Gen Z says the soft skills managers think they lack can’t be taught



Ideally, the onboarding process teaches a new hire pretty much everything they need to excel at their job. It identifies their point person for tech trouble, when to meet with their manager, and how to overcome the most common roadblocks. 

But it’s not likely that a half-week of modules and PowerPoint presentations will teach a new hire—much less a fresh college grad—how to receive blunt feedback or strike up a conversation with a senior manager if you run into them in the office kitchen. Those are soft skills, and according to new data from a Harris Poll carried out exclusively for Fortune, bosses say they’re what Gen Z lacks the most. 

Eighty-two percent of managers—among The Harris Poll’s pool of 1,200 knowledge workers—said their new Gen Z hires’ soft skills need more guidance, time, and training. They think Gen Z newbies also have unrealistic workplace expectations, more so than they used to, and three in four managers say it’s harder to train new hires in soft skills than in actual technical skills. 

It’s a problem that even the Gen Z employees in question can admit, but they’re asking for a bit of grace. Nearly 4 in 5 Gen Z employees (78%) that Harris Poll surveyed said that they feel some more ambient, abstract workplace soft skills can’t be taught and can really only be gained by watching more seasoned employees over time.

They also point out that, given the fact that many of them experienced Zoom college and Zoom internships instead of boots-on-the-ground training, they’re having a harder time than their predecessors adjusting to workplace norms and right-sizing their expectations. But as Gen Alpha creeps up behind them, it’s high time for Gen Z to get on board. 

Soft skills might be more important than hard skills

Soft skills weren’t always so in vogue. Prior to the pandemic, traits like “assertive,” “driven,” and “authoritative” were most desired for leaders, Dr. Jessie Wisdom, co-founder and head of people science at software firm Humu, told Fortune. But these days, amorphous soft skills like emotional awareness and the ability to connect have become more sought after. “We’ve refocused, as a society, on being open and caring for one another—of course that’s showing up in the workplace,” Wisdom said. 

The more interpersonal skills—how to sign off on emails to vendors, how to address superiors, even just the sense of how much to drink at happy hour—are what makes work a human experience. And because everyone socializes differently, what works for one person would just come across as phony for another. It’s the individuality of soft skills that can make them so hard to grasp—and so critical to have. 

In a 2022 LinkedIn report, more than three in five (61%) workers said soft skills in the workplace are just as important as hard skills. Since the pandemic, “everyone has gotten used to blending work and life in a new way,” Linda Jingfang Cai, VP of talent development at LinkedIn, told Fortune. “We ask each other how they’re doing, how their family’s doing. That’s the expectation now.”

Cai went on to call soft skills “the currency of the future workplace,” and said that any company helmed by people who don’t prioritize empathy and connection stand to lose out. That’s especially true as AI further integrates itself into the workforce, threatening to completely consume repetitive, rote tasks one by one—leaving just the creative, interpersonal skills to humans. Think: Judgment, teamwork, and articulating a vision—even a vision for the next phase of A.I. “That sounds like the fun part of work to me,” Joseph Fuller, a future of work expert and Harvard Business School professor, told Fortune last year. “And much harder to automate.”

Per the Harris Poll, 55% of Gen Z employees said their lack of adequate interpersonal training makes them afraid of asking “dumb questions” and 59% said they don’t even know who to turn to for help with their soft skills. Ideally, they’d have a buddy at a similar skill level to rely on and direct questions to, plus a dedicated mentor. 

Even more ideally, they’d have more opportunities to learn by osmosis—even if that means having to come into the office.

This article is part of Fortune’s New Normal at Work quartet in conjunction with the Harris Poll.

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