Soft skills are harder than they seem

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.

I am often asked about getting things done in government. After years of leading Human Resources programs in the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, I have been fortunate enough to have some significant successes. I have also had my share of failures. People who are in the early or middle stages of their careers are the ones who most often ask how I go about getting things done, particularly when big changes are involved.

There are many ways to get things done, all beginning with actually knowing something about the work you are doing. Once you get past the basic technical skills, you run into the so-called “soft skills” that drive success or failure. The term “soft skills” originated in the Department of the Army about 50 years ago. It includes interpersonal skills, listening, speaking writing, time management, flexibility, and plain old common sense. The interpersonal side of that is often the most challenging, because it is not something that the standard federal hiring process addresses effectively.

When hiring managers are trying to fill jobs, they typically focus more on technical skills than soft skills, because those are easier to discern from a resume. There is also the mistaken assumption that soft skills can be taught after the employee is on board. I believe that is a fatal error in the process. Some soft skills can be taught, but many of them are personality traits that are unlikely to change, regardless of the amount of training the employee receives. We have all experienced the leader who has no empathy, or the team member who is basically a jerk. Do we really think we are going to turn the jerk into a great team member before the team revolts? Do we think the supervisor who puts himself or herself first all the time is likely to change?

If we really want to address soft skills, we should consider them as essential job requirements during the hiring process. That means better assessments, particularly in the interview process. It also means more and better reference checking, including talking with former supervisors and peers. When I talk with federal HR staff about this approach, more often than not I hear that they have no time, or that hiring managers are not interested. Sometimes they even tell me it is not appropriate to look at anything other than the technical skills, or that they are afraid they will get grievances and complaints if they try to assess soft skills more effectively in the hiring process. Maybe that is true. But it is also true that “problem employees” can often be weeded out in the hiring process. It is also true that people might grieve or complain. Let them. Let the process work. In the end, most such issues do not result in an agency being reversed.

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The truth is that the best process for soft skill development is hiring rather than training. Can you train many of the soft skills? Yes. Do you have the money to do it? Probably not. Do you have the time to do it? Probably not. Will you get precious training dollars allocated for it when technical skills training is needed? No. That means the best hope is to do it right in the hiring process and get the right skills from day one.

Hiring people who have terrible soft skills, then hoping to mold them into the type of person the job needs is about as likely to succeed as marrying someone and trying to mold them into the person you really wanted to marry. It doesn’t work most of the time, and even when it does, there is a good chance no one will be happy.

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Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.