The Importance of Soft Skills in the Workplace

By Caroline Roberson on June 8, 2022

When you are hiring, you need to consider both technical skills and soft skills. Technical skills are essential for completing assigned duties and tasks. But soft skills are crucial to morale and culture fit. The impact that soft skills have on business output is evident in a recent Netflix documentary, American Factory.

The documentary explores what transpires when a Chinese automotive glass manufacturer, Fuyao, re-opens a plant in Ohio, seven years after General Motors closed it. Management paired U.S. workers with Chinese workers, who relocated to Ohio to train their American colleagues. From the first scenes, you start to witness what happens when soft skills are ignored during the hiring process.

Recruiters may discount soft skills in hiring skilled labor, but they shouldn’t.

In the documentary, the most successful workers are those who connect with their colleagues from another culture. They communicate effectively, to consider others’ perspectives, and make an effort to connect with colleagues (in and out of “the office).

By contrast, when people struggle with soft skills, the business is negatively impacted. There’s a scene when an American employee and her Chinese supervisor are unable to resolve an interpersonal communication issue. This causes them to step away from their duties to involve the employee relations manager.

“Rather than try to find a resolution, they try to find who is wrong,” the employee relations manager tells the camera.

The issues with communication, cultural differences, and absent soft skills take a toll throughout the plant:

  • Productivity is lower than projected
  • Glass breaks multiple times on the production line
  • Visiting customers note concerns about quality control
  • Morale suffers and dissatisfied American workers try to form a union

Faced with less-than-ideal performance, the company chairman is not happy.

“We’re losing money,” he says to his management team during a visit. “I don’t want to have to keep coming to this factory every month.”

Of course, workers in a factory environment must possess the technical skills to do their job; however, those technical skills aren’t enough. Regardless of whether an employee is working on the plant floor or sitting at a desk in a corporate office, they need soft skills to assist them in successfully navigating their work environment. Recruiters and management should assess those skills when determining the right candidates to fill open roles.

Technical skills aren’t as relevant when cultural clash hits.

When people from one culture are working with people from another country or culture, soft skills are critical for an organization to reach its goals. Technical skills can be trained, as we see happen in American Factory. But when soft skills are lacking, cultural differences become even more pronounced.

“The fundamental difference between Chinese and Americans is that the Chinese have a bias toward speed; Americans like to process things, think it through from all angles,” a human resource (HR) manager from Fuyao said.

If soft skills are lagging in a workgroup, it’s more likely team fit issues will arise. When that happens, people lose focus, and motivation suffers. Motivation suffers at the manufacturing plant—Chinese supervisors are discouraged by what they perceive as laziness in American workers. Meanwhile, local workers lose focus because they are dissatisfied with the expectations and have serious concerns about unsafe working conditions.

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Throughout the documentary, team members struggle to find common ground with their counterparts from another culture. And unfortunately, when under stress, they don’t have the soft skills required to navigate those differences successfully. Ultimately, it took three years to turn things around and deliver profit at Fuyao. Perhaps with better hiring or training, they could have avoided—or at least planned for—the HR challenges which arose.

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