The softer side of things

The impact of having soft skills cannot be undermined. What are the important soft skills required by HR professionals? HRM finds out.

While there is often a strong emphasis placed on technical skills and competencies in the workforce, the area of soft skills should also not be overlooked. HR professionals in particular have a lot to gain from learning soft skills, even if they are often viewed as being less tangible.

A CareerBuilder survey from last year showed that 77% of employers believe that soft skills are just as important as hard skills. Soft skills have proven to be vital to an individual’s success in their workplace and it is often said that while hard skills can get you an interview with a potential employer, it is the soft skills that get you the job. Having good soft skills also allows an individual to stand out among a crowd of applicants.

The HR perspective

Research by Hay Group has found that 92% of HR directors in China, India and the US believe that social and emotional skills are increasingly important as organisational structures evolve in today’s business environment.

Soft skills are also important to HR professionals specifically, as the HR function permeates through an organisation at all levels. “With multi-dimensional responsibilities and communication channels, the ability to connect emotionally and rationally with various stakeholders is vital to drive performance and results,” Christina Ho, Head of Executive Development Services, Marketing Institute of Singapore, says.

While HR jobs require hard skills, such as handling IT systems, developing task lists, operational checklists, and reviews, HR professionals also need soft skills to engage and motivate employees.

So what are some of the coveted soft skills needed by HR professionals in their roles? Learning and Development professionals HRM spoke to list a number of valued qualities, including emotional intelligence, influencing and persuasion skills, interpersonal skills, critical thinking, team skills, communication, and problem-solving skills.

For example, effective vertical and lateral communication skills include being aware of verbal and non-verbal cues. This requires active listening skills along with the ability to ask powerful questions, based on analysis of what the other person has just said, either through their words, tone or body language.

“It might seem to be a truism but people will only work with each other if they communicate and understand what each other’s expectations are,” Theresa Ong, Coaching Division Manager of Executive Coach International, says.

She adds HR professionals also need to master, analyse and understand team dynamics as some employees may be great individual contributors but may not produce the same good results when they have to work in a team. “Therefore, the HR professional must understand how a group works, how to identify personal chemistry issues, and how to bring the best out of people.”

Likening HR professionals to a football coach, Ong says they have to know how to make their top players perform at their peak. “This often means that all the staff need to believe in the organisation’s strategy and understand where they are going. Creating such a powerful story is also part of the HR professionals’ required skill set,” she adds.

While training allows HR professionals to understand frameworks and techniques, it will take effort and dexterity to apply the knowledge to different situations because there is no fixed formula when it comes to dealing with people. “Understanding the context of the situation, applying the right technique, and topping it up with a dose of empathy usually makes up a good recipe. However, this is no panacea to all problems as people are in a state of constant change,” Ho explains.

Bridging the soft skills gap

While the importance of soft skills has been clearly established and identified, some employers may struggle to plug the gap it exposes.

The Employer Perspectives on Soft Skills 2014 survey by the Washington State HR Council found that a large majority of respondents said that sourcing for candidates with needed soft skills was “extremely challenging” (19%) or “somewhat challenging” (52%).

To bridge this disparity, HR professionals can tap on soft skills training opportunities available in the market.

Linda Lim, Manager of Vocational and Corporate Sales, Pearson Singapore and Malaysia, explains, “Soft skills can be trained in a couple of ways. Qualifications like the Business and Technology Education Council’s courses make soft skills an integral part of learning hard skills, where participants need to demonstrate skills such as teamwork, leadership, and presentation in order to succeed. Other courses focus purely on soft skills either as a group, or target a particular area like communication.”

Coaching can also be a very powerful tool as it helps HR professionals to listen actively, understand what is said as well as what is unsaid, to analyse employees’ driving factors, and to build high performing teams. “We have seen a rise in HR professionals attending our Professional Coach Training Programme (PCTP),” Ong, a professional certified coach, says. “They recognise the benefits of having relevant coaching skillsets that can forward them in their careers. Participants have learned how to refine their communication styles to fit the person, and how to better work team dynamics.”

