Can You Train Soft Skills?  

Can You Train Soft Skills?  

It doesn’t matter if you’re an industrial contractor, a small community bank, a hospital, or an I.T. firm, every industry is looking for a similar type of candidate. In the midst of the widespread workforce recruitment effort taking place among companies throughout the country, one thing has become clear: soft skills are still clearly in high demand and they’re difficult to find.

This has a lot of employers wondering if soft skill instruction can become a part of their training programs. The short answer is – it depends.


Subjective, but No Less Vital

Soft skills look different in different industries, so there’s a lot of diversity in terms of specific traits. Lately, their importance among companies has been dramatically on the rise because they’re the kind of workforce characteristics that can’t be automated.

In a survey by LinkedIn of thousands of professionals last year, 57% of senior leaders said soft skills are more important than hard skills in today’s companies. The five soft skills that employers wanted most were: creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and time management.

Also, both talent developers and executives said they believe training for soft skills was the most important area of focus for their learning and development programs. 35% of talent developers expect to increase their soft skill training budgets in the coming years.

“In the age of automation, adaptability rules,” the survey’s authors said. “While maintaining technical fluency will be important, demand for soft skills will continue to accelerate.”


Can We Teach Soft Skills?

Part of the reason soft skills are so difficult to teach is because they’re difficult to measure. Hard skills, in contrast, are fairly easily observed and quantified. You can teach a person to drive, for example, and evaluate what they’ve learned in concrete terms before issuing a fact-based certification. But you can’t as easily train someone to be a better team player and evaluate their collaborative skills without using a subjective evaluation to gauge your results. That’s why experts point out the success of a soft skill training program will depend largely on the company’s needs and own assessment of the outcome.

Which is not to say it doesn’t have benefits. Practice and refinement are positive things for any type of skill. Most often, improvements will involve some arrangement of coaching, formal training, and/or leadership development activities. Each has potential, but results will vary significantly for different companies.

Individualized coaching programs, both virtual and face-to-face, have shown to have a measurable impact on a person’s career and performance, often by building soft skills. According to researchers in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, the best coaching methods involve internal coaches and multi-point feedback from multiple parties, commonly known as 360-degree feedback. This feedback is important because it lets the learner identify skill shortfalls through introspection.

Active listening is a good example of a soft skill that can be improved by training. Most companies agree that listening skills are a sought-after trait for many different roles, but it’s not something one can gauge very well in a job interview. Thus, bad listeners get hired. But over time, a training program that targets listening skill improvement can bring about discernable performance increases depending on how companies choose to measure them.

General sales training is another good example. It incorporates an array of soft skill improvements that can synergize into effective sales methods. Things like active listening, communication, persuasion, and others, are all involved. And again, depending on how your company chooses to quantify the outcome, this is one area of soft skills training that can have measurable success.

Positive soft skill improvements from leadership development programs has historically proven to be a bit of a mixed bag. There is widespread evidence that leadership development doesn’t work unless it’s administered in meaningful ways, as noted by publications like the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and Inc. magazine. In order for it to be successful, most experts agree that leaders need to be able to apply the new skills they’ve learned quickly or they’ll just revert to their old habits. Thus, leadership development is best conducted on the job in real time and should always be connected to a defined business goal.


Most Likely, You Can

If your company has a defined need to improve a soft skill and a clear determination of what an improvement of that skill would mean for your business, then you can most likely find the right type of method to make that happen. There are a lot of variables at play here, but many soft skills can be developed under the right kinds of expectations. With persistence, your company will be less reliant on recruiting soft skills and more focused on practicing and strengthening their day-to-day application.

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