As many businesses deal with the fallout from the pandemic, they’re simultaneously managing a digital transformation in terms of virtual work and learning and the shifting demands of the millennial and Generation Z workforce. As a result, adaptation and agility are becoming essential to business strategies. To remain competitive, businesses may need to pivot product or service offerings. To do so, they may need to reskill employees and call upon them to demonstrate a more flexible, creative and innovative approach to their job.

While retraining functional job tasks is relatively straightforward, soft skills training requires a more targeted and custom approach. Learning and development (L&D) leaders need to fully understand the impact that soft skills training can have during these tumultuous times of change.

Did you know that 57% of senior leaders told LinkedIn Learning in 2018 that soft skills are more important than technical skills? Updated research in 2019 specifically emphasized the soft skills of empathy, creativity and collaboration. L&D is tasked with helping the businesses manage change with carefully planned learning programs that focus on soft skills training, now more than ever. Here are the top 5 areas where soft skills training is meaningful to your business strategy.

1. Listening Skills Impact Decision-making

Chief executive officers and people managers are faced with making decisions that will affect the entire company. Their ability to make the most informed decisions comes from having a listening mindset. Many CEOs fail to lead, because they fail to listen — in other words, they make decisions without fully absorbing the current needs of their organization.

But this gap isn’t entirely due to inadequacies in the existing capabilities and skill sets of CEO candidates. In fact, in a survey by Ron Carucci and Eric Hansen of Navalent described in their book “Rising to Power,” 76% of executives said that formal development programs at their organization did not adequately prepare them for being an executive. This research reinforces the importance of taking a proactive approach in developing senior leaders’ skills.

Listening skills aren’t only for senior leaders, though. People managers and their team must have similar competencies to ensure that innovative ideas aren’t lost in the noise, that every employee’s opinion is valued and that each person feels “listened to” when it comes to his or her contributions. With deep listening, decisions are better informed, and the decision-making process is more transparent.

2. Communication Skills Support Innovation and Change

We’re all aware of the perils of silos within an organization and the confusion and inefficiencies that misunderstandings can cause. The same communication need exists in every department of the organization: goal alignment.

Establishing goal alignment requires clear communication between the business and its departments. This way, employees are aware of the challenges the business is facing and can provide innovative solutions that address the specific needs of the business.

Communication is especially critical when a business is undergoing change — for example, a merger or acquisition. As leaders make organizational decisions, they need to communicate a clear change management strategy that involves everyone. Otherwise, there is a risk of misunderstanding and a general disregard for a healthy company culture. Again, it’s important to develop communication skills early, so executives, managers and employees alike are better able to deal with changes down the road.

3. Empathy Helps Create a Supportive Workplace

Hand-in-hand with listening and communication is the need for managers to empathize with the challenges facing their team members. Empathy encourages a culture of support rather than competition. In this environment, employees are more willing to take chances — to “fail fast” and “fail upward” rather than staying silent and keeping ideas to themselves. They feel more engaged and empowered to speak up when they witness organizational processes and policies that could be improved. Insights from team members can be invaluable for streamlining processes or uncovering operational inefficiencies.

Approaching empathy training is a complex task. Luckily, there are many learning experts and consultants who can introduce you to innovative tools and tactics to help you find the sweet spot for connecting and impacting your learners.

4. Career Support Means Business Success

Millennials and Generation Z have distinct career aspirations. They are attracted to organizations that support a culture of learning — that are invested in their personal learning and development. While teaching technical skills may create competent employees and contribute to their success at a particular company at a particular time, the younger workforce may be more concerned about their next job or their next job title.

With the growing shift toward emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, technical skills training is essential. However, many of these skills may not be relevant should an employee change jobs or earn a promotion. Soft skills, on the other hand, are transferable and help to support team members’ personal and professional growth. Over time, the training they receive encourages them to transfer their knowledge to other team members and enhances their value to the organization. No knowledge is ever lost, but we can fail to leverage or transfer it successfully.

5. Being Inclusive Means Identifying Unconscious Bias

It’s challenging to bring about positive behavior shifts when it comes to something as ineffable as human emotion and unconscious bias. The solution is to develop a custom learning program built around the needs of each unique learner. Instructional designers can design learning experiences that help place learners into shoes of another. Considering colleagues’ feelings and needs can greatly impact the way that team members interact and do their jobs.

Consider the errors that can occur during interviews, team meetings, and internal or external presentations due to unconscious assumptions. Managers can easily find themselves focused only on their unique point of view. When supporting a culture of inclusion, managers need to understand alternative perspectives and learn how their behavior can impact the people around them. Immersive soft skills training with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion can support experiential learning events where learners role-play or follow interactive scenarios that expose them to alternative perspectives.

Soft Skills Training Requires a Learning Strategy

L&D leaders have the unique challenge of balancing the learning needs of employees and managers with the success of the business. As part of this balance, they must plan learning programs strategically to ensure alignment across the organization. This process may require:

    • Identifying gaps in knowledge and skills.
    • Adapting onboarding.
    • Developing custom training programs.
    • Understanding change management.
    • Predicting issues that may occur later.

The way you design and deliver training matters as much as the content, and soft skills training is no different. Which innovative technologies and methodologies can you leverage to reach more learners and enhance the learning experience? Is virtual reality or augmented reality the right choice for your strategy? What about scenario-based, interactive eLearning? How are you planning to measure engagement and retention to track changes in behavior? Be sure to discuss these questions with your learning consultant as you embark on your new sales training initiative.