Feeling the pain: Employers respond to the soft skills deficit

The soft skills deficit

Five years ago, while teaching full-time as an English instructor at a community college, I became painfully aware of my students’ lack of soft skills. When I walked into class, I greeted my students. Many times, only a few would respond. The rest stared blankly at their smartphones. When I passed students on campus, I noticed similar behavior. Lots of heads in phones. Lots of headphones on. Lots of blank, sad faces. When students chose to engage in conversation, they often seemed awkward and unsure about what to say and how to interact.

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At first, I assumed they simply lacked strong communication skills. Since I taught English Comp and Oral Communication, I made it my mission to educate and re-mediate. I tried. But I couldn’t help students who didn’t register for my courses. And I also couldn’t force feed unwilling mouths (or brains).

That was 2014. There was something in the air… it was a real turning point in the way I viewed my students. Why?

The role of technology

At first I assumed my own perception had simply changed, or I’d just gained new awareness. But statistics prove it wasn’t my perception after all. Pew Research data from 2014-15 cites that Gen Z respondents claimed to use their smartphones “several times a day,” while VisionCritical research shows that Gen Z respondents in 2015 spent an average of 15.4 hours per week on their smartphones and another 10.6 hours on their laptops. And if you want to really dig into learning about the soft skills gap, pick up a copy of Bruce Tulgan’s fantastic book on this topic (I’m a huge fan).

As employers and educators, we are starting to feel the effects of Gen Z’s addiction to digital devices and internet access. In the end, digital natives grow up and become candidates for employment. And guess who’s left to deal with the great chasm between the ideal candidate profile, which features strong soft skills (which we all need to work well with others), and the reality of today’s average candidate? The employer. YOU.

What are you going to do about it?

I hope you’re feeling the pain as you read this. I’m not trying to be mean. But I know this to be true–most of us simply won’t take action and make changes until we feel pain or desperation. And most of us won’t spend money on training until we notice negative effects in the workplace.

For years, researchers (ahem… like me) have shared statistics, information, and tips about soft skills training, the soft skills gap, and the need for awareness about this upcoming epidemic. Unfortunately, most employers and educators didn’t take action. Developing training programs takes time, costs money, and can feel incredibly frustrating. Why should you have to pay for training? Isn’t it the university’s problem or failure? Maybe. Why should the university have to deal with it? Isn’t it the high school’s fault or failure? Maybe. Why should the high school have to handle it? Shouldn’t the parents do a better job? Probably.

Choices and actions

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When we stop pointing fingers, we’ll ultimately realize we’re left with two choices:

1. Continue ignoring the problem. This will get us into a greater bind, lead to organizational chaos, and cause our businesses to lose more money and become less productive.

2. Accept reality. We’re stuck with the problem, so let’s search for solutions.

Implement mentoring programs. Reevaluate your recruiting and hiring process. Take a hard look at your onboarding process. Train your trainers to teach soft skills, and if you have no full-time trainers, hire me to train your hiring managers to teach soft skills or to directly train entry-level employees or coach selected struggling employees.

There are solutions. And as with most situations in life, we become ready to take action when the fear of moving forward becomes less intimidating than the misery of our current situation.

I am here when you’re ready to move.

Contact me to discuss soft skills training, executive coaching, and other solutions.

 

Learning from everyone in the workplace

I once joined a professional organization with a diverse membership. We met weekly and discussed industry-related research. Every member sought to grow professionally; most attended at least one yearly conference hosted by the organization so the members grew pretty close. But one of the members drove me nuts, honestly (isn’t that always the case?) She arrived late, laughed hysterically at inappropriate moments, and insisted on interrupting people. When she shared information, it didn’t seem to add value or substance. I whined to my mentor, who was a fellow member. She turned to me and smiled.

“Bethany, you learn something from everyone. You either learn who you want to be or who you don’t want to be. I guess you’re learning who you don’t want to be.”

Ugh. YES. But I didn’t WANT to learn from her! I wanted her to go away. She didn’t.

But I did learn from her. For a few more years, I sat through meetings with the obnoxious woman, who continued to exhibit the same behaviors. Nothing changed about the woman’s behavior. The only thing that changed was my attitude toward her.


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It was a great lesson learned. I probably learned more from her than from many of the solid, professional, appropriate, timely, well-behaved members of the organization who had their ducks in a row. Now don’t get me wrong–I learned plenty from those people. We need excellent role models and mentors in the workplace. Without them, we’d have no idea how to behave appropriately, how to carry ourselves through crises, how to prevent and manage workplace conflicts, how to handle harassment and other touchy situations, and how to seek promotions without steamrolling others along the way. By all means, we need great leaders and strong colleagues who have it all together.

