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6 Steps to Improving Your Employees' Soft Skills

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A version of this article was previously published in Fast Company.

Do you work with or supervise employees who are unwilling to accept any kind of change, who can’t properly manage subordinates, or who are constantly upset about things in their personal lives? Those kinds of people can create stress and lower productivity in the office because they lack soft skills.

The term “soft skills” has more to do with how employees act than what they know – skills such as collaboration, problem solving, conflict resolution, and communication. Unlike technical qualifications, which can be tested, soft skills have to be seen in action and can be difficult to objectively measure. Nevertheless, these skills make a huge difference in an employee’s ability to get work done efficiently and effectively.

So, what should a manager do with employees who are lacking soft skills? Fire them? Put up with them?

What if there is another option? What if you could help them improve their soft skills?

During the past 25 years, research has shown that emotional intelligence (EI), a key part of many soft skills, can be developed and improved (unlike IQ, which is static). This is great news for managers, because EI has been shown to be twice as important as cognitive abilities in predicting outstanding employee performance.

So if it is possible to dramatically improve the key predictor of employee success, how would you go about it?

Soft skills can’t be learned just by studying them. They must be acquired through a process of change that can be difficult and uncomfortable at times but ultimately have dramatic effects on your company’s bottom line.

A six-step process you can use to help employees who are struggling with soft skills:

WILLINGNESS TO CHANGE

While this isn’t a big step, it is an important prerequisite. You cannot force people to become more self-aware; they must be willing to begin the process of change themselves. If this basic building block is not present, there isn’t much that can be learned through this process.

EDUCATION

While learning soft skills is not simply “book learning,” there still must be an aspect of education on best practices. Reading books like Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and Marshall Goldsmith’s “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” are great starting places for learning the basics.

EVALUATION

It is one thing to know the best practices--it is another to know how you stack up against them. Assessments help evaluate an employee on areas of strength and areas in need of improvement as well as to describe his or her natural tendencies. It’s important to include both self-assessments (like the MBTI®) and assessments that include input from others (like a 360-feedback tool), as both types give important feedback.

SELF-REFLECTION

Once employees have learned more about their strengths, weaknesses and tendencies, it’s necessary for them to reflect on what they have learned. Are they humble enough to realize they aren’t perfect? Are they willing to put in the effort to grow even though it may be difficult and uncomfortable?

GOAL SETTING

Defining a clear vision for the future is an important next step, which should involve choosing three to five tangible goals to work toward. These goals should be developed from the information learned through the process (especially feedback from others), and then should be shared with others (supervisors, direct reports, peers) so observers are able to notice the changes and hold the employee accountable.

PRACTICE

Soft skills improvement is not instant; progress comes from practice over a long period of time, and some failure is inevitable. After a few months, employees working toward change should revisit the goals with coworkers to gauge the progress being made.

This process can be done on an individual basis or in groups; it can be completed internally or with an outside facilitator; it can be used at work or at home--but the key takeaway is that it is a process. It’s different than book learning and can take some time, so be patient. In the end, the time invested will be worth it--both to the employees involved and the company’s bottom line!

Questions?

For more information about soft skills, contact Daniel White using his information below.

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Daniel White
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Daniel White

Org. Development Consultant
Organizational Development & Family Business Services

Daniel White assists organizations with their organizational development needs, including strategic and operational planning, leadership development, and employee engagement efforts. He has worked with a wide range of industries, including construction, healthcare, manufacturing, banking, not-for-profits, and government organizations. He has also worked internationally as an organizational development consultant, serving organizations in Bolivia, Guatemala and Ghana.

Prior to advising organizations, Daniel worked in not-for-profit leadership and operations, directing projects with clients such as the US Department of State and the United Nations Population Fund. He has been published in Fast Company and several academic journals, and he has presented at a number of national conferences.