What are you doing to improve your soft skills?
The world of work is changing. When companies prioritized radical workplace performance and productivity improvements, they focused on training their employees with the purpose of getting more work done faster. But companies have learned that while their people may be increasingly productive, they aren't working better, particularly with each other. Lurking on the horizon is always greater automation, which will continue to shift the balance between the needs for hard and soft skills. Employees of the future will spend more time on activities that machines are less capable of, such as managing people, applying expertise, and communicating with others.
As a talent development professional, you're in the business of addressing the increasing demand for soft skills—through training, next skilling (reskilling), and future skilling (upskilling) programs. But to avoid a "cobbler's children go barefoot" situation, you cannot overlook developing your own soft skills.
Why are soft skills so important?
Soft skills go by many names—people skills, human capabilities, "real" skills. Simply put, they are the intrapersonal (within yourself) and interpersonal (between yourself and others) abilities at the core of how you do what you do to work effectively and productively, interact with others, and build relationships. They are distinct from what are known as hard skills, or the technical knowledge a person needs to perform a role.
Think about the last time you asked someone what they did at work. They likely replied with the various tasks and functions they perform. Of course, having the requisite technical skills to perform any job is immensely important to an individual's performance as well as the organization's success. Accountants need to be able to manage bookkeeping ledgers and generate financial reports. IT technicians need coding skills to maintain computer systems and networks. Marketing specialists need to know how to create marketing campaigns and track the effectiveness of print and online content.
In contrast, soft skills are at the core of every human interaction. The soft skills that often come to mind are communication, resilience and adaptability, teamwork and collaboration, goal setting, creativity, problem solving, emotional intelligence, influence and leadership, and time and energy management.
Their relevance has a dual edge for your ability to manage yourself and your interactions with other people. Having strong adaptability skills means you personally can respond well to uncertainty—and manage change that occurs in team projects or organizational strategy. Managing time and attention well means you can prioritize your work and rein in multitasking to get an assignment done on time—and keep group efforts on schedule.
In addition, soft skills transfer between jobs, companies, and industries. You can take them with you wherever you go and apply them to your new situation, unlike some technical or job-specific skills.
The significance of soft skills for TD
Soft skills matter as much to TD as they do for any other function in the business. TD is inherently a people function, working with people and on behalf of people: a trainer facilitating a group of learners, a team of instructional designers working cross-functionally to address a business need, a learning manager using influence to make the case for increases in budgets or resources. Think of all the individuals you need to work with in your role and the resulting human interactions. All those exchanges require having top-notch soft skills to navigate each interaction.
In engaging learners, shaping a culture of learning, crafting talent strategies, and improving performance, you are judged by your impact on business results. But the technical skills needed to perform those essential functions are underpinned by your strength or weakness in soft skills. So, just as you need to know how to develop talent, you likewise must know how to improve your own interpersonal and intrapersonal skills—to be more adaptable, self-aware and empathetic, creative, team-oriented and collaborative, and influential and persuasive.
Near the top of the list of soft skills TD practitioners need to effectively do their job is empathy, says Tal Moore, chief organizational development officer for Kalispel Tribe of Indians, a sovereign nation located in northeastern Washington. Empathy contributes to your ability to see a learning situation from someone else's point of view and to never assume why they may be having challenges. In that way, "you can touch the heart as much as the head," Moore adds.
He likes to use the phrase "Go to the gemba" (the Japanese term gemba means "the real place"), which can apply to designing learner experiences. With the influences of design thinking on instructional design, TD professionals need to feel comfortable getting to know the end user, asking themselves how workers are going to use the training content on the job.
Soft skills are also a way for you to stand out in your organization. If you're known as someone with high emotional intelligence, who can adapt with the business, and who can make sound analytical decisions, you'll become a trusted advisor, a confidante to whom managers and leaders turn when they have a pressing people problem.
There's an important modeling aspect to soft skills for TD professionals. When someone comes to you with a training request, do you listen to their request—both the spoken meaning and the unspoken context—or do you jump to your conclusion and attempt to control the conversation? By modeling appropriate communication skills in this interaction, you're conveying to the individual that they and their problems matter.
"With the past couple of years, we've had an opportunity to stop and bring an external awareness of how there are other ways of doing things that actually demands of us within TD to use our soft skills—to rethink how we do everything," explains Lisa Ann Cairns, director of L&D at Smith, an independent global distributor of electronic components.
Like traditional training programs for technical skills or compliance, developing your soft skills can come in different forms and styles. "There's no one way to develop these skills," Cairns notes.
Become aware of different soft skills
One place to start is with raising your consciousness of soft skills and realizing how what you already do daily requires them. Even by just looking at an array of soft skills, you can begin to associate how your regular actions include using specific ones.
Take empathy, for example. It is a concept many people confuse with sympathy. So, by understanding empathy's meaning (the ability to understand and share another person's feelings), you can begin to associate the application of the skill in your everyday life. With an enhanced awareness, you can assess your soft skill strengths and weaknesses and develop them accordingly.
Conduct a self-assessment
External resources are one way to determine whether you are lacking in various soft skills. Assessments such as CliftonStrengths, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Growth Resources & Indicators, and DISC are available options.
While not strictly for soft skills purposes, Moore has team members take the Strengths-Finder assessment to determine where their strengths lie and where there are opportunities for improvement. "We use this to help us make decisions on who should be involved in certain projects," he explains. "For example, if we're looking for someone to lead an employee engagement project, we look for a person strong in woo (or winning over others)."