But we need to learn from our colleagues who are barely making it, too. We need those people who have so many personal problems that they’re doing well just to show up to work an hour late, hair disheveled, tear-stained mascara across her cheeks. We need the colleagues in the cubicles next to us who take 10 phone calls per day from their elderly parents with dementia. We need the supervisor who is a micromanager, unable to let go of counting every single bean. We need the one who simply cannot stop telling crude jokes (and gets himself fired as a result–please, dear God).

We need those people because we learn our best and hardest lessons–often gaining soft skills–from the people who are most intolerable, most obnoxious, most needy, and most broken. Do you know how I learned how to communicate competently in difficult situations? By working in difficult situations, time after time, with very difficult people. Want to know how I learned how to prevent conflicts while interacting with volatile people? By working with emotionally disturbed teenagers with criminal backgrounds and a history of abuse.

We often do not choose to learn difficult lessons in difficult moments and situations. But when we find ourselves in tough situations, we have a choice. We can let those situations make us better or bitter, as the saying goes. We can either learn and grow through the situation, or we can whine, complain, and claw our way out as quickly as possible, refusing to accept that there may be anything we could possibly learn from the people and conflicts surrounding us.

I’m not suggesting you should wallow in suffering or willingly expose yourself to demeaning, inappropriate, or dangerous situations at work. If you find yourself in a hostile work situation, fraught with harassment, bullying, or conflict, you ought to immediately take appropriate action (whether that means contacting your human resources director, filing a legal complaint, filing a police report, or searching for a new job). But if you’re just feeling disgruntled or miserable because you don’t like the people you work with, or you find that a few of your colleagues or supervisors rub you the wrong way, or you’re not fully appreciated in the workplace, perhaps there’s something you can learn or gain.

Remember that obnoxious woman I dealt with in the professional organization? She never quit attending organizational meetings. She even attended conferences with us. She never changed. But my attitude toward her evolved. I stopped expecting her to change, and over time, that helped me see her in a softer light.

Most importantly, I learned deep lessons: acceptance, tolerance, patience, and compassion for a woman who had some significant personal struggles.  Hear this: I didn’t have to like her, and I never did. Her struggles didn’t excuse her professional pitfalls. But extending kindness to her didn’t harm either of us. And offering a simple prayer on her behalf didn’t hurt me either.

What are you learning from your most difficult colleagues (or supervisors)? What are they learning from YOU?

If your organization needs a speaker/presenter on workplace communication or other soft skill, reach out to me to discuss scheduling.

Dealing with grief in the workplace

Last week, I was called out of class while teaching as an adjunct faculty member. A coworker informed me that my grandmother had been rushed to the hospital. If I wanted to see her, I needed to leave class immediately. I was glad I left after informing my students that I had to tend to a family emergency. My grandmother died less than 24 hours later. That night, after grieving with my family, I received an email notifying me that a good friend had committed suicide. Needless to say, I felt completely overwhelmed by loss, sadness, and grief. The entire weekend, I was certainly unproductive and did zero work.

But that’s what I needed to do. Because I’ve experienced other major losses and catastrophes in the past, I know that to take good care of myself, I need to let myself feel the weight of the loss as it’s happening. If I don’t, it comes back to haunt me later.

Thankfully, my division chair, career coaching clients, and business partners were all very understanding and supportive. I rescheduled a conference call and a call with a client. But I can’t wallow in grief forever. I have a business to run and students to teach. I created this video to share five ways I appropriately cope with grief in the workplace. I hope some of these tips may help you cope with your own personal losses while continuing to work, produce, and grow in your career journey.


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Communicate.

As quickly as possible after you experience a loss or begin handling a personal crisis, tell your supervisor, clients/students, and coworkers about your situation. You can do this in a quick email or text message. When you communicate about the crisis or loss right away, it lets your employer know that you take your job seriously but that you’re going to need help handling your responsibilities temporarily.

Be real, but don’t let it all hang out.

Be honest about your crisis or loss, but don’t share all the sad, dirty details with your employer, clients, or coworkers. Put yourself in their shoes. Would you want to show up at work every day to find one of your coworkers crying her eyes out for eight hours? Of course not.

Seek outside help if you’re overwhelmed with loss and cannot control your emotions. That’s a normal part of the grieving process. We hire experts to help us with many things–writing resumes, changing the oil in our cars, and even cleaning our homes and offices. Why not hire an expert to help you grieve? A therapist can keep you grounded and provide a sounding board while you cope with your loss and help you avoid dumping your emotions on people at work. If you can’t afford counseling, consider attending free grief support groups in your area. And of course, reach out to your mentor when you need to talk.

Take time off.

Don’t beat yourself up for needing time to grieve. Take time off if necessary. Be sure to talk to your human resources department to comply with standards for leaves of absence.

Re-prioritize.

You can’t expect yourself to perform at 100% while you’re grieving. Be realistic and operate in something like survival mode while grieving. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What can I remove from my plate right now?
  • Are there projects or tasks I can put off temporarily (without missing deadlines or damaging relationships at work)?
  • Who can I delegate some of my tasks to for a short period of time?

