Can you teach someone to be empathetic?
The natural assumption is that empathy is something that is inherent and cannot be taught because it would be disingenuous. However, empathy ranks amongst one of the most important workplace skills that one needs. In a world that makes significant steps towards automation, soft skills is an area that has yet to be automated.
What are the most valuable soft skills needed?
LinkedIn recently surveyed cities with over 100,000 LinkedIn Members and found that the most desirable soft skills in 2019 are:
The list should come as no surprise. Creative minds are needed to think of new ideas. Additionally, being able to persuade internal and external customers is important if you want to thrive in a world filled with generational diversity.
How to develop soft skills in employees
Back to the question, is it possible to teach empathy?
Yes, it is. It may not be as simple to measure such as the ability to learn how to put up a shelf, but it is possible to notice a change in behaviour in someone. There are various ways to obtain soft skills.
The 70–20–10 principle applied to soft skills
The most optimal way to learn anything was developed by Morgan McCall and the Centre for Creative Leadership:
For example, if you wish to learn how to build a website. 10% of your learning would come through Online courses, 20% of it should be through learning via a mentor/coach and 70% of your time should be committed to learning by actually designing a website.
Here are practical ways to develop soft skills in employees:
Projects are one of the most effective ways to encourage employees to develop their soft skills. Here are a few tips to ensure that you design projects with purpose:
- Create projects that are small scale and typically requires a short turnaround time (maximum two months)
- It should not be a typical part of the day to day activities of an employee
- Allow employees to create the blueprint for the projects for themselves
- Provide a coach to ask the right questions throughout the project
Because project work requires you to be ‘actually doing the work’, it acts as a catalyst for developing the soft skills they may need. In particular, it is effective in developing time management skills, dealing with failure, creativity and working under pressure.
2. Peer Learning
One of the most effective ways of developing a soft skill is to learn with or through a friend. Research has shown that there is a significant link between having fun (with friends) in the workplace and informal learning. To take advantage of this, it is advisable that you create streams of works or small scale projects that requires collaboration between friends at work. Alternatively, you could send friends on a learning course together. Not only does this cater to a natural pathway for collaboration, it also encourages accountability. As a twist, you may want to pair employees with significant difference in age or working styles. This would in turn develop the skill of adaptability.
3. Performance Reviews — regular coaching conversations
Integrate soft skills in your performance review process by adding a soft skill that an employee may need to develop as part of their goals for the year. Be sure to make the goals SMART:
Based on these SMART goals, use 360-degree feedback tools to understand whether the soft skill has been demonstrated consistently. Feedback should be solicited from colleagues, direct & indirect reports, line manager and key stakeholders. During the 360-degree feedback, be sure to ask for specific feedback such as: “Has employee X demonstrated creativity in their work? If so, provide examples”.
4. Professional learning opportunities
Be on the lookout for conferences, which may involve attending to persuade or influence a particular crowd. Look at getting your employee on the programme schedule to deliver a public address. Networking outside of an employee’s natural circle of friends encourages development of soft skills that may not usually be tested.
5. Online Learning
Online learning platforms such as Harvard Manage Mentor, LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, Udemy, etc. have a plethora of courses from top coaches, professors and professionals around the world. Get your learning partners to curate topics according to the soft skills they would need to learn. The advantage is that the content can be accessed on a mobile device, thereby increasing the likelihood of content being accessed.
6. Bring in a coach
If an employee has a development area for a soft skill, bring in a coach with clear goals and outcomes. It helps to tailor a learning intervention and make it specific as opposed to general. Where possible, try and make use of internal coaches. This helps the internal coach grow their ability to persuade employees in the right direction.
7. Augmented / Virtual Reality
Augmented and virtual reality are highly effective but often underutilized tools to develop soft skills in employees. These tools allow you to replicate life scenarios that employees may face and train them on the appropriate way to react in those situations. Here are some ways you could use it:
- If an employee consistently struggles with time management, they could enter a virtual world in which they would have to complete a set number of tasks in a specific time.
- Replicate scenarios in a virtual world in which an employee has to reply with empathy or understanding to a fellow colleague experiencing difficulty in their personal lives.
Creating an augmented / virtual reality provides a safe space for employees to fail and keep learning. It also makes it feel as if it was real, making it much easier to implement in reality.
8. Technology Driven
Consider investing in AI technology that can provide employees with in-the-moment feedback. System prompts can pop up if an email lacks clarity or seems impolitely written. Employees could receive weekly emails to show their usage of an organizations collaboration tools.
Below is an example template of how you should look at soft skills once you have selected the appropriate medium:
A well-thought-out personal development plan for growing soft skills a good mix of the above-mentioned techniques using the 70–20–10 principle. This needs to be coupled with SMART goals which are contracted between the employee and the line manager. So, identify the soft skill needed, using non-traditional ways of learning and watch your employees grow!