From the first time you took the wheel to the long hours spent picking up a new language or software program, we've all honed our hard skills through a lifetime of learning and experience.
Hard skills — tangible, quantifiable skills we pick up from school, training or past work experiences — are typically easy to identify and evaluate. You either know how to code, or you don’t. But how do you teach someone to be more creative or a better listener?
Soft skills like these are harder to pin down but can be taught.
In this blog post, we’ll explore why soft skills like communication are of growing importance in the workplace, and the tangible steps employers can take to teach these critical but often hard-to-capture skills.
Soft skills are the new power skills
When we polled attendees of a recent webinar about what skill set their company was mostly focused on improving in their workforce in 2023, more than 50% stated soft skills — beating out industry skills, digital skills and software skills by wide margins. And in a LinkedIn survey of 5,000 talent professionals in 35 countries, 80% said soft skills are increasingly crucial to company success.
So, why are soft skills becoming a top priority for HR and business leaders? In short, soft skills deliver hard bottom-line results.
An MIT Sloan School of Management study found that a 12-month workforce training program focused on soft skills delivered a 250% return on investment (ROI) within eight months of completion. Another study from LinkedIn found that 89 percent of recruiters say that when a hire doesn’t work out, it usually comes down to a lack of soft skills.
Amid the changing nature of work, increase in remote work environments and growing reliance on automation, soft skills are taking center stage.
The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2025, automation will displace some 85 million jobs. And while robots may be able to help us with many of the technical aspects of our jobs, they will never be able to replace what makes us human: soft skills like creativity, critical thinking and emotional intelligence. Soft skills are also highly transferable from one role to another, so developing soft skills in your people will ensure your workforce is ready to meet the future head-on.
Communication is at the heart of soft-skills training
One of the most essential soft skills is communication. After all, most of us spend the vast majority of our workday communicating. From emails to meetings to informal water-cooler chats, communication is the cornerstone of every organization.
But despite its importance, communication is often a difficult skill to teach. After all, effective communication has so many nuances — subtle shifts and variations of tone, inflection, word choice and body language. Accurately assessing one’s own communication skills is also challenging, leading many employees to be unaware of their communication weaknesses.
5 ways to teach communication skills
So, how do you teach good communication? Use these five tips to help your employees build their communication skills:
1. Connect the dots for employees
As Simon Sinek famously quipped, “It starts with why.” Employees are stressed and busy amid recessionary fears and constant news of hiring freezes and layoffs. For many, developing soft skills is the last thing on their minds (or plates).
It’s critical to show employees why communication training is important. Help them understand how it will help them achieve higher pay, a promotion or the next step in their career.
Connecting soft skills training to your company’s key metrics is vital. A modern performance management system can help crystallize this connection, tying employees’ learning and development to their goals and performance reviews.
2. Enable microlearning in the flow of work
A great place to start is to offer workshops and training sessions on specific communication skills — like active listening, effective email writing and public speaking. But developing soft skills isn’t a one-and-done exercise. Communication is like a muscle: when exercised, it grows. When not, it atrophies.
Delivering skills training in short bursts aids knowledge retention and makes it easier for employees to fit into their busy work days. With a learning management solution that enables microlearning in the flow of work, employees can access information at the precise moment of need. Whether they want to hone their presentation skills before a meeting with the board or brush up on intercultural communication before an overseas trip, microlearning helps employees stay focused and involved in learning.
3. Foster employee mentorship
Through mentorship programs and networking events, employers can create opportunities for employees to learn from more experienced colleagues. Matching experienced employees with newer ones to provide guidance is a valuable way to develop communication skills in your workforce.
With many organizations also now working with tighter budgets, implementing a mentorship program — whether formal or informal — is an incredibly cost-effective way to leverage the communication skills that already exist across your organization.
4. Provide regular feedback and coaching
When it comes to communication, many employees may need help recognizing improvement opportunities. And that’s where feedback comes in. By providing ongoing feedback to employees about their communication skills — both positive and constructive — they can better identify areas for improvement. Leveraging 360-degree feedback can also help provide a more holistic view of an employee’s communication strengths and weaknesses.
One caveat: It’s important to consider bias and cultural and gender differences when providing feedback on communication skills. An aggressive communication style, for example, might be viewed as more acceptable in men than women. Similarly, managers in different parts of the world are conditioned to give feedback in dramatically different ways. It’s critical to be sensitive to these differences and possible double standards.
5. Create a culture of continuous learning
Building a workforce of better communicators starts with a work environment that encourages open communication and sharing of ideas. It’s also essential for employers to develop a culture of continuous learning by providing resources and support for employees to tackle new challenges and skills.
One tangible way to implement this is to encourage managers to take 10 minutes in their weekly team meeting to explore a different communication topic. By role-playing or walking through different scenarios within a small team, employees have the opportunity to practice and continually improve their skills. Having the importance of communication regularly reinforced and modeled from the top down will also encourage employees to develop their skill sets proactively.
Help your employees become better communicators
Not only does a focus on soft skills benefit employers — it also benefits employees. One study found that a staggering 85 percent of job success comes from having well-developed soft skills, while the remaining 15 percent comes from hard skills. With these five practical strategies, companies can help their employees develop strong communication skills, preparing them for success in today's rapidly changing workforce — and whatever the future may hold.
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