Soft skills: can conflict be resolved with training?

People Management consults with experts about the role of soft skills training and whether this is good recourse following workplace friction

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Soft skills have been hailed as the best indicator of future job performance, causing employers and workers alike to consider how they develop and demonstrate these skills in the workplace, and how recruiters can hire with them in mind.

According to Indeed, the reason why employers value soft skills such as communication, problem-solving, critical thinking, positive attitude, adaptability and conflict resolution is because they “demonstrate initiative, proactivity and confidence”, “determine if you are a good fit within a team, align with an organisation's goals” and “promote better company culture”.

However there are occasions when employees or new recruits don’t have the necessary soft skills to progress, but suggesting to a colleague that they might need to improve their communication skills or perhaps need a change in attitude might not always be well received. 

So, how necessary are these attributes and how should HR and managers foster better soft skills in their teams?

Importance of soft skills in the workplace

Daniel Smith​​​​, manager of legal and operations at Primed, says as workforces become more diverse, soft skills become more important in quashing potential conflict. 

“Workforces now are more diverse than they ever have been and we have seen in particular an increase in workplace friction caused by inter-generational differences in ways of working and methods of communication,” he says. 

This is one of the reasons why “the development of soft skills is absolutely crucial to the success of any business and is something that every business should be looking to help their employees develop”, Smith adds.

Recent research by social enterprise Skills Builder Partnership in liaison with the CIPD, KPMG and Edge Foundation, found that a lack of investment in building low-level soft skills is costing the UK £22.2 billion a year. 

The research also revealed that one in five (18 per cent) members of the working population have a ‘good’ education, but have a lack of soft skills building opportunities which seriously impacts them and leads to poor life outcomes such as lower job satisfaction and life satisfaction.

Echoing this, Kirsty Pappin, founder and director of Aries Legal Practice Management, also believes that fostering soft skills is fundamental for the day-to-day interactions of a business. 

“For example, a business that lacks effective communication, opens itself to risk. By having soft skills, it enhances camaraderie in teams and solidifies the working environment,” she says.

When should HR recommend soft skills training to an employee?

But in order to prevent a conflict from escalating and avoid pointing a finger in an unclear scenario, Pappin says that HR should avoid singling staff out as there is usually more underneath an issue than is first seen. “If the communication surrounding necessary soft skills training goes wrong, it can be destructive. If done right, it can be a very motivating and rewarding result for the individual, the team and ultimately the business.”

She explains that soft skills training works much better in different situations – when L&D specialists or HR professionals interact with staff and identify what they also see as their training needs. “After all, it is their L&D journey. Then analyse the team feedback and have team training sessions, which include senior managers,” Pappin adds.

At the same time, Smith​​​​ cautions that inevitably, there will be issues of friction or conduct in any workforce that cannot be mitigated by such training, even despite the best intentions.

For instance, research from 2021 by the Ethics and Compliance Initiative in the US, found that half (49 per cent) of employees reported unethical behaviour in their organisation, including favouritism toward certain employees (35 per cent), management lying to employees (25 per cent) and abusive behaviour (22 per cent).

“Where such issues are identified as offences of misconduct, employers should be sure that they follow the appropriate disciplinary process,” Smith says.

There is a need to be particularly careful where issues of friction or conduct are said to have amounted to discrimination, in which case consideration should be given to the provisions of the Equality Act 2010, he says. 

In reality, “reactive, ad-hoc soft skills training often forms part of a series of actions taken by an employer to try and resolve a specific issue, for example where an employee’s conduct has been unsavoury, disciplinary outcomes will often involve the issuing of a sanction for the behaviour, as well as a supportive measure (such as soft skills training) to fill a particular skills-gap”. 

Is soft skills training best after conflict at work? 

But is inviting someone involved in a conflict straight to a soft skills training generally a good idea?  According to Samantha Mullins, director of Latitude HR, not so much.

“In my experience, when soft skills training or coaching are used as part of an improvement plan, it is rarely successful. Employees feel resentful, managers often don’t expect it to work, and trainers struggle to get positive engagement and outcomes,” she says. This is particularly true for senior leaders who can feel that there is nothing for them to gain from soft skills training and view it as an additional pressure on their time. 

Asked whether there are expectations of further friction when having to invite a senior manager to attend soft skills training following a conflict, Smith,​​​ however, says that

there’s no reason to handle the process any differently. In any case, senior managers should be more open to the concept of soft skills training since “by virtue of their experience, those in senior positions have often developed soft skills organically out of necessity and having realised that effective people management and leadership is crucial to managerial and organisational success”, he adds.

Suggesting a key element that can make soft skills training useful and non-intrusive, Mullins says that “when learning is embedded in the culture of an organisation, with a visible commitment to continuous personal development at all levels, not only will employees thrive, but they will also perceive soft skills training as ‘the norm’ and something to be embraced,” she says while adding that “this impact will be greatest when senior leaders are self-aware, seek out learning opportunities and are transparent about their gaps”.