Do I Need to Focus On Developing Soft Skills?

In the technology-driven workplace that impacts everyone from frontline workers to the C-suite, it would seem that soft skills shouldn’t necessarily be an important set of leadership skills or employee skills needed for success. The reality is soft skills are more important as workers become more in need of human connection and diverse in every way: age, gender, ethnicity, multicultural, intersectionality, work location, and in areas like the level of knowledge of technology and areas of expertise. Add the uncertainty of the business environment requiring adaptability and creativity, and soft skills development becomes imperative.  

From this perspective, soft skills development is a future-proofing process for leaders and employees, enabling them to thrive in environments of continuous change in which collaboration, teamwork, and communication are critical skills. Developing soft skills at all levels requires some specific steps, beginning with leadership training, shifting the focus to creating a learning culture, and applying leadership principles like delegation and feedback to develop soft skills in the workforce. 

Are Soft Skills Missing in Your Organization? 

Your leaders and their employees likely have excellent hard skills, which are teachable job-related abilities and knowledge needed for productivity and performing jobs effectively. Their hard skills are major contributors to your organization’s success. But in today’s work environment, soft skills are just as important because they’re the skills that enable people to work together and thrive as a community of workers. Your leaders can only promote employee development of soft skills by developing their skills set, like emotional intelligence, communication, and time management. A key strategy for organizational development is to develop leaders with high-level skills they use to become role models as they guide employees in the development of their own soft skills.  

Take adaptability, for example. McKinsey research found that adaptability is crucial to thriving through uncertainty, but many people have difficulty being adaptable given the rate of change in the typical business. The research found that 50 percent of leaders face business problems due to encountering unexpected skills gaps.  

Like other soft skills, being adaptive, problem-solving, and critical thinking are not fully learned in a classroom. Concepts are taught, but they are learned in practice through events like work experiences, simulations of real-world situations, and a growth mindset. In the case of adaptability, your leaders should be role models for employees by demonstrating the learning and application of adaptability by assigning them tasks that require adaptability. Delegation is a soft skill, and challenging employees with stretch assignments is a way to develop adaptable employees.  


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What are Soft Skills, and Why are They Important?  

There is a long list of soft skills, and each is critical to personal and business success. Soft skills include:  

Many jobs at all levels – from restaurant workers to engineers – are increasingly dependent on technology. It’s natural that organizations have emphasized technical skills over soft skills, but it’s become apparent that soft skills are as important as technical capabilities. Leaders need to be inclusive, ethical, empathetic, authentic, and able to create a sense of community. It’s not just about productivity. In fact, one of the drivers of successful union organizing campaigns is the need for younger employees (millennials and Gen Z) to feel a sense of belonging and importance in the workforce, no matter what position they hold and no matter what hard skills they developed. The employees may be productive but unhappy, and happiness and satisfaction in the workplace matter.  

These soft skills are also necessary to attract and retain talent who have the necessary hard skills. People are attracted to companies with a sense of community and managers who are relationship-builders. For example, a Deloitte survey conducted with The Female Quotient on redefining leadership for an inclusion imperative points to the ongoing struggle companies continue to have to cultivate a diverse and inclusive workplace. Employees “want inclusion as an experience instead of a purely programmatic solution.” Leaders need to rethink the traits and behaviors they show employees each day and to view inclusion as a critical skill set.  

The six leadership traits of inclusive leaders were identified as:  

  • Commitment – foster a workplace where employees can be themselves in a culture of fairness and respect, empowering each other’s well-being. 
  • Courage – identify and act on opportunities to be more inclusive. 
  • Cognizance of bias – be aware of unconscious bias so decisions are made transparently and consistently. 
  • Curiosity – actively listen and value the viewpoints of others. 
  • Cultural intelligence – learn about different cultures and develop an awareness of cultural contexts. 
  • Collaboration – develop teams that are diverse in thinking. 
developing leadership soft skills

Skills for a Human-Centered Organization 

Across industries, people want leaders who are more transparent and authentic, recognize their own weaknesses, create a sense of community, foster strong values, and promote a shared vision or shared purpose. Developing these traits in managers and supervisors takes some structured leadership development, like through eLearning simulations, but they must be applied in practice each day. 

To give you an idea of the importance of soft skills to your leaders and employees, the 2019 Global Talent Trends report prepared by LinkedIn says that 89 percent of recruiters say that a common reason a hired employee doesn’t work out is a lack of soft skills. At the same time, employees want to work for employers who value their physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Organizations are reinventing their company culture post-pandemic to be more human-centered. For example, promoting employee well-being includes expressing empathy, requiring training managers to be empathetic leaders who offer emotional support and look for signs of emotional distress in employees. Workers join the Great Resignation because they want more purpose, more flexibility, and more empathy.   

So, you can see that developing soft skills is not teachable like a hard skill, but it is teachable from the sense of developing a perspective of awareness. The LinkedIn report says, “Dropbox, for example, combines what it learns in its twice-yearly engagement surveys with third-party focus groups, facilitated executive coffee chats (generally 10 to 12 people), and listening sessions with employee resource groups to understand how employees view their culture efforts” Listening is a critical soft skill that supports perspective, human-centered knowledge development, and organizational culture.   

How Can Leaders Develop Soft Skills in Employees? 

Developing leadership soft skills is half the process. The other half is leaders developing employee soft skills. Following are ten suggestions for making soft skills development in the workforce as important as hard skills development.  

  1. Communicate the soft skills your organization values and appreciates  
  2. Include soft skills content in other types of training on organizational culture and add it to hard skills training content 
  3. Develop and encourage the use of an employee communication system with collaboration tools 
  4. Develop metrics that provide benchmarks for progress, i.e., 360 assessments, employee surveys, etc. 
  5. Reinforce soft skills learning achieved on the job through recognition and coaching 
  6. Create a culture of learning by integrating a personal growth mindset at every opportunity, including in meetings, through nudges, while working on projects, etc., encouraging skills development in problem-solving, critical thinking, and inclusion. 
  7. Delegate new responsibilities to employees, providing guidance and encouragement as needed 
  8. Encourage employees to take ownership of their learning journey so they set personal goals that your leaders support by providing opportunities. 
  9. Provide continuous feedback to employees as a means of microlearning 
  10. Deliver soft skills training in training sessions, workshops, eLearning, meetings, etc.  
leadership development

Future-Proofing Skills 

Leaders and employees need to understand that soft skills are important to everyone in the organization and are as important to personal and business success as hard skills. The brilliant technology worker or the creative graphics artist employee are not going to be successful if they don’t have skills like time management. The same is true for your leaders. Leaders may have great hard skills, but they are not prepared to lead the new generations of workers if soft skills are lacking. There are added benefits to helping employees master soft skills. You will increase employee engagement while preparing your employees to become new leaders in the future.  

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About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

With over 25 years in the industry, and now as IRI's Director of Business Development, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

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