Bridging the gap: 5 tips for managers to help build young employees’ soft skills

Whether you are in a large complex organization with lots of resources or a tiny business where you are the chief cook and bottle washer, the most important element in bridging the soft skills gap is the human element.

If you are not an active champion of high priority soft skills behaviors in your sphere of influence and authority, then you can be sure that the young talent in your midst will not buy in. If key leaders are not walking the talk — and talking the walk — Gen Z-ers (second wave Millennials, born 1990-2000) will simply roll their eyes at the best slogans and logos. As much as they may seem to take their cues from peers or online sources, you can be sure that they will take their cues about what aspects of performance really matter from the authority figures with whom they interact most.

Here are five steps you can take to start championing soft skills behaviors in your organization today:

  • Ask yourself, “What are high priority soft skills in my organization?”

If you want today’s young employees to buy-in to soft skills development, then you have to really sell it to them: Take the time to make the case for why the skills you want them to learn are not just good for you and your business, but are also going to be really valuable to them.

Remember, soft skills are broad, highly transferable skills that are valuable in any kind of job and never become obsolete. What are the high priority behaviors in your organization? What are you doing in your sphere to drive and support and reward those behaviors in everything you do as a leader? 

  • You cannot hire around the soft skills gap — build soft skills into your on-boarding process

What message are you sending about standards and expectations for high priority behaviors from day one? If you want to send the message that those behaviors are truly a high priority, then you have to pay more than lip service.

How much of your on-boarding and up-to-speed training is dedicated to spelling out performance standards and expectations for those high priority soft skill behaviors? How much time is dedicated to teaching those behaviors?

  • Help your employees own their soft skills training and development

Help them own the learning by giving them a concrete role in the process: How can you get them actively involved in the training? Can they bring some of their own ideas to the table? Can they help you define learning goals? Identify sources of content or create original content? Teach some of the lessons?

  • Make sure they have opportunities to learn and practice soft skills

Make sure they have opportunities to practice what they are learning on the job and gain recognition and reward and advancement through active participation. Pay close attention to the employees who really get into it — as they are likely the ones who might stay and build careers in your organization.

  • Be committed to strong, highly-engaged leadership

Gen Z-ers want managers who know who they are, know what they are doing, and are in a position to help. They want managers who spend enough time with them to teach them the tricks and the shortcuts, warn them of pitfalls and help them solve problems. They want managers who are strong enough to support them through bad days and counsel them through difficult judgment calls. They want to know you are keeping track of their successes and helping them get better and better every day.

Remember that today’s young employees are highly accustomed to self-directed learning: If they are eager to learn something, you cannot hold them back in today’s information environment. They will go out into the endless sea of information and people online and navigate their own course of links and sources. Before you know it, they will be surprising you with their thoughtfulness, originality and engagement in the learning.

Bruce Tulgan is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an on-line training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (2009), and It’s Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post.