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Q&A With KMA, photo of Lorrie Ritter, HR Consultant

What do we mean when we talk about so called soft skills?

Lorrie Ritter: To quote one of my favorite leadership experts, Simon Sinek, “There’s no such thing as soft skills.” He refers to them as human skills. More recently, I have heard them referred to as “power skills.” They’re often considered less important than hard skills, related to technical knowledge and expertise, which are acquired either through job experience or education, training programs and certifications, but I would argue soft skills are even more valuable in today’s workplace.

What are soft skills? They are behaviors, traits, and work habits that help people perform their work successfully and collaborate effectively with others. Soft skills include competencies such as active listening, critical thinking, empathy, communication, adaptability, problem solving, time management, and collaboration. These skills are what separate great leaders and employees – from good ones.

Emotional intelligence (or EQ) is very important for soft skill development. EQ encompasses self-awareness, which is an understanding of your disposition, feelings and motivations; self-regulation which helps manage emotions and behaviors; and social awareness, which is the ability to understand how you are perceived by others so that you can adapt accordingly. Having high EQ is a good foundation for more easily developing soft skills.

How does a person develop their soft skills?

Lorrie Ritter: Employees vary on the strengths of their soft skills. Some don’t come naturally to everyone…especially those who were not brought up in an environment with role models or mentors who encouraged certain behaviors; however, these skills are important and can be developed. With EQ for instance, you must be open to change, and you must be willing to take a hard look at yourself to understand why you are the way you are, and why you respond in the way that you do to different inputs. This self-reflective work allows you to see yourself as others perceive you and provides insight as to why they respond to you in certain ways. One way to develop these skill sets is to find a mentor who demonstrates high emotional intelligence and who can inspire and coach you. For some people, soft skills can be learned and absorbed through life experience and maturity.

What role should a company play in developing these skills in its people?

Lorrie Ritter: To foster this kind of culture, companies need to communicate consistently, clearly, and often, starting with the company’s vision, mission statement, and core values, which should align with the strategic goals of the organization. Clearly articulated, these can provide an understanding of what the company stands for, where each individual fits in, and the value each employee and their skill set brings to the collective whole. The core values are the backbone of a company’s culture, and outline expectations regarding how employees will engage with each other, and with clients, and customers. Leaders at all levels must exemplify the core values in their leadership style and recognize and reward employees who do the same.

Equally important is an organization’s willingness to invest in developing their employees’ soft skills by incorporating them into their job ads, interview process, job descriptions, employee goals and expectations, performance evaluation process, and personal enrichment and development plans, which could include soft skills assessments to identify gaps, a mentoring program, and use of outside/professional training and development programs. Investing in developing these skills of an organization’s most valuable resources is not only an excellent retention tool, but is time and money well spent towards building a rich environment with highly engaged and high performing teams that are committed and accountable to the company’s overall business goals.

Are there other tools for building soft skills employers should consider?

Lorrie Ritter: For interpersonal soft skills, there are different tools that can help people understand their communication style, their leadership style, and so on. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, just one of many personality assessments out there, is commonly used to identify personality types, strengths, and preferences. Knowing your MBTI type can contribute to self-awareness, to understand how you communicate with others, and how you work with others whose styles are similar or different to yours. Organizations can bring in professional coaching to work on employees’ self-awareness, allowing them to receive, accept and act on feedback, and self-regulation, developing their skills to temper emotions and to respond more reflectively to whatever is going on.

I am passionate about this because I’ve seen what happens when a company fails to invest in developing these people skills. For example, a common scenario is for a company to promote a successful individual contributor with high technical skills to a leadership role, thinking they will be equally successful leading others, without investing in their soft skills development; this is a set up for failure. On the other hand, I’ve also seen first-hand how working for organizations who place a high value on developing these skills can result in a cohesive and successful high-functioning team who are all working toward a common goal.

Thank you, Lorrie, for sharing your appreciation for soft skills and how they can help individuals succeed in their careers, develop into effective leaders, and make a lasting positive impact in their workplace.