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How to develop soft skills

As today’s skill shift accelerates, it is essential that organizations enhance and expand development initiatives for business longevity.

Advises companies as they pursue performance transformation and anticipate the workforce implications of artificial intelligence

As automation and artificial intelligence dramatically change the nature of work, employees must fine tune the social and emotional abilities machines cannot master. To encourage this behavior, employers must adjust the ways they assess, educate, train and reward their workforce on soft skills such as collaboration, communication and critical thinking.

Our previous post demonstrated the value of developing and rewarding soft skills, considering the impact of automation and AI on the workplace of the future. But what exactly are soft skills, and how can organizations meet these needs?

What are soft skills?

Soft skills, which are commonly defined as non-technical skills that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with others, are vital to organizations and can impact culture, mindsets, leadership, attitudes and behaviors. These skills fall into the following categories:

  1. Advanced communication and negotiation skills
  2. Interpersonal skills and empathy
  3. Leadership and management skills
  4. Entrepreneurship and initiative-taking
  5. Adaptability and continuous learning skills
  6. Teaching and training skills

A key difference among today’s large-scale skill shift and those in the past—including the transformative transition from agriculture to manufacturing—is the urgency for workers who exhibit these capabilities.

Reskilling at scale is a concern and priority for 80 percent of C-suite executives worldwide, according to a McKinsey survey. Reskilling significant portions of the workforce within the next 5-10 years will be required—tens of millions of mid-career, middle-age workers, particularly in advanced economies—with the development of soft skills a key element.

How can organizations facilitate reskilling?

Developing required soft skills and ensuring employees, and in turn organizations, are set up for success isn’t as simple as popping in a training video. Instead, companies must change their employees’ processes and behaviors—a much harder task.

Assessment is an important first step. Sizing the soft skill gap proves particularly challenging, since they typically lack systematic evaluation and certification mechanisms. HR departments must be equipped with a framework that codifies soft skills and defines their respective evaluation criteria.

For example, several European firms are employing “stepping stone” initiatives to build a digital platform to help workers evaluate their soft skills, know their strengths and development needs, gain access to specific trainings, and get certified.

Effective reskilling requires blended learning journeys that mix traditional learning, including training, digital courses and job aids, with nontraditional methods, such as peer coaching. One retail giant has distributed over 17,000 virtual reality headsets that immerse employees in unfamiliar situations, such as their first Black Friday sales day, and is training them in new tech, soft skills and compliance.

People naturally operate based on incentives—they do what is rewarded. To encourage people to not only begin their soft skill learning journey but to continue with it, rewards and incentives are critical. One large advisory firm has recently implemented a series of digital badges to reward people who complete certain training sessions. Much like the progression of belts provided to martial artists, these badges serve as public recognition for others that the trainee is becoming an expert in a certain topic, thereby encouraging employees to further invest in key skills.

Given the critical need for soft skills now and in the future, training current employees is not enough. It is also crucial to ensure that new talent coming in the door is ready with the most critical skills on day one. Recruiting for soft skills can be tricky, but it generally involves structured interviews which elicit responses that include details about one’s past work and life experiences that contribute to who they are today, or situational judgment tests whereby the interviewer puts the candidate in a specific hypothetical scenario and asks how he or she would deal with it.

Employers providing soft skills training report positive impacts on their workforce, including higher productivity and improved results. As today’s skill shift accelerates, it is essential that organizations enhance and expand development initiatives for business longevity.

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