Managing modern day uncertainty and navigating the changing world of work requires behavioral skills over teachable technical capabilities, CoachHub’s Global HR study found.

It’s no wonder. Just look at the forces affecting people inside and outside of the modern day office. The global coronavirus pandemic completely altered how we work. People had to learn new ways of communicating, collaborating and leading. While some companies are pushing a return to in-person work, a majority of employees have shown preference for remote or — at minimum —  hybrid work.

Moreover, current events — both political and economic — are increasing global instability. Political factors and the global cost of carbon fuels continue to impact supply issues. These economic factors threaten to slow growth and increase inflation. At the same time, the labor market remains strong, offering multiple options for workers unhappy with their lot.

Without good leadership and employee engagement, those negative factors can hamper performance or worse: lead to “quiet quitting” or voluntary departures. No matter how adept a workforce’s technical skills and knowledge may be, the key is creating environments where leaders have the soft skills to empathize, engage and develop their people, and create workplaces in which purpose and meaning are as important as profit.

To unleash their full potential, leaders and employees need learning and development (L&D) that helps them bolster these skills. But what exactly are these soft skills that create engagement or demonstrate empathy?

Today’s Essential Soft Skills

Soft skills, referred to as “foundational skills” in coaching, include active listening (i.e., asking open questions, affirmations, reflections and summaries), in addition to skills like empathy, vulnerability and more. Having worked with leaders over the past three decades, I’ve found that most leaders believe they are highly competent in these core skills but, in reality, many are sadly lacking.

Why are these skills essential to the modern workplace? Soft skills enable leaders to:

  • Navigate uncertainty: Employees often feel stuck when faced with unexpected change, disruption and volatility. To embrace unfamiliarity and make change possible, people must learn skills like agility, resilience and confidence. Additionally, managers must often adopt different management styles, understand cultural transformation and elevate their empathy.
  • Enhance engagement and communication: While about one-half of all knowledge workers have been working remotely since 2021, sustaining remote work has left some feeling isolated, disconnected and unmotivated. Combatting disengagement requires managers to foster a culture of open communication that helps employees flourish, reduce stress, and bring meaning and purpose to their work. Still, even with effective remote leaders, employees often need support in improving their listening and communication skills to feel heard and empowered.
  • Develop others: In a hyper-competitive business environment, honing soft skills could be the element that makes one employee, team or organization stand out above the rest. Leaders with strong soft skills can better develop their team members, too: Asking reflective questions, encouraging colleagues to share feedback and developing a growth mindset toward continuous learning all help shape high-performing employees.

Improving Soft Skills With Coaching

While most companies try to hire for soft skills, 89% of human resources (HR) leaders attribute “bad hires” to weak soft skills. In other words, soft skills are sometimes hard to examine, especially in a relatively short interview process.

Many managers prematurely let go of soft skill-deficient hires, overlooking the reality that soft skills are teachable.

While the rhetoric — think “people person” or the “X factor” — makes soft skills sound like they are only innate, this is a common misconception. With diligence, people can improve emotional intelligence (EQ), which is highly correlated to soft skills. The problem is: Employees don’t learn these skills in a classroom and, even more critically, don’t practice them throughout their careers.

Ongoing one-on-one coaching can fill this void. With individual support, employees can learn new competencies and then reflect on how to implement these skills into their own roles, driving the behavior change needed to improve business outcomes.

For example, perhaps a business leader needs to refocus their team. A coach could teach them the behavioral science behind redirecting their employees with empathetic leadership and then role-play scenarios specific to their situation. The same approach can be taken for a new hire needing insight into emotional cues, a manager navigating interpersonal dynamics and the list can go on.

Many learning and HR leaders interested in integrating coaching into their training programs wonder whether to leverage internal or external resources. CoachHub’s Global HR study finds that employees perceive external coaches as a “high-value method of developing behavioral skills and new ways of working,” while internal coaching feels more like mentoring or even behavioral remediation. Thus, the survey found that more than one-half (56%) of L&D decision-makers report that they’ve already embraced external coaching services as part of their people development strategy.

Despite the progress, there’s still a significant gap between the soft skills organizations covet and the L&D programs they provide to elevate these skills. If people are the key to developing a competitive advantage, leaders shouldn’t leave their soft skills woefully underdeveloped — especially with scientifically proven people development programs to help.

Instead of expecting employees to simply survive turbulent times, employers should invest in developing leaders with strong soft skills who can support their people … no matter what obstacles come their way.