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Developing Soft Skills in the Workplace – Part 2

In the April edition of our Newsletter, we discussed the Importance of Soft Skills in the workplace. As a reminder, ”soft skills” refer to non-job-specific skills that are people-focused, communicative in nature and transferrable across contexts. The increasing requirement and use of soft skills in the workplace is owing to the ever-growing nature of work in the 21st century, as a result of phenomena such as artificial intelligence and rapidly increasing automation. Problem-solving, decision-making, analysing, negotiating, engaging, networking, and using one’s leadership and people skills are no longer merely reserved for the most strategic and critical of thinkers occupying top positions. If one merely browses a job advertisement for a junior to intermediate-level position, some, if not most of these skills, are listed as necessary for the position. For this reason, we have explored a few practical ways in which soft skills can be developed in the workplace.

1. Assessing the soft skills gap

Assessing the soft skills gap is no easy feat as one would require a skills assessment tool for each soft skill. Since most of these skills are intangible in nature, it can become rather tricky to measure the proficiency of these skills that one may demonstrate. What could be important in this regard, is to first assess the specific job, the duties and responsibilities, the requirements to execute said responsibilities paired with the specific competencies, knowledge and tangible/measurable skills. One could then ask oneself: “If I were an average employee, what skills should I be able to demonstrate to fulfil my minimum duties and responsibilities?” Thereafter, compare this to what an excelling employee in this specific job would look like. What does someone who communicates reactively and passively look like, compared to someone who is proactive in their communication and who is energetic, knowledgeable and confident? This should be reviewed in light of the job requirements and person specifications.

With this in mind, and with regular performance feedback discussions with one’s employees, you can ascertain the level at which certain skills are required to be demonstrated, and on which level the employees are currently performing. Performance discussions and one-to-one discussions with one’s direct reportees are critical to ascertain the soft skills gap. It is easy to monitor employees’ progress when there are tangible deliverables that can be presented, but the same cannot be said for deliverables required from the use of soft skills.  However, the manner in which this work is executed is equally important – if not more so, since this is precisely where soft skills come into play.

2. Changing the employee’s behaviour and attitudes

Changing behaviour and attitudes are never as easy as it sounds. It doesn’t happen with the snap of a finger or overnight. Changing behaviour and attitudes involve changing the way people think about something – their perceptions. Many HR professionals and business leaders in the industry will agree that you can train skills, therefore you should rather hire employees based on their attitudes! The best way to change, or in some cases merely influence, one’s mindset, is through education. Education can take various forms.  It can be more interactive and practical than merely sitting in a boardroom and watching a few videos. Yes, videos are highly educational and can present a wealth of knowledge. However, not everyone learns from just watching something.

The ability to share knowledge is a soft skill in itself. Having knowledge share workshops are excellent tools to get people out of their comfort zones, interacting and learning from others, and receiving feedback. During such workshops or conferences, one can use scenario-based situations where employees are expected to either act out a situation or provide feedback on how they would deal with said situation practically. Using hypothetical scenarios in games and activities that emulate the working environment, can teach employees how to handle similar situations.  This can be done through adapting what they have learned, applying critical thinking and applying what they know to resolve the problem at hand. Role-playing activities and games can provide a good indication of where employees are at in terms of their skills levels.  It will also show their thought processes and what factors they consider in their decision-making process, as well as potential areas for development. Employees’ response to the scenario can provide valuable insight into their competencies, preferred styles of working and potential “red flags” in the workplace.

3. Stepping out of your comfort zone

Stepping outside of your comfort zone by purposefully engaging in activities that you normally would not engage in, is perfect for changing one’s attitude. Challenging employees to do something they would not normally dare to do, while being in a safe space where they can learn, is ideal. Baby steps may be applicable for some employees who are harder to convince than others. One must be careful to not push people to a point where they will feel unsuccessful and failure might be inevitable, as this can do more harm than good. You do not want to put employees in a position where they begin to doubt and question all of their beliefs and competencies, but merely where they are able to self-reflect. Self-reflection is crucial in developing soft skills. This can be something as simple as a SWOT analysis before undergoing a developmental programme or workshop, and then a post-self-reflection assessment.

