When the pandemic hit, HR professionals used soft skills to save the day for many organizations — by adapting policies, showing flexibility and leading with empathy, among other things. Although the pandemic is now waning, the need for strong soft skills will only continue, experts say.
As new workplace challenges emerge around things like hybrid work, employee well-being and AI, HR and TR practitioners are finding they may need to up their soft skills game.
For example, in a recent WorldatWork survey of 776 total rewards professionals, these three soft skills topped the list of factors respondents considered “absolutely critical” or “very important” to their professional success:
- Problem solving (listed by 93.9% of respondents)
- Communication (91.4%)
- Relationship building (87.8%)
Practitioners who don’t take the time to develop these skills risk falling behind in their careers, according to Tracie Sponenberg, chief people officer at The Granite Group, a plumbing, heating, cooling, water and energy wholesale supplier, based in New Hampshire.
Just as importantly, those who don’t keep up won’t be at the top of their game, Sponenberg added. “If you’re not cultivating those soft skills, you’re not doing your job to the best of your ability,” she said. “You’re not giving your company — and, more importantly, your people — what they really need.”
Soft Skills: ‘The Differentiator’
Soft skills are typically described as characteristics and attributes that are key to building interpersonal relationships and getting work done. Examples of soft skills include communication, problem solving, adaptability, creativity, emotional intelligence, critical thinking and empathy.
These skills have always been crucial to HR’s work, and their value has only increased of late.
“When you think about what’s happened over the last three or four years, things like collaboration, empathy, better communication, adaptability, flexibility, having a sense of humor — those, to me, are more important now because of what the pandemic did to the workplace,” said Tom Wilson, who leads the executive search function at Frederickson Partners, a Gallagher company.
While some business leaders might be tempted to dismiss soft skills as being too “touchy-feely,” these qualities can be tied to concrete business metrics and results.
For example, research conducted by Gallagher found that company leaders with high emotional intelligence are more successful at creating organizations that are productive, cohesive and high-performing. In addition, leaders who show empathy help drive better employee engagement, innovation and inclusivity, according to a study by Catalyst.
Moreover, soft skills are vital to performance: According to a report from LinkedIn, 92% of hiring managers said soft skills matter at least as much as technical skills, and 89% of recruiters said when new hires don’t work out, it’s because they lack the necessary soft skills.
On the flipside, companies whose leaders lack soft skills may struggle to keep top talent or might experience other people-related problems. “Production will go down; employee engagement will go down; turnover would likely go up,” Wilson said. “And you’re probably brewing a really bad culture for the organization.”
On a personal level, HR professionals who don’t maximize their soft skills may not achieve their full career potential. “Soft skills are the differentiator between somebody who knows what they’re doing and somebody who can really excel,” Sponenberg said.
“Soft skills are the differentiator between somebody who knows what they’re doing and somebody who can really excel.”
The skill listed at the top of the WorldatWork survey — problem solving — is vital in today’s increasingly complex workplaces. It is also crucial for professions like HR that are experiencing ongoing change.
Over the last decade, HR has been moving from transactional functions to more strategic ones. Part of that transition includes demonstrating soft skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving, said Danielle Spieckerman, chief human resources officer at InBloom Autism Services in St. Louis. “Making sure we can analyze a problem — really get to the root cause of why that is — and be forthcoming with solutions is critical,” she said.
There are opportunities to do that right now in response to current labor market challenges, she noted. For example, many HR professionals are being asked to determine why employees are leaving and to recommend ways to improve retention.
The growing use of AI as a tool to generate data and aid in problem solving is a factor that will continue to push HR professionals into more strategic roles, according to Cori Bernosky, WorldatWork’s vice president of human resources. “Continuing to adapt in this new AI world is important,” she said, “but also then being able to understand the data you’re looking at and work to create solutions for your organization.”
Problem-solving skills also can help when facing challenges related to managing a multigenerational workforce — an issue that was present before the pandemic and persists at many organizations.
At The Granite Group, members of Gen Z are looking for more feedback and more career pathing than older workers historically have, Sponenberg said. That means her HR team is having to provide new coaching to frontline managers on how to interact with this cohort.
“You’re not managing somebody who is 21 and just out of school or new to the workforce the same way you’re managing somebody who’s been with the company for 45 years because they don’t necessarily work the same way,” Sponenberg said.
One of the outcomes of the pandemic is that more employees are now able to work remotely or to work hybrid schedules that allow for a combination of on-site and off-site work. As a result, communication has become more difficult. It’s much harder for HR professionals to gauge how participants are receiving messages over a video call than it is in person, for example.
That means HR needs to communicate more clearly and follow up directly with participants to determine how the information was received, according to Wilson.
