Top 2021 Skills: How to Measure & Improve Soft Skills in the Workplace

What are soft skills and why they are important? 

Soft skills are interpersonal and social skills that are helpful in a work environment. For example, communication skills, problem-solving skills, and the ability to work in a team are soft skills. 


Soft skills have a clear positive impact on career success. A 2018 study on project management professionals in Vietnam found “that soft skills of project managers significantly contributed to project success factors and hence the project success” (Zuo, Zhao, Nguyen, Ma, & Gao 2018). Soft skills included in the study were: communication skills, leadership skills, conflict management skills, achievement motivation skills, teamwork skills, and cognitive skills. Project success factors which were impacted by soft skills were comfort, competence, commitment, and communication (Zuo et. al 2018). 

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Soft skills also benefit teamwork outcomes. A study at Coastal Carolina University demonstrated that changes to management classes that focus on interpersonal skills such as communication, team decision-making, and conflict management had a positive effect on teamwork ability (Ritter, Small, Mortimer, & Doll 2018). As a result of the change “by the academic year 2015-2016, nearly all students, 97.6%, reported being confident with their perceived ability to work in a team” compared to only 62.6% in 2013-2014 (Ritter et. al 2018). 


Why Do We Lack Soft Skills? 

Hiring managers are seeing more and more gaps in soft skills, meaning that these skills are in demand by employers but lacking among employees. Institutions like family, government, and schools are blamed for the lack of social and interpersonal skills that is being observed (Hurrell 2016). There is not typically a formal education aspect for learning soft skills. This can be seen from the necessity of the study from Coastal Carolina University, mentioned above. Previously there was no implementation of soft skills in business classes. This shows that there has historically been a deficit in soft skill education. 


Teaching soft skills can be a challenge. The findings of a 2019 study on software engineering students indicate that students were less engaged in learning soft skills compared to hard skills (Tomić, Jovanović, Milikić, Devedžić, Dimitrijević, Đurić, & Ševarac 2019). Typically soft skills have been undervalued and difficult to quantify, which makes teaching these skills challenging. When employees or students do not see the value of soft skills it can require extra prompting to encourage engagement. It may be helpful to educate employees on the benefits of soft skills mentioned above in order to motivate them. 

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What Soft Skills Should Be Taught? 


Here are some of the most essential, baseline soft skills leaders should be incorporating into their employee development trainings.

1. Basic Education on Soft Skills 

“even a 1-day short course can considerably enhance the capacity of postgraduates and postdocs to recognize what soft skills they have, to be proud of them, to deploy them routinely, and to articulate them to potential employers''

First, all employees should be made aware of the importance of soft skills trough basic education on what soft skills are and the positive outcomes related to these skills. Employees often do not receive training about the importance of soft skills, and therefore take it less seriously than more quantitative tasks.

A recent study on scientific researchers found that “even a 1-day short course can considerably enhance the capacity of postgraduates and postdocs to recognize what soft skills they have, to be proud of them, to deploy them routinely, and to articulate them to potential employers'' (Gibert, Tozer, & Westoby 2017). 


These trainings can include information on:

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2. Communication Skills

Communication breakdowns are one of the leading contributors to low morale, frustration, mistakes, and failure. Communication is a vital skill for both the workplace, and personal relationships. They impact coworker interactions, manger-employee interactions, and customer service interactions. 


Clarity is important for effective communication. A 2020 study outlines the positive changes in soft skills that occurred when students used the website Edmodo. Edmodo is a website that manages online communication between students, teachers, and parents. The researchers found “student discipline increased by 87.4% from 67.5%; student honesty increased by 85% from 72.8%; Student motivation increased 85.4% from 71.7%” (Murjainah, Mujib, Aryaningrum, Arisman, & Selegi 2020). Having a method of clear communication in the workplace can improve outcomes. 


A 2020 study reviewed  interviews with managers to outline good and bad communication skills. Positive skills include relatability, documentation, self awareness, social awareness, and adaptability. Negatives included deception, verbal aggression, and defensive communication (Coffelt & Smith 2020). There are accepted and proper ways to communicate in a professional setting. There should be clear guidelines about appropriate communication. 

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3. Emotional Intelligence 

Someone with emotional intelligence is defined as someone who can “actively create a pleasant human environment for work, show empathy, accountability, humility, friendliness, unselfishness” (Gibert et. al 2017). A recent study which focused on soft skills in scientific research surveyed research team leaders. Of team leaders in scientific research more than 50% said emotional intelligence was always important (Gibert et. al 2017). 


This study also found that “80% of team leaders link enjoyable collaborations with productivity”  (Gibert et. al 2017). This means that researchers who had vital social skills were more productive.  Emotional intelligence has proven to benefit team productivity. A study from the University of Valencia in Spain demonstrated that emotional management training improves team performance and engagement (Holtz 2020). 


