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Lead Your Team Managing

Soft Skills Matter: Can They Be Taught?

Soft Skills Matter: Can They Be Taught?
Credit: Tischenko Irina/Shutterstock

It used to be that a solid GPA and a relevant degree from a good university were all a new graduate needed to land a job. Today, the tides are shifting, as research increasingly shows that abstract qualifications — a good attitude, a strong work ethic, an innovative mindset — are just as important to employers as practical trade skills and educational background, if not more so.

Several recent reports from online education companies support this trend:

  • Work ethic is the most important trait for employee success in most managers' eyes, and prestigious schooling is the least important consideration in the hiring process. (Instructure, Workforce Readiness Survey)
  • Personal and cultural alignment, not skillsets, are the most important factors in a talent search. Flexibility, creativity, drive and value-based decision-making matter more when it comes to producing high-quality work. (Hyper Island, Talent Trend Report)
  • Management, leadership and mentorship are the most important skills for employees to have in the coming years. (Udemy for Business, "The State of Corporate Training Programs in America")

"The hard skills required for a company's success are ever-changing, while the most critical soft skills remain constant," said Davis Bell, vice president of corporate markets at Instructure.

As Generation Y's presence in the workforce continues to grow, hiring managers are vetting more and more millennials for the traits they want — and it seems they're coming up empty-handed. According to Instructure's survey, just 8 percent of managers feel that millennials are very prepared to contribute immediately when they start working. [Employee Training: 3 Helpful Hints for Small Businesses]

But millennials aren't to blame here. Despite their reputation as lazy and entitled, Gen Y-ers — or any other generation, for that matter — are willing to work hard, if put in the right environment. College doesn't necessarily teach millennials the soft skills they need in the workforce, and those attributes need to be developed once a person is employed, said Ed Mitzen, founder of Fingerpaint Marketing. The problem, however, is that many employers simply aren't prepared to provide the kind of environment today's workers need to thrive.

"Companies aren't ready to meet this generation's behaviors and needs," said Jaclyn Ciamillo, global partnership director for Hyper Island. "Millennials were born in a paradigm shift and brought up with the Internet at their fingertips. The generations before them many times don't understand the big differences it brings to the table ... in an organization."

Solange Charas, founder of Charas Consulting, agreed, noting that Gen Y workers can face the demands of the workplace, but they connect with each other in different ways than previous generations did.

"[Millennials] are more comfortable with a virtual work environment," Charas told Business News Daily. "The challenge will become evident when teams have cross-generational members and different communication styles and climates. That's when critical management skills will be required to turn individuals with different work and communication styles into a high-impact team."

How to teach and improve soft skills

While it's true that certain attributes are difficult to force if employees don't naturally have them, they're not impossible to teach. One of the most important things you can do to improve employees' soft skills is to offerwell-rounded training opportunities for your staff. The Udemy report found that 72 percent of companies surveyed provide training that is only related to employees' roles. Paul Sebastien, vice president and general manager of Udemy for Business, said managers are often busy with the task at hand so they may not consider the less-than-motivating message these narrow training programs send to employees.

"Rounding out hard and soft skills in areas outside of employees' job descriptions brings untold benefits to the company," Sebastien said. "The most successful teams consist of members who have skillsets that complement one another and play off of team members' strengths. When employers invest in training in hard and soft skills, it helps employees feel valued as they work toward career development goals."

You don't even need a formal training program to help employees build their soft skills — Sebastien advised having employees set skill-related goals for themselves during the performance-review process, and help them access resources to achieve those goals.

"Look for opportunities for employees to practice soft skills that may need work," he said. "One example is leading meetings to practice public speaking, in an environment where they can feel safe to fail. Encourage all employees to share personal successes as well as failures so others can learn from these victories and shortcomings."

The other key way to improve employee's soft skills is leading by example. The company culture and work environment you establish as a manager play a huge role in encouraging (or discouraging) the development of these skills. If you want employees to work hard and collaborate with each other, you need to show them how first.

"If [your company's] leadership values skills such as a positive attitude, strong worth ethic, teamwork and collaboration, the newer employees will naturally start to inherit these very important traits," Mitzen said. "Company mentorship programs are a great way to align new employees with the more experienced workers within your company whose behaviors you want the newer generation to emulate."

"[Soft skills are] something you learn by doing, and you have to live it to learn it," Ciamillo added. "It's like parenting — your children don't do what you say, they do what you do. If you are a good example and live by the culture you want to establish ... [your] workers will follow."

Nicole Fallon
Nicole Fallon

Nicole Fallon received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the assistant editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.

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