Extend gratitude.

When you suffer loss, you’ll likely receive text messages, emails, phone calls, and cards from your boss, clients, and colleagues. Don’t forget to say thank you to those who offer condolences or step up to help manage your work tasks while you’re grieving. This will help you maintain strong relationships at work and keep your professional network intact.

Connect with me for career coaching assistance, soft skills training, and presentations on career-related topics.

 

How to improve your soft skills

Whether you just graduated from college—congratulations!—or have accumulated years of work experience, you are just like the rest of us—you can always improve your soft skills. While soft skills are certainly a combination of talent and ability, you can always improve upon the ability portion of the soft skills you possess—that’s the good news.

In his book Bridging the Soft Skills Gap, training expert Bruce Tulgan defines soft skills as “a wide range of non-technical skills ranging from ‘self-awareness’ to ‘people-skills’ to ‘problem-solving’ to ‘teamwork” (8). Tulgan, author and founder/CEO of RainMakerThinking Inc., reminds us that “soft skills are all about the regulation of the self. They must be fully embraced in order to be learned” (Tulgan 29). Tulgan’s book provides a road map for employers and organizations interested in training and developing employees’ soft skills.


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  • Identify which soft skills matter most to you.

Don’t take a shotgun approach to improving soft skills. You can perform a Google search and find countless lists of which soft skills matter most, but what you need to determine is which soft skills matter most to you. How do you determine that?

When you work with a career coach, you’ll be asked multiple questions to help you determine your priorities. Some of these questions might include:

  • “Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years in terms of your career?” Understanding your career goals/journey can help you determine which skills you need to add or improve upon.
  • “What feedback have you received during performance reviews and job interviews (or during follow-up conversations with recruiters/hiring managers)?” If you pay attention to feedback about your performance instead of blowing it off, you may pick up clues about which soft skills you lack or need to tweak.
  • “Which soft skills does your company value and emphasize?” If three particular soft skills matter most to your current employer, take note. To succeed at work, earn a salary increase or promotion, or simply feel content with your daily job performance, align your values and mission with your employer’s.
  • Determine where you stand before you begin training/developing your soft skills.

After determining which 3-5 soft skills matter most to you, evaluate yourself in terms of performance/ability of each soft skill. If communication skills matter to you, where do you measure up on a scale of 1-5, 1 being poor performance and 5 being excellent, consistent performance? Are you able to communicate verbally, non-verbally, and in writing clearly, consistently, concisely, comfortably, effectively, and appropriately in almost every situation? If not, this is a soft skill you might want to develop.

How should you evaluate your ability to perform each soft skill? You can do this in a variety of ways. Work with a career coach to use various assessment tools (some tools you must pay to use, and others are free). Search online for free assessment tools; proceed with caution when using free assessment tools because some are more valid than others. As Tulgan mentions in Bridging the Soft Skills Gap, you can informally assess your own soft skills by measuring your soft skills against others’ soft skills. I explain this strategy at length in the video. In his book Bridging the Soft Skills Gap, Tulgan notes the importance of having an “external objective standard against which to measure one’s reflection” (70).

Take stock of where you stand in each of these soft skill areas one way or another—using one assessment tool or another—but be sure you use some external objective standard. Simply put, we can’t fix the stuff in our heads with the stuff in our heads. That doesn’t work well in life, and it won’t work well when assessing and improving soft skills either.

  • Develop an action plan.

Once you determine where you measure up in each of the 3-5 soft skills you’ve selected to work on, develop an action plan. First, check with your employer/organization to determine if they will provide/fund soft skills training or professional development for employees. Many companies and organizations understand the value of soft skills in the workplace and will help employees in this area.

If your company will not fund soft skills development, you may have to pursue soft skills training/development on your own. Reach out to a career coach for assistance. If you can’t afford to pay for soft skills training, check out the array of blog posts and videos available online. You may not make as much progress on your own as you would with the assistance of a coach, but any attempt at development is better than none. And finally, don’t forget to seek the help of a career mentor if you don’t have one already.

  • Assess your soft skills after you’ve completed the training process to determine if more/different training is needed.

After you’ve put your plan into action and worked to improve your soft skills for a period of time, assess your soft skills again, using the same or similar tool(s) you used at the beginning. Where do you stand now?

Assessing yourself after training is important. You need to determine if training worked. If it didn’t, why would you pay for more training? Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. If something isn’t working for you, try something new or different. If you assess your soft skills and find that you’ve grown in 2 of the 3 areas, that’s wonderful! Keep up the hard work. “When you combine the necessary hard skills with the right soft skills, the added value is so much more than the sum of its parts” (Tulgan 58).

If you need help identifying, assessing, or improving your soft skills, reach out to me for a free consultation.