embed sustained change on the job.”

A moving target

Nothing worthwhile stands still so it follows that the demands of the workplace morph and, as a result, soft skills also need to change.

In recent years change has been driven by the online world. For Lewis, modern ways of communicating mean that “text-speak and spending a lot of time online don’t always equip people for a world of work in which good grammar and face-to-face communication are the norm”. Furthermore, he thinks that some individuals are promoted into supervisory or management roles without having the necessary skills required to manage others effectively.

One of the challenges for management is that what they do is often more important than what they say. Here, Lewis thinks that management needs to be able to understand the behaviours that the organisation expects everyone to adopt and “having and demonstrating emotional intelligence would be good examples of this”.

Emotional intelligence is a typical soft skills course and is often identified as a key leadership skill. It encompasses how people manage anger, stress or fear – they all have an immediate impact on their performance. From Clive’s perspective, this course “teaches people how to motivate themselves, manage stress and inspire those around them – it is ideal for anyone who needs to be in full control of their emotions in order to fulfil their potential”.

Beck agrees that skill requirements change over time. She points to agile leadership as an example of this “with its focus on having a growth mindset and value generation… But with [the pandemic] we are seeing a shift to well-being and resilience.” She said that this makes logical sense because that is what organisations and their people need right now.

But no matter the motive, training still needs to be personal; so, a natural question to pose is whether training needs to vary not just according to the individual, but to their demographic – male or female, young or old, worker or management, and so on?

In response, Clive says that “gender, age and job role are bound to have an impact but so will recruitment practices, company culture and the industry involved”. The problem is not so much demographic but that invariably there is not the budget (or time) to train staff for all situations, needs or eventualities. He says that “organisations need to be selective and need to identify the skill, attitude or behaviour shifts that are likely to have the biggest impact on current and future performance”.

Beck takes a slightly different line. She worries that seeking a consensus within an organisation is a big challenge and she gives an instance for this: “People have preferences on presentations [and] the amount of detail in communications and writing skills is a classic example. A big challenge with writing skills is consensus within an organisation on the use of the active and passive voice. Business writing conventions have changed over the decades and people often hold strong preferences.” By definition, this will be viewed differently according to demographic.

Identifying needs

In some cases, who needs a soft skills nudge will be known, but for others a training-needs analysis will be necessary. That said, employers who conduct regular performance reviews should already have a great deal of information available to them about the areas where their employees’ shortcomings are having an impact on performance.

For any training to work – soft skills or otherwise – HR needs to collate the information and feed it to senior management who must take ownership of identifying and doing something about the skills gaps in the organisation.

But Beck offers another option – the testing of staff. But, before testing, she says employers should actually understand what they are looking for: “If you are looking to save money with better recruitment choices then assessments such as the McQuaig Psychometric System are perfect, but if you are looking to develop individual or team resilience then assessments such as resilienceflow are the key.” As she sees it, the biggest benefit of testing is that assessments increase self-awareness and, with that, an employer can target the areas that the individual might need to develop for the role.

McQuaig holds itself out as building competence by benchmarking a role internally, recruiting to the requirements of that role, developing people based on their strengths and helping to retain the stars. On the other hand, resilienceflow is a psychometric assessment that aims to measure an individual’s resilience with regard to how they approach their job.

But when considering testing, Beck warns that employers “shouldn’t use them as a way to punish or as a stick; assessments will only give you the questions to ask. After all, people are more than a set of numbers.” She illustrates this by noting that strong qualities and traits are desirable in many roles. An assessment will tell where that person has strengths. What it will not tell is to what extent a person is able to manage those strong behaviours in the workplace.

It’s all about the benefits

So, ultimately, what can soft skills training do? Where is the benefit to a firm investing resources? To answer this, Lewis points to a simple example, interpersonal communication: “When people in a team listen effectively to each other, and know how to show empathy towards each other, and recognise that ‘different’ doesn’t mean ‘inferior’, they will work better together.” He adds that they will accomplish more and there will be the knock-on benefits of staff being happier, more engaged and more productive.

Adam Bernstein

Adam Bernstein is a freelance writer and small business owner based in Oxfordshire. Adam writes on all matters of interest to small and medium-sized businesses.

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