By guiding, rather than directing and ordering employees, coaching can empower and make participants feel responsible for their work and respective projects. During the PCTP, learners are also exposed to a tried and tested model to enhance staff performance.

As soft skills are integral to success in any role, and at every stage of someone’s career, Lim says an organisation where employees are armed with great soft skills will be more collaborative, efficient, and innovative.

Can they be learned?

Soft skills are often associated with an individual’s personality traits, and some may doubt that they can be learned and adjusted through training programmes.

But while nature, genetics and hereditary factors do play a part, there is still plenty of room for nurturing someone’s abilities and soft skills.

Ong shared an example of a client in the civil service who wanted to create breakthroughs in his career and in his communication skillsets, specifically, to be able to speak publicly with confidence and flair. However, he was held back by his own fears.

“Through coaching, he gained greater self-awareness of how he often wanted to play down his own abilities, and was able to better manage the way he approached his work and public speaking. Moreover, he deepened relationships with his colleagues, resulting in a more vibrant workplace and career progression,” she recalls.

Describing soft skills as both art and science, Ho says that while families, external and social environments influence the way people think and act, psychological and physical behaviours are constantly changing due to the intrinsic capability to infer meaning and to adapt to those external stimulus.

“The fact that we are not static in our responses to different situations, means that soft skills can definitely be learned and adjusted through training,” she says. “Although it might take a lot of conscientious effort and practice in the initial stages, it will come a little more naturally after conditioning the mind and internalising the processes.”

Similarly, Lim opines that even if soft skills are inherited, they can still be developed for optimal success. “It is definitely easier to develop these skills for someone who naturally has a positive and driven disposition, but for someone who does not have, it can be built upon,” says Lim.

Applicable at all stages

So at which point of a HR practitioner’s career are soft skills most important?

A workforce survey by the British Chambers of Commerce, entitled Developing the Talents of the Next Generation, found that 57% of employers believe a lack of soft skills such as communication, resilience and team working, is the main reason why young people are unprepared when they enter the workforce.

While it is necessary to have soft skills from the start of a career as they instil consistency and help a worker move up the corporate ladder, employees need to keep in mind that soft skills require constant training and evolution. They will have to keep upgrading and updating themselves with personal development tools throughout their careers.

HR professionals will require soft skills at all levels of their careers. “While typically the importance of soft skills typically tends to rise in tandem with one’s career pathway, this is not the case with HR practitioners,” Ho says. “Due to the intensity and amount of human interactions with various stakeholders, they need to be well prepared at all times and at all levels.”

Long-term contributor

Learning soft skills is not only beneficial to the HR function and its practitioners alone. It can also contribute to the wider organisation’s success over the long run.

With better soft skills, HR practitioners improve their ability to select the right candidates to join the company, and will also be more in tune to employees’ motivations. Thus, they can devise learning and development programmes that are aligned and tailored to meet their aspirations.

HR can also help employees to evolve from individual contributors to effective team members, and in turn, develop more cohesive teams that will benefit the organisation’s revenue streams.

It can also have a ripple effect throughout the organisation, as HR professionals who acquired the right set of skills can becom vocates in training other employees, Lim adds.

Sussing out soft skills

A study by Hay Group, which included interviews with more than 200 Australian and New Zealand business leaders, shows around 80% of organisations used personality testing when evaluating employees, while 68% used assessment tools to measure ability, and 40% screened for emotional intelligence.

Only 35% of assessments were being used to evaluate job-specific skills, and less than half, 40%, used a competency framework to assess all roles.


Top 10 sought after soft skills

The most popular soft skills companies look for when hiring are:

  • Strong work ethic (73%)
  • Dependability (73%)
  • Positive attitude (72%)
  • Self-motivation (66%)
  • Team-orientation (60%)
  • Organisation skills, and ability to manage multiple priorities (57%)
  • Ability to work well under pressure (57%)
  • Effective communication (56%)
  • Flexibility (51%)
  • Confidence (46%)

Source: CareerBuilder survey in 2014


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