We all have heard the horror stories of problem employees who seriously lack soft skills (or maybe we know them personally). There is the manager who repeatedly offends others with his crude jokes, the administrator who will talk your ear off, or the co-worker who is almost completely devoid of social awareness. We would all agree that those types of people are in desperate need of soft-skills improvement.
Can you master soft skills?
But what about the rest of us? We aren’t that bad, right? Many of us would probably say we are good at soft skills when that may, or may not, be the case. In truth, there is no such thing as mastering soft skills.
We all have soft skill “soft spots” – that is, areas in which we can improve. Sometimes we’re aware of them, but many times soft spots become blind spots. We might think that we have it all together, while those around us can clearly see the skills we lack.
Other times, a soft skills deficiency may be highlighted when a difficult situation brings out the worst in us. Here are some examples I’ve seen:
- A manager who, under duress, falls back on doing things “the way they’ve always been done.”
- A stressed-out colleague whose communication becomes increasingly terse and overly direct.
- A frazzled direct report who increasingly finds excuses to arrive late, take long lunches, and/or leave early.
There is always room for improvement. Even if you are the best communicator/team player/collaborator in the world (FYI, no one is), you can still get better. Even NBA basketball hall-of-fame star Michael Jordan never felt that he had “arrived” and was always working to improve – and so should you.
As well, different soft skills are important in different stages in your career. As Marshall Goldsmith put it, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” – the skills that have made you successful up to this point won’t necessarily be the same skills that will make you successful at the next stage of your career. So, you can’t just rely on the soft skills that you currently have, but you should also hone the ones that you will need in the future.
The importance of self-awareness.
There are many reasons we should continually improve our soft skills, but for this to happen, we must have the most significant soft skill of all: self-awareness. The Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council recently rated self-awareness as the most important capability for leaders to develop.
However, not many people truly possess this skill. In a recent study of 500,000 people, only 36 percent were able to accurately identify their emotions as they happened 1. That means that two-thirds of us don’t know ourselves well enough to distinguish our emotions, our strengths, and our weaknesses.
So how can we improve our self-awareness?
We must take time to self-reflect.
Soft skills expert Bruce Tulgan emphasizes conducting “regular, productive, honest self-evaluation against clear standards.” We must be honest about our strengths, as well as our weaknesses and we must evaluate ourselves against external standards, not just our own opinions.
But self-reflection can only go so far; we must also have outside input, which means...
We need input from others.
Because we are often blind to things that others see quite clearly, we can’t introspect our way to finding our blind spots. That’s why we need honest feedback from our manager, coworkers, family and friends. Feedback tools such as 360-degree assessments are a great way to get honest feedback, in addition to personality assessments (like the MBTI or DiSC) that can help us better understand our natural tendencies. Using multiple assessments helps you get multiple viewpoints – much like the multiple mirrors at a tux or dress shop allow you to see yourself in new ways (even some ways that you may not like seeing).