Sponenberg emphasized that part of communication involves listening — no matter where employees are working from. That’s why the HR team at The Granite Group is making more of an effort to visit the company’s 60 locations and connect with its 700 employees, most of whom are in customer-facing roles.
“If you’re not out and about and talking to the people who you’re serving, then what you’re doing isn’t going to have the impact you think it will,” she said.
Communication is also a powerful marketing tool, Spieckerman noted, and will be crucial in the ongoing war for talent. “Presenting a strong case as to why people want to work for your organization or why people want to stay at the organization is going to be important,” she said.
Relationship Building and Empathy
Another result of the pandemic: a greater focus on employee mental health and well-being. For instance, leading with empathy has become imperative, according to Katharine Manning, author of “The Empathetic Workplace” and president of Blackbird DC, which provides training and consultation on empathy at work.
When HR and other leaders show empathy, they build trust and improve relationships in the workplace, Manning said. “And then ultimately, the organization as a whole is more successful because people are more able to engage, they feel supported, and they have trust for their colleagues and for their leadership,” she explained.
Another way companies can support employee well-being is by continuing to show flexibility and to demonstrate the importance of establishing good relationships with employees.
“When COVID hit, it taught us that rules are important, but we also have to make sure that we’re being adaptable and flexible with folks,” Spieckerman said. Doing so demonstrates that a company understands workers’ needs and cares about their well-being, she explained, which ultimately strengthens connections with employees.
Consider how, during the early days of the pandemic, employers provided support through adjusted work hours and other means to help employees who were juggling work and caregiving responsibilities. The need for this kind of assistance hasn’t gone away, even though the public health crisis has receded: Three years later, caregiving responsibilities remain a challenge for many employees.
“The pandemic made these issues impossible to ignore,” Manning said, and the organizations that admit there are employees who are struggling and who need help are going to be the most successful. “If you want to hold onto your people, if you want to have engagement and productivity and collaboration and creativity, all of those things require empathy. And that’s not going away.”
Although the WorldatWork survey found that many total rewards professionals value soft skills, it also found gaps between the perceived importance of these skills and respondents’ self-assessments of their proficiency. For example, 91.4% of respondents rated communication as highly important, but only 79.7% of respondents were confident in their communication skills — a gap of 11.7 percentage points. (For problem solving and relationship building, the gaps were 2.5% and 5.9%, respectively.)
Overall, the survey found, one-quarter of respondents said they are still developing the various skills they need to excel in their current roles.
The good news is, there are several ways HR professionals can improve their soft skills — many of which don’t cost a lot of money.
A first step, according to Sponenberg, is to identify which soft skills you may need to improve. Ways to do that include using a predictive index, asking others for feedback and increasing your own self-awareness, she said.
Of course, if you are trying to convince company leaders to invest in soft-skills development, you’ll need to make the business case for it, just as you would for any other initiative.
According to Manning, making the case for empathy training is fairly easy. She pointed to a 2020 report that found 80% of employees would be willing to leave their company for a more empathetic employer and 57% would take a pay cut to do so. “The business case is quite compelling,” Manning said. “It’s not a hard one to make.”
HR professionals can also take steps to develop their soft skills on their own.
Spieckerman recommended joining professional associations, networking with other HR professionals and working with a mentor. “Experiential learning is a big part of it, too,” she added. She suggested volunteering for stretch assignments, like taking on a difficult employee relations scenario or being part of a big technology rollout.
Taking the initiative to land assignments that help you gain a new perspective on your organization’s operations and mechanisms for generating revenue can be particularly helpful — especially if they take you out of your comfort zone. (For more, see "Lessons from a CEO: Insights on How HR Can Advance.")
Courses, webinars and other types of self-study are also available.
WorldatWork’s Bernosky values the methodology offered by Crucial Conversations, and notes that LinkedIn Learning offers courses on decision making and critical thinking. For bolstering communication skills, she noted that many WorldatWork courses offer sections that focus on communicating with multiple stakeholders, including executives and employees.
Soft Skills Have No Expiration Dates
The need for HR and TR professionals to have strong soft skills won’t go away anytime soon, according to Bernosky. “Moving forward, I think it will continue to be one of the most important elements in establishing a high-trust, highly effective organization that is looking to deliver business outcomes,” she said.
Because soft skills are highly transferable across industries and situations, they’re unlikely to become obsolete. So, no matter how the profession evolves and no matter what form the next business disruption takes, HR and TR professionals with solid soft skills will be better prepared for the future than those without.
“I think for HR professionals, those skills will help you to feel more confident in navigating whatever is going to come through your door,” Manning said, “because, as we all know, you never have any idea what’s walking through your door.”
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