Blog Post

The Hard Truth about Soft Skills

Julie Winkle Giulioni

Author, Speaker and Consultant Specializing in HR, Leadership and Career Development

I'd like to take a hard position with whoever first coined the term "soft" to describe interpersonal and leadership skills.

Listening, influencing, coaching, collaborating - these are among the most challenging skills to teach, learn and master. And they, unlike technical (hard) skills, tend to differentiate the top performers from the merely good performers in any industry.

According to research conducted by Development Dimensions International, committing to developing these skills is a smart business move, delivering more than a four-to-one return on investment. Even so, many organizations don't make the investment or fail to take the steps necessary to ensure that their investment pays off.

What's so Hard About Soft Skills?

Many organizations fail to invest in interpersonal and leadership skills because teaching and learning these skills can be challenging. The subjective nature of these skills means that different people may have different assessments of their presence (or absence). A technical skill like coding is more objective; the same string of code delivers a predictable outcome that everyone can agree upon every time. But soft skills - like beauty - tend to be more in the eye of the beholder.

Additionally, many people overestimate their interpersonal and leadership skills. We tend to evaluate our skill based upon our intent; however, others evaluate us based upon the effect we have on them, which doesn't always correspond with our intent.

And finally, soft skills tend to be more situational than their technical cousins. Stitching a heart valve is stitching a heart valve all the time. But when it comes to people, there are emotional and contextual cues that must be considered. Is coaching the best response, or would feedback be more effective? Do expectations need to be clarified? Does this person need support? One size doesn't fit all when employing interpersonal and leadership skills.

Making it Easier

Despite the challenges, many organizations are cracking the code associated with helping people master the soft skills that can be the hardest to learn. It boils down to four non-negotiable elements.

Context: Unlike other skills, soft skills are context specific. As a result, they must be taught (and learned) within that context. Rather than focusing on listening skills in the abstract, link them to the typical situations within which someone might need to listen. Perhaps it's coaching, participating in a meeting or gathering customer requirements. Marry the skill with its applications for best results.

Realistic rehearsal: Practice makes perfect - but only when that practice parallels real life. Too frequently learners are asked to assume characters and play out situations that have no relevance to their work. Instead, encourage people to practice actual situations they've faced and real upcoming encounters.

Honest feedback: Rehearsal is only as good as the quality of the feedback that follows it. Failing to offer a candid assessment of a soft skill means that learners may develop unproductive habits.

Implementation intention: Given the situational nature of interpersonal and leadership skills, it's essential that learners develop concrete plans to reach their goals. Engaging in "if/then" planning allows people to consider their environments and the challenges they face and to plan specifically how they'll respond.

The Hard Line About Soft Skills

Interpersonal and leadership skills are vitally important to both individual and organizational success. They are directly responsible for creating culture, fueling strategy, and getting the most out of your workforce.

When both leaders and employees develop soft skills, they are able to engage in quality conversations, collaborate more effectively, drive performance and enhance relationships with each other (as well as customers). And it's pretty hard not to see the value of that!

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Driving business outcomes from an investment in learning content requires an engagement strategy that makes learning materials available and accessible to employees. Organisations need to launch and maintain learning programmes effectively to ensure they have maximum impact on both employees and the business as a whole. Both Ageas and Electrolux have successfully launched digital learning programmes, each taking steps to maintain and sustain engagement. How did Electrolux prepare to launch its learning campaign? Electrolux manages organizational learning and knowledge management with formal learning networks, Internet-based knowledge, as well as a company-own education facility. Learner engagement is one of the most important aspects for Electrolux to continuously develop talents. Therefore, Electrolux offers a plan for a learner engagement campaign that includes four main steps. 1. Knowing your audience Electrolux conducted interviews with employees to ensure the company’s learning and development strategy would meet their needs. In doing so, the company was able to connect learning content with the right audience. 2. Connecting it to your brand Electrolux believes using familiar, consistent branding helps make learning more memorable to create a long-term impact on its employees' behaviours. 3. Make it relevant and engaging Based on external and internal insights, Electrolux discovered that more frequent quarterly learner programmes cultivated higher levels of employee engagement than one large campaign launch. Employees were also awarded badges for each completed course, with leader boards to gamify the learning experience and motivate employees to participate. 4. Track performance for key insights Electrolux tracked and used metrics from the programme to gain deeper insights about its course completion rates. Using a previous campaign as a benchmark, Electrolux found that the success of their new learning strategy exceeded expectations. How did Ageas build an impactful learning content strategy? Ageas launched its digital learning platform two years ago but has always been conscious not to overwhelm employees with its vast library of learning material available. Ageas adopted a three-pillar strategy to reduce unnecessary noise and guide its people to the right learning content to spur their growth and development. 1. Generate one voice Key messages were planned each month from business, wellbeing and learning perspectives. These key messages were conveyed through links and content shared on Ageas’s digital platform to ensure messaging was aligned and consistent. 2. Make it relevant Ageas created its own competency framework to guide learners and help connect them with the most relevant learning materials. One such framework is “Technical Heroes”, which consists of nine core competencies that employees see right away on the landing page, each with links to relevant materials. By specifying the key areas of development and making learning material easy to access and navigate, learners are able to focus on what is most relevant to them. 3. Weave learning content into the digital onboarding journey Ageas has integrated its remote onboarding processes into the digital learning platform. Leveraging a combination of suggested learning materials (specific to the job or function of the employee) and live induction sessions has enabled a smoother, more consistent onboarding process. The impact of a successful learning strategy Investing in the best learning materials is only half of the equation. If learners are not interacting and engaging with the materials, the investment is not accomplishing its purpose. Learning must be at the core of every business decision, and leaders must inspire employees to take charge of their own development journeys. With a collective growth mindset throughout the business, the opportunities for innovation are vast.

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