TD and HR certifications likewise can be an effective way to assess your soft skills gap. The Association for Talent Development's Talent Development Capability Model includes the Building Personal Capability domain, which encompasses soft skills such as emotional intelligence, communication, and cultural awareness and inclusion. You can use the model's self-assessment component to gauge your skills and knowledge in, for example, assessing and managing one's own emotional state.
As director of the National Native American Human Resources Association, Moore is involved in providing support to the board for its Tribal Human Resources Professional Certification programming. Going into the next phase of planning, the association is exploring what the certifications need to encompass next in terms of soft skills. Political awareness and political savviness, as well as critical thinking and collaboration, are particular development focuses.
Phone a friend or co-worker
Self-reporting assessments have their usefulness, but we are not always the best judge of our own strengths and weaknesses. For instance, you may rate yourself as excellent at listening, but all your co-workers may say that you interrupt too frequently or show a tendency to multitask when someone else is talking. To that end, it's important to enlist those around you to evaluate what soft skill gaps you may have.
You can use the same questions you answered about yourself for the self-assessment and reframe them for others to answer about you. For example, in your development plan, ask your manager to rate your ability on a cross-section of interpersonal skills and then form a goal for developing one and revisit your progress over the course of the year. Or, if you're a facilitator or coach or in another learner-facing role, use your participant evaluations to assess your soft skills. To evaluate your teamwork skills, ask participants to rate how well you worked with your co-facilitator during a session.
Make it a team activity
It can't be said enough how much a person's soft skills show up in their relationships and interactions with others. So, when possible, treat the process of developing and implementing soft skills as a communal event, not something to test out alone in front of a mirror. Practice them with other people and then ask for feedback on whether and where you're improving.
At Smith, Cairns and her team created a success multiplier program that turns soft skills development into a blended, microlearning moment for all employees, including L&D team members. The format entails adding a roughly 15-minute learning event to standing weekly meetings. During the first two to five minutes, group members watch a video on a soft skill topic via the learning management system. The remaining 10 minutes are dedicated to a discussion based on a related question prompt to help the conversation flow.
If the topic was on, say, time management, discussion prompts could be: What would it look like if you tried this in your day? Would it work? Why or why not?
"If we can help people to engage in the conversation, to engage in awareness of soft skills, then people become aware of a lot of tools themselves," Cairns explains. "They might not have refined tools, but if we're looking at how can we help in terms of organizational development, we need to look at how can we spark their interest so that they see the path and make the request to do more on this topic."
In that way, soft skills training can be a team building activity and an enhancement of team culture. It can present a safe place for individuals and teams to be vulnerable. "Your team functionality becomes the assessment of the skill," Cairns adds.
Evaluate your progress
Just like your TD initiatives are not over until you've evaluated their effectiveness, you should measure your growth in the soft skills you've chosen to develop. You can do so on your own in both formal and informal ways.
After a period of time, re-evaluate your skills by returning to the assessment you initially took. Or if, for example, you started writing in a journal as a way of charting your progress in managing your emotions at work, you can determine whether you've improved in situations that trigger you.
Selecting an accountability partner within your team also can be a way to measure your development. For instance, if you decide you want to improve your verbal and written communication, enlist a co-worker to monitor how well you deliver a presentation to a group of stakeholders or whether you crafted an email to learners in a way to engage them ahead of an upcoming learning experience. Other accountability partners can come in the form of coaches or mentors.
As an L&D leader mindful of the impact of soft skills, Moore challenges his team members to think about what their guiding goals are. That includes sharing development advice with each other and conducting 180-degree feedback with the team. Moore says that his team members incorporate soft skills elements into their scorecards so that they are aware of their progress.
Yes, the hard skills of instructional design, talent management, and performance consulting aren't going anywhere—and it's crucial for TD professionals to be highly qualified in them. But that's only part of the skills development equation.
Technological advancements are rapidly changing the workforce landscape. Artificial intelligence is set to disrupt countless jobs, and TD will not be excluded. But AI is still not able to excel in tasks and positions that are focused on soft skills—for example, collaborating with a subject matter expert on a training program and persuading them to include only the content learners need to know. To excel in your career, you will need to be proficient in such soft skills to work with emerging technologies and keep your career moving forward.
"Soft skills aren't a job thing," Cairns says. "They're a life thing."
Soft Skills Categories
In my work developing the ATD Soft Skills Series, I examined the most important soft skills identified across multiple sources and grouped them into five broad buckets. Here's how the skills are defined within the books.
Adaptability is the ability to respond to unanticipated changes or new conditions in our environment. Adaptability skills can include flexibility, resilience, and managing change.
Creativity is the ability to recognize or generate ideas through novel perspectives that defy the crowd and create aha moments. Creativity skills can include innovation, problem solving, and storytelling.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to be in touch with one's feelings, regulate one's actions, recognize those needs in others, and manage relationships accordingly. Emotional intelligence skills can include empathy, listening, and self-management.
Influence is the ability to offer one's ideas and perspectives to move someone else to a mutually beneficial outcome in their actions, behaviors, opinions, or beliefs. Influence skills can include persuasion and negotiation.
Teamwork is the ability to closely coordinate and cooperate with other people to accomplish an important, shared goal. Teamwork skills can include collaboration and trust building.
According to LinkedIn Learning's 2021 Workplace Learning Report, soft skills represent nine of the top 10 skills that L&D professionals around the world cited as being the most important.
1. Resilience and adaptability
2. Technology skills/digital fluency
3. Communication across remote or distributed teams
4. Emotional intelligence
5. Cross-functional collaboration
6. Leading through change
7. Change management
8. Dealing with stress/being more mindful
9. Time management