Soft skills: creating a good communications culture

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In order to drive continued success, organisations need to learn how to turn soft skills into the hard stuff of success.

“The skills and ingenuity of our people are at the heart of prosperity,” said the opening statement of the 2017 CBI/Pearson Education and skills survey, a report which goes on to reveal that more than half of firms surveyed fear that there will not be enough people available with the skills needed to fill their high-skilled jobs.

Contrast that fear with a more recent survey by WorldSkills UK which revealed that 62% of young people were confident they had the skills required for today’s businesses, in particular citing their ability to use technology, work in groups and deploy organisational skills.

So where does this apparent mismatch come from? Are young people being overly optimistic, or are employers being overly critical? Perhaps we are really looking at two aspects of the same truth, that no matter how highly skilled someone is, there is always room to grow and develop.

An ongoing commitment

That ongoing drive to develop is as true for those who have been in the workforce for some time as for those who are new to the world of work. We strongly believe that leadership is a journey. Moreover, it’s a journey which can’t start soon enough and which never ends.

To put it another way, leaders don’t arrive fully fledged in the boardroom but they at least should have already started to develop some of the skills that will enable them to become great leaders.

Developing strong listening and communication skills doesn’t happen overnight. It takes ongoing training and practice.

So what are the skills that make all the difference when it comes to leadership? How do we stop the Peter Principle from applying in our business; i.e. promoting people based purely on technical ability until they reach their own level of incompetence?

The key to success lies in what many would still view as ‘soft skills’ - areas such as communication, listening and understanding.

Becoming better communicators

Why should organisations bother with training in communication? After all, communication is easy, isn’t it?

All you have to do is stand up in front of a group of people or press send on your keyboard and people will automatically pay attention to your words! Listening is just a matter of getting positive feedback for your actions, surely?

When it comes to understanding, particularly when you are a leader, surely it is up to other people to understand your intentions?

Too cynical? Well perhaps, but there are still a fair number of people who believe that their pronouncements will automatically be understood and acted upon.

Great leaders know differently. They understand that communication is a two-way process; that you have to understand your audience in order to deliver the message in the way in which it will be best received.

More importantly, they value the benefits that arise from true a dialogue where people are encouraged, empowered and willing to contribute fully to the discussion.

Creating a dialogue

Developing strong listening and communication skills doesn’t happen overnight. It takes ongoing training and practice and it also requires people to build a deep understanding of themselves, to be aware of their own trigger points and to be able to put aside self for the benefit of the organisation.

This means it is never too soon to start on your communication journey, and organisations should be looking to foster this attitude in all of their people.

After all, two-way communication requires two people, so if you want a true dialogue then it helps if both feel empowered and able to fully contribute.

We must value the intangible as much as the tangible, looking for the overall worth to the organisation rather than simply the ability to do the job.

Why bother with soft skills? Isn’t the ability to produce widgets enough? Isn’t there enough pressure on training budgets to deliver on practical skills without adding to the cost? Well actually, once mastered soft skills can make the difference between ‘just about managing’ and success.

They can drive reputation and innovation; in the process attracting high calibre employees, building strong customer relationships, and delivering good returns to investors.

They can do all of that because when you are open to communication, when you really able to listen then you start to understand your customers really want and need.

As a result, you move from simply selling to delivering solutions, and you do so with the backing of highly empowered employees who value the culture and ethos of an organisation that is open to dialogue.

Make soft skills a priority

As our opening quotation said, the skills and ingenuity of people are at the heart of prosperity. The challenge is to ensure that when we help our people to build and hone those skills we don’t sideline soft skills.

Maybe we could start by rethinking how we evaluate and train all skills within our organisation. We must value the intangible as much as the tangible, looking for the overall worth to the organisation rather than simply the ability to do the job.

When we do that, we may just find that we need to re-evaluate our priorities. Maybe for all of us it is time to look again at soft skills and how, through communication and dialogue, they could truly be the hard stuff of success.

Want to learn more about soft skills? Read 'Soft skills: preparing the leaders of tomorrow'.

About Helen Green

Helen Green

Helen is a collaborator, a deadline demon and a diplomat.  She is often described by her colleagues and clients as the glue in their projects.  She can be contacted via www.questleadership.co.uk or E-mail: [email protected]

After a degree in Hotel & Catering Management at Surrey University, she worked for 10 years with Whitbread, Bass and the Forte Group, gaining broad business experience in operations, communications, senior management and franchising.  This eclectic experience reinforced Helen’s belief in the untapped potential in people and the importance of strong values in business and has formed the foundations of her subsequent career.

Helen worked for 10 years in business consulting with Tom Peters Company, as senior consultant and Partner, before co-founding Quest Leadership in 2007.

During her consulting career, Helen has worked at all levels, with individuals and teams, to initiate and facilitate personal development.  Recent clients include: LSG Skychefs, Aim Aviation, Leica Geosystems, Texas Instruments, EnOcean, Gripple Ltd..

Helen’s competitive streak has driven her to compete at county level in badminton, and squash and equestrian eventing. Helen’s non-work interests centre on family, friends, cooking and sport.

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04th Jun 2018 11:04

Great article Helen. I think you're right, developing strong listening and communication skills doesn't happen overnight. Something we've noticed though, which might go some way to explain the mismatch on skills assessment between organisations and young people, is that employees often have the soft skills but aren't give the opportunity to use them or choose not to. Instead of having their say they go along with the most vocal or talented and don't contribute as much as they might. This indicates working norms might be a root cause rather than purely a skills deficit. What do you think? Is that something you have noticed?

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04th Jun 2018 14:55

Hi, interesting discussion and I agree the team's norms come into play. A good leader - or meeting chair - will be aware of how people in the group are participating and encourage all to input. By taking a team approach to development, the person who struggles to get their voice heard above more vocal team members will also benefit when colleagues develop their listening skills to be more open.

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06th Jun 2018 22:22

Hello, Helen. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. There was an interesting note on the different viewpoints from the younger generation and the 'older generation' (the employers). I think as a younger person myself, we are taught 'soft skills' through our educational career that we think we're ready. But, obviously, there's so much more to learn and practice for that matter. Additionally, I think employers should promote soft skill development through training, but sadly, they're often reluctant because results are only guaranteed if the employee puts it into practice. I completely agree with pretty much all your points.

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