A 2020 study surveyed 1007 working adults in the United States. This study found that cognitive reappraisal (emotional regulation) was correlated to collaboration (Kay & Skarlicki 2020). The researchers then ran a study with 600 employees at a large healthcare organization. The experimental group received mindfulness training that consisted of topics such as metacognition and how to manage emotions. The participants had 5 minutes of instruction and 10-15 minutes of mindfulness practice everyday for a month. The results showed that cognitive reappraisal mediated the effect of mindfulness training on collaboration (Kay & Skarlicki 2020). This means that the mindfulness training supports cognitive reappraisal, which then can support collaboration. 


Cognitive reappraisal, also called emotional regulation, is when a person shifts their perspective before they have an emotional response which results in a more appropriate response. The ability to manage emotions through coping and communication strategies is a major part of emotional intelligence which can help with teamwork. 

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How to Measure Soft Skills

A 2018 study found a positive correlation between soft skills and individual level innovativeness. In the study soft skills consisted of relationship building and maintenance, tolerance for uncertainty, passion and optimism, and innovation leadership skills (Hendarman & Cantner 2018). Soft skills were measured with a survey, participants had to rate statement 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). 



Some methods for determining student soft skills are through peer assessment or teacher assessment. For example teachers fill out questions like (Devedzic, Tomic, Jovanovic, Kelly, Milikic, Dimitrijevic, Djuric, & Sevarac 2018):  

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In the same study there were also measures of student soft skills filled out by peer assessment (Devedzic et. al 2018): 


Although these questions are targeted at students, they can be answered while self-reflecting or reflecting on employees performance. The main goal is to determine who one works in team settings as well as how they develop relationships in a professional setting. 


In the 2020 study on cognitive reappraisal and collaboration mentioned above, cognitive reappraisal was measured with the Emotion Regulation Questionnaire(Kay & Skarlicki 2020). Statements on the questionnaire are rated from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree): 

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LIFE Intelligence: Soft Skills Team-Building


Developing soft skills can be a difficult process. Employee wellness and development app LIFE Intelligence  can make learning skills such as emotional intelligence, communication, and relationship-building easy and engaging.

The program consists of 9 Missions (topics), all having to do with leadership and emotional management skills: cognitive reappraisal, emotional regulation, project management, time management, decision-making, relationship-building, communication, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence. For immediate, emotionally-fueled situations, LIFE provides a mood wheel that prompts employees to de-escalate and regulate their emotions with coping strategies.


For more educational development purposes, Mission 9 teaches emotional intelligence (self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills) which can all be helpful in the workplace. Mission 8 discusses how to manage conflict in a productive manner: how to avoid harmful ways to fight, and how to determine solvable vs. irreconcilable differences. The mission ends with teaching you resolve conflict and restore relationships.


Available for individuals and companies, the LIFE app can be used company-wide for whole teams to develop the interpersonal and social skills that are necessary to compete in the workforce.

Alba Corney
February 13, 2021

References 

Coffelt, T. A., & Smith, F. L. M. (2020). Exemplary and Unacceptable Workplace Communication Skills. Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, 83(4), 365–384.

Devedzic, V., Tomic, B., Jovanovic, J., Kelly, M., Milikic, N., Dimitrijevic, S., Djuric, D., & Sevarac, Z. (2018). Metrics for Students’ Soft Skills. Applied Measurement in Education, 31(4), 283–296.

Gibert, A., Tozer, W., & Westoby, M. (2017). Teamwork, Soft Skills, and Research Training. Trends in Ecology & Evolution (Amsterdam), 32(2), 81–84.

Hendarman, A. F., & Cantner, U. (2018). Soft skills, hard skills, and individual innovativeness. Eurasian Business Review, 8(2), 139–169.

Holtz, O. (2020). Virtual Team Functioning: Modeling the Affective and Cognitive Effects of an Emotional Management Intervention. Group Dynamics, 24(3), 153–167.

Hurrell, S. A. (2016). Rethinking the soft skills deficit blame game: Employers, skills withdrawal and the reporting of soft skills gaps. Human Relations, 69(3), 605–628.

Kay, A., & Skarlicki, D. (2020). Cultivating a conflict-positive workplace: How mindfulness facilitates constructive conflict management. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 159, 8–20.

Murjainah, Mujib, M., Aryaningrum, K., Arisman, & Selegi, S. (2020). Improvement of students’ soft skills (honesty and motivation) using edmodo by Blended Learning Method. IOP Conference Series. Earth and Environmental Science, 485(1), 12117–.

Ritter, B. A., Small, E. E., Mortimer, J. W., & Doll, J. L. (2018). Designing Management Curriculum for Workplace Readiness: Developing Students’ Soft Skills. Journal of Management Education, 42(1), 80–103.

Tomić, B., Jovanović, J., Milikić, N., Devedžić, V., Dimitrijević, S., Đurić, D., & Ševarac, Z. (2019). Grading students’ programming and soft skills with open badges: A case study. British Journal of Educational Technology, 50(2), 518–530.

Zuo, J., Zhao, X., Nguyen, Q., Ma, T., & Gao, S. (2018). Soft skills of construction project management professionals and project success factors: A structural equation model. Engineering, Construction, and Architectural Management, 25(3), 425–442.

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