As technical skills become outdated faster than employees can upskill, employers are increasingly prioritizing soft skills in both hiring and training.
Soft skills training has focused on abilities such as leadership. But some experts say it also can — and likely should — include behavioral skills.
These skills can include curiosity, responsibility and positive thinking, according to Keca Ward, senior director of talent experience at Phenom People. They also may encompass friendliness, common sense and maturity, Jonathan Fear, vice president of Coupa University at Coupa Software told HR Dive. And while many assume these things come naturally to some, that's not the case, Fear said: "These are skills that must be learned and practiced."
Why are behavioral skills important?
Behavioral skills are critical to individual performance, teamwork and leadership, according Deb Wolf, CMO of BetterUp. "Because these skills are internal, it can be easy to take them for granted. But if we imagine a leader who, for instance, has an underdeveloped capacity to regulate their emotions, it's easy to see how this might wreak havoc on the team's performance and well-being."
Such skills also are key to the creation of diverse teams, Wolf told HR Dive; employing people from different backgrounds brings in those values and skills that spark new ideas. "Peak performance in behavioral skills [is] in higher demand than ever before because technology is automating much of the technical aspects of work," she said. "With AI, future skills are changing. We know that machines help us produce more, but what they lack is that human factor only people can bring to the table."
Behavioral skills are especially necessary for forward-facing roles, the experts said. "If employees are the ambassadors of your company, then you need them to always put their best foot forward and demonstrate the values of the company," Ray Martinelli, chief people officer at Coupa Software told HR Dive via email.
"Being authentic, having a straightforward communication style is critical to customer success," he said. "If we are blindly satisfying customers and taking the easy way out by telling them only what they want to hear, we lose focus on what will truly make [workers] successful, and drive real measurable value within their organization."
Developing behavioral skills
The experts suggested various ways that learning and development professionals can train for behavioral skills but all agreed that such proficiencies can be taught.
According to Jeff Kreisler, editor-in-chief of PeopleScience.com, learning leaders should, among other things, look to the work being done in other organizations. See how some have successfully implemented behavioral training and driven behavioral change — and how others have attempted to do so unsuccessfully.
Wolf suggested the most critical behavioral skills can be developed through highly personalized one-on-one coaching. "Of course, this needs to align with the science of behavior change and how people learn" — specifically, ongoing microlearning in the flow of work.
Several agreed that a culture shift is likely necessary, too. Kreisler suggested a culture of experimentation that empowers workers to put their new skills into practice. Fear similarly recommended a culture that supports a "bias for action." Employees must feel empowered to take reasonable risks, he said. "[T]here will be little bias for action if employees are punished for all mistakes." Martinelli made note of a culture that encourages a growth and learning mindset.
Employers can teach technical skills, but to strengthen behavioral skills is a matter of encouragement and coaching, said Ward. "The best way to do this is to lead by example. It comes back to C-suite living your core values and being a beacon of inspiration to your employees."