Soft skills have a bit of an image problem. The term has gone out of fashion in recent years. It all sounds a bit touchy-feely. A bit pink and fluffy. A bit, well, soft.
There has been a move away from managers being encouraged to use soft skills to deal with difficult people management issues as they arise such as conflict, performance management and change. Managers often avoid dealing with a situation themselves simply because they don’t they have the competence, the courage or the confidence to deal with difficult situations personally.
Focus on people - not just policies, processes and procedures.
The past few decades have seen a shift towards addressing people management issues by focusing on policies, processes and procedures. We have rather lost sight of the importance of human beings in our organisations – real people, real feelings and real needs. We’ve become reliant on policy, process and procedure. We hope that if we go through the ‘official channels’, they will spit out a happy person and a strong outcome.
My experience of working with organisations to embed progressive management practices suggests that these policies, processes and procedures can be woefully inadequate when it comes to addressing the needs of real people. The only true way of dealing with these needs is by talking, listening and engaging with people and having an open and frank dialogue with one another. The absence of that is holding our organisations back and damaging the very fabric of the organisation.
Hard to quantify
People often say to me that they don’t invest in soft skills because they don’t know the impact they’re going to have. What kind of objective is it they are trying to meet? How do they measure a manager or a leader sitting down and having a conversation with someone on a Tuesday morning? How do they get a hard measurable in order to be able to get resources from the Board?
These are very real concerns and we need to get much smarter and much more effective in measuring the real impact and benefit of dialogue. Although soft skills can be challenging to quantify, they are essential ingredients for a successful business:
· Active listening/communication skills.
· Resolving conflicts constructively.
· Empathy and self awareness - emotional intelligence.
· Building and sustaining an effective team.
· Influencing others and using interest based negotiating methods to secure constructive outcomes to tough problems.
In fact these aren’t soft skills at all, they are hard skills. They are tough skills, vital skills, that every manager and leader needs in order to be able to secure better outcomes and develop the kind of teams that we need in our businesses to promote innovation and economic growth.
Show me the money
So let’s look at some hard figures in relation to the cost of ineffective conflict management. McDonalds recently produced a report and launched a campaign called Backing Soft Skills. The aim of the campaign is to quantify the value such skills have to the UK economy.
The report found that by 2020 over half a million UK workers will be significantly held back by a lack of soft skills, an issue that’s forecast to affect all sectors. At the same time, soft skills contribute £88 billion to the UK economy, with this contribution predicted to increase to £109 billion over the next five years.
It went on to say that while 97% of UK employers believe soft skills are important to their current business practices, 75% believe there is already a soft skills gap in the UK workforce.
A question of confidence
With a lack of training in soft skills, managers lack the confidence, courage and competence to deal with difficult situations, or to deal with almost any people situations. They do it using what they’ve picked up in the media, and they do it using their best judgement and instinct. But they’re often afraid to do what they think would actually work, because they’re also fearful of doing the wrong thing. They worry that they’ll have a grievance brought against them, or have an allegation of bullying and harassment made against them. So even common sense in our managers is held back, because the organisation’s policies and procedures impede managers taking a common sense approach.
Another problem is HR departments being bombarded with issues that should be dealt with at a local level, within teams. Where HR should be addressing issues around employee engagement, wellbeing and talent, they actually end up dealing with grievances, complaints, and disagreements. This is holding back HR from delivering real value.
Dragging soft skills into the 21st Century
Again and again we see this reactive culture prevailing within our organisations. We wouldn’t accept it in almost any other aspect of our business – reacting to circumstances and not being in control. But when it comes to people issues we seem to have accepted that we will just react rather than being proactive and addressing issues that we know are likely to arise. The result for organisations is staff dissatisfaction, low retention and rising levels of litigation.
We need to drag the concept of soft skills into the 21st century. They are at the heart of good business practice. Whatever we think of the name, soft skills aren’t a ‘nice to have’. They’re a ‘need to have’.
About David Liddle
David's greatest passion is mediation and his greatest strength is people. He has over 20 years experience of mediating in some of the most complex disputes imaginable. He set up and runs The TCM Group - the UKs leading provider of mediation and conflict management services, training and consultancy.
David has worked with over 4000 organisations to help them to embed a culture of mediation. He trains mediators and works with HR professionals and business leaders to create a culture and an environment which embraces mediation and promotes dialogue.
David has recently launched a programme called Better Resolutions - a leadership programme aimed at preparing leaders and managers to secure better outcomes from difficult situations. Better Resolutions has already helped several companies to equip their managers and leaders to resolve disputes, manage change and drive performance.