Soft Skills by Any Other Name

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Eric Davis, Institute for Corporate Productivity

Whether they are dubbed "professional competencies" or "communication skills," a new study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity underscores the importance of soft skills for team effectiveness, leadership development, and time and resource management.

Many businesspeople dislike the term "soft skills." It seems too touchy-feely and fuzzy to have a hard and measurable business impact, and they worry that this phrase diminishes a critical set of business skills.

But they needn't be so concerned. By any other name, soft skills are just as crucial to organizational performance as any other skills brought to the table, according to new research by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp).

In our Identifying and Developing Soft Skills Survey, we found that three-quarters of participants in this study have identified a set of such skills—such as listening skills, persuasion, teamwork—that lead to successful performance, and the proportion climbs to 85% among high-performing companies.

"It's the soft skills that help you meet your people's needs so that they can feel good about going forward and meeting the business metrics," said Jamie Lothian, human resource manager, training and development with Institute member SaskTel. "Soft skills are critical in leveraging the company forward in meeting your goals, objectives and core strategies."

Of course, such skills might be easier to sell internally if they go by some other name. When the Institute asked respondents by what label such skills are known, the most common answer was "competencies" (58%), followed by "skills" (22%) and "values" (11%).

Any way you name such skills, however, most organizations simply can't do without them. Among organizations that offer training or experiences in soft skills, most (73%) refer to them as "critical skills required for business success" and 81% of respondents in higher-performing companies say this. The better companies tend to teach more of these skills and are less likely to cut them when times are tough, our study indicates.

"When the economy started taking a turn for the worse, our president said, 'Do not cut the training budgets. We want you to make sure that you continue to develop our people,'" said Lothian. "Our executive is big on the development of people and has a strong belief in developing our management team."

So, exactly which soft skills are most commonly addressed via training or work experiences? At the top of the list are teamwork and the role of leaders, both of which are offered by 64% of respondents. Those are followed by coaching (60%) and time management skills (53%). Other top skills include listening, verbal and written communication, and project management. Just based on this list, it's clear these are the kinds of competencies that allow organizations to run well and help employees develop the social acumen it takes to succeed. Soft skills facilitate team effectiveness, leadership development, communication and the wise use of time and resources.

Soft skills are also an important part of any change initiative. According to Dennis Dahl, director of human resources for PCL Construction Enterprises, Inc., "If you don't know how to communicate a change initiative or gain buy-in with the use of soft skills, you're not going to be effective in anything you do."

Lothian agrees. "If you're the owner of a change initiative, you need to make sure that you're communicating the change often. The soft skill learning and development we provide really emphasizes the need for that communication."

And soft skills will likely become even more important in boosting the performance levels of younger employees just entering the workforce—that is, the Millennials. According to Dahl, soft skill training around performance feedback has become particularly important to his organization. PCL is an employee-owned company, meaning that managers are supervising their shareholders.

"Before, the rap on our supervisors was that if they aren't yelling at me I must be doing a good job," said Dahl. "That isn't a satisfier for our younger employees. They want feedback, they want it now and they want it to be very specific. They'll leave if they don't receive it."

PCL goes a step farther than most, not only measuring the need for soft skill training of managers and the impact of such training but also putting its money where its mouth is by tying managerial bonus compensation to improvements in those measures. "If someone is not behaving acceptably," said Dahl, "it's going to hit them in the bottom line. That tells them that we're very serious. I think you have to tie it to compensation."

The results of that commitment have paid dividends for PCL, not only in the gratitude of their employee shareholders but also in their employee-of-choice brand. This includes a jump from #77 to #28 on this year's Fortune 100 "Best Places to Work" list.

The Insitute's 4-Part Recommendation:

  1. Define the soft skills that are of greatest value to your organization. Look at highly effective employees and see what makes them good at what they do. Label such skills as "professional development training" or "communication skills training" if you want to avoid the soft skill stigma.
  2. Establish an internal champion at the executive level. Since measurement can be elusive, it's best to have somebody who recognizes the innate value of the skills without the need to "prove" value.
  3. But measure what you can; 360° feedback can help zero in on individual needs, and climate surveys may help an organization get a feeling for communication effectiveness, management competency and teamwork. Metrics can be tied to the compensation of managers.
  4. Focus on the competencies most critical to your organization's or department's success. In some cases, teamwork will be key. In other cases, time management or written communication will be more important. Look at your performance needs and then prioritize accordingly.

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About the Author(s)

Eric Davis is associate editor at i4cp.