Soft skills are all the rage these days. Business leaders are always talking about what they need to do to teach soft skills and make sure employees know how to listen, collaborate, communicate, and connect with customers and co-workers.
There’s no doubt that soft skills are important in the workplace, but when we spend all of our time discussing how we can teach them to employees, we’re forgetting one vitally important thing: employees already have soft skills. We don’t need to assume they have to learn everything. Instead, we can start with the skills employees already have. After all, everyone learns soft skills throughout their lives. Your employees probably are more sympathetic and communicative than you know.
Instead, there’s a much more important question we should be asking ourselves. If employees already have soft skills, why don’t they feel they can use them at work? In many organizations, employees don’t feel safe enough to use their soft skills. Connecting with people on an emotional level means taking a risk, especially if the organization doesn’t have a culture that encourages employees to show their personalities. Soft skills are what makes us unique. Someone might naturally be a great listener, while someone else might have a natural knack for creativity. When organizations don’t allow employees to use those skills, everyone becomes the same and employees are more likely to feel like cogs in the machine instead of individuals who can showcase their personalities.
Employees are often more worried about getting to the top of the corporate ladder or dealing with office politics than they are about actually connecting with people and using the soft skills they’ve been developing their entire lives. Employees who live in fear of being reprimanded or having their workload doubled for no reason don’t have the emotional energy or time to showcase those soft skills that are so crucial.
Employees also have to deal with bureaucracy and competition. If employees think their company is only focused on bottom-line results and doesn’t care about employees, they won’t be motivated to give feedback to a manager, ask how someone is doing, or comfort a co-worker during a difficult time. An employee might want to reach out to someone else to see how they are doing or work with a team to create a new marketing plan, but if they are too busy trying to get reports in on time or worried about the backlash they might receive, they will suppress those soft skills.
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In order for employees to want to use their soft skills, they need to feel safe and appreciated. A culture that encourages soft skills can make all the difference in how employees and customers feel. People naturally want to connect with each other, and taking that away from your employees creates a stark and impersonal environment where people don’t want to work.
It’s a very different approach to take a deeper look inside your organization and realize what needs to be done to create a collaborative and respectful environment. That’s not to say that soft skills shouldn’t be taught in the workplace, because everyone can use continued development. Additional training can be helpful for employees to ensure they are using their soft skills effectively and developing new skills that can benefit them in their current positions. But training shouldn’t be the overall focus on soft skills. After all, all the training in the world doesn’t matter if employees don’t feel they can actually apply what they are learning.
The bottom line is that we should continue to think about soft skills, but we should shift our focus to think more about how to encourage employees to use the skills they already have instead of feeling like we need to teach them everything.
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