Let’s face it: Soft skills like critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and adaptability are necessary for all employees to have. However, the majority of attention in the management world has been focused more on hiring employees with those skills than developing them in current employees.
The term “soft skills” refers to skills like collaboration, problem solving, conflict resolution, and communication, which have more to do with how you act than what you know. Much of the time, these soft skills have to be seen “in action” and can be difficult to objectively measure (unlike technical qualifications, which can be tested).
However, when you look around your own office, it is usually fairly easy to find those employees lacking soft skills. They are the ones unwilling to accept any kind of change, the ones unable to properly manage subordinates, and the ones constantly upset about one thing or another (whether in their professional or personal life).
What should a manager do with employees lacking these skills? Fire them? Just put up with them? Why not help them develop the skills?
During the past 25 years, various research has shown that emotional intelligence (EI), a key part of many of these skills, can be developed and improved (unlike IQ, which is static). This is great news for managers, because EI has been shown by expert and researcher Daniel Goleman 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 by just studying about them. They have to be learned through a process of change that can be difficult and uncomfortable at times, but it can have dramatic effects on your company’s bottom line. The following six-step process is a basic overview:
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. If this is the case in your organization, there are many good resources available for creating “readiness for change.”
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.
It is one thing to know the best practices–it is another to know how you stack up against them. Assessments help to evaluate where an employee stands (areas of strength and areas in need of improvement) as well as to describe the natural tendencies an individual has. It is 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.
Once employees have learned more about themselves (strengths, faults, tendencies, etc.), it is 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? Can they understand their natural tendencies and see how they interact with others?
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 (see Goldsmith’s Coaching for Behavioral Change for more rationale on this).
Soft skills do no good in a vacuum. They have to be put into practice in “real life” over a long period of time. Some failure is inevitable, but growth will come. 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!
—Daniel White works with small businesses and not-for-profits as an organizational development consultant at AGH (@aghlc), and teaches graduate-level organizational development. He is a former not-for-profit administrator who has consulted with organizations in the U.S., Bolivia, Guatemala, and Ghana. Reach him at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @dw_white