4. Building relationships and teamwork

Through interaction in group settings, employees are able to observe how others demonstrate their skills and strengths, and learn from their co-workers. Some people thrive in teams, while others wholeheartedly despise working in teams. A smaller team context may be best for more focused and individual development, where there is a limited possibility that one or a few team members overshadow others. It also limits the tendency of more reserved employees to rely on “group think” and let the more confident team members speak for them. More intimate teams also provide a more trusting context, where employees can each take turns to express parts of themselves. Smaller groups also allow for greater observation of others to take place, without getting overwhelmed by the amount of information.

Teamwork and building positive relationships with colleagues provide a safety net where one can practice and test one’s developing or newly developed skills. Employees can bounce ideas off each other and feel that they can genuinely engage with their colleagues in meaningful discourse. Having purposeful, intentional and frequent team-building sessions (be it in smaller groups more often and as an organisation as a whole a few times a year) does well to build an employee’s confidence within the group setting, the organisational context and among others who may not share the same ideas or opinions as themselves. Whether its connecting at the office every first Friday of the month, stepping away once a quarter as a team, or having weekly departmental sessions, being intentional about teamwork and discourse is crucial.  It is also a valuable way to connect with employees on a more personal level, while building on soft skills such as communication, networking, negotiating, problem-solving, decision-making, conflict management, leadership capabilities, etc.

5. Communication and feedback

Being receptive to feedback, whether it is valuable and constructive or critical, is an important part of developing one’s soft skills. Listening to what others have to say without viewing it in an attacking or personally offensive manner, is something that can be learned. While being open to hearing feedback, one needs to constantly remind oneself that one is striving to improve oneself.  While we know ourselves best, we often have blind spots. This is where co-workers can provide valuable input – where we may not see something clearly for what it is, or may internalise it differently based on our own experiences and foundational perspectives. Feedback from colleagues, superiors, clients or someone reporting to you can help to improve one’s flexibility and adaptability (by learning and changing behaviours), active listening skills, negotiation and critical analysis skills.  It is important to remain open to receiving constructive feedback and not being offended by it.  It should rather be viewed as additional information about yourself, which you can leverage to enhance your capabilities.

The importance of effective communication cannot be emphasised enough in any context, especially within the workplace. Effective and timeous communication is crucial for business operations to be running efficiently, productively and with minimal errors. Communication eliminates misunderstandings, sets boundaries and standards, keeps people informed, and maintains order and compliance. We know that communication is not just about what one says, but also the manner and style in which one chooses to communicate. Some people can come across as friendly and polite, while being ineffective communicators, while others may seem abrupt but get the message across.

Different situations call for different styles, tones, forms and methods of communication. It is important to instil in employees the value of communicating complete information in a timely and efficient manner.  This should be done while being respectful and courteous, without being unprofessional and over-friendly. In this regard, there are ENDLESS workshops and training videos with a multiplicity of scenarios in which communication is practiced. The only way to improve communication styles and routines, is through practice. During workshops or training days, as mentioned above, scenario-specific situations are crucial to practice.

Practice communicating in different work settings, with people from different backgrounds, using different scenarios that call for different resolutions, with people across the organisational structure, having formal / semi-formal / informal communication scenarios, etc. The style of communication, tone of voice, posture, facial expressions, and manner of addressing people are all important for the specific situation, which can be practiced. Therefore, practicing communication requires communicating often and using different media (not just via email, but also face-to-face, during video conferences, telephonically, via written letter, etc.). Where you feel you perhaps lack in public speaking skills, work with a colleague who excels at this. Practice making presentations and speeches to them, and allow time for feedback and discussion regarding your progress.

Verbal communication aside, written communication is just as important. Knowing what written style of communication is applicable for which context, the medium and audience is also critical to the effectiveness of written communication. Here, again, the key word is practice, practice, practice! Ask a colleague who you know has strong written communication skills to help you out. Ask them to give you various scenarios to which you have to respond in writing (either formal or informal), and ask for their feedback. Again, being receptive to feedback and leveraging the skills of our colleagues can be important for our own development.

Article written by Keilah Paul


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