Soft Skills are Hard to Master

Soft Skills are Essential. Hard to Master – Invaluable for Successful Leadership

It’s a classic performance issue. You hire a superstar for a management role: the top in their class, the best sales performer ever, the smartest (IQ-wise) in the pack. Then, the superstar becomes a member of your management team and you’ve got a disaster on your hands. No one gets along with the new hire, good staff threaten to leave, and overall productivity slips. You find it difficult to put your finger on the exact issue—the individual certainly has the technical skills to do the job, and they certainly have good job experience. It all comes down to their overall inability to get along with other people. It’s been proven many times over….IQ gets you the job, EQ makes or breaks your success in the role.

“In a high-IQ job pool, soft skills like discipline, drive and empathy mark those who emerge as outstanding.”

– Daniel Goleman: founder of the Emotional Leadership
styles and the five components of emotional intelligence.

If it’s any consolation, you’re not the only leader or senior manager who has hired for technical skills but found it’s the personal soft skills that are sabotaging a manager’s long term success. Research conducted by Harvard University, the Carnegie Foundation and Stanford Research Center all concluded that 85 percent of job success comes from having well‐developed personal skills, and only 15 percent of job success comes from technical skills and knowledge (hard skills).

That particular piece of research was published in 1918. A much more recent report by LinkedIn on Skills (literally, conducted 100 years later in 2019) reports that “soft skills matter the most. Some of the fastest-growing roles—sales development, customer success, and customer experience jobs—are largely soft skills-based.”

Nothing has changed much. Maybe it’s time for a refresher on why soft skills are so important, what makes them difficult to teach, and what to look for to make sure you’re providing soft skills training for leaders that is actually going to work to retain great talent within your teams.

What is it about soft skills that are so important in today’s workplace?

Soft skills refers to a group of personal qualities that enable someone to interact effectively and in harmony with those around them. A short list of some of the qualities included in soft skills gives you a glimpse as to how important they are: the ability to communicate, think critically, organize and plan, work with a team, handle conflict, adapt to change, and demonstrate empathy and diplomacy.

You don’t have to look too far among today’s leadership to see why soft skills are so important. Every day we see examples of big egos, bullying, disrespect, conflict, or even just a failure to get along in both public and private arenas. In addition, we are now interacting daily through a mixture of online and face-to-face communication.

This can be a challenge when it comes to effective communication (a key soft skill). Add in the fact that our workplaces are rich in diversity in terms of gender and race, which means an even greater need for skills that integrate differences, build empathy and develop understanding.

Why is it so challenging to teach (and learn) soft skills?

Hard skills can be learned and mastered over a period of time (i.e., at school and college). Along the way, there are specific measures that ensure mastery, e.g., tests, exams, certifications. Soft skills, on the other hand, may seem logical to learn, yet are difficult to put into practice and sustain over time.

It’s not hard to see why. Soft skills are directly linked to a person’s character and personality. Self-development and a growth mindset aren’t easily changed overnight. In the first place, the individual needs to be self-aware that there is a need for such development (through use of highly valid and reliable assessments). Then, they must make a decision to put this awareness to use. This means intentionally exert conscious effort, willingness, and commitment to make even a small change in the way they approach others, objectively evaluate the success of the change, modify if needed, and finally build a new habit.

Once the skills are taught, it’s also difficult to make sure that they “stick”. Just think about a past workshop or conference you’ve attended where everyone left, primed to make change, and commit to a new way of thinking and doing. Within a week, all good intentions were forgotten. We return back to old habits as soon as we’re back to the same environment and stresses we typically face day-to-day.

What is included in soft skills training?

TTI Success Insights (a leading source for research-based, validated assessments and coaching tools) has an excellent assessment tool called the TriMetrix® DNA that managers and senior leaders use for their skill development. It measures behaviours, driving forces behind the behaviour, and 25 soft skills that are the basis (or building blocks) of successful performance. This list of skills is referred to as the Development Indicator profile. Developed through extensive research, mastery of each of these competencies allows leaders to understand where they should focus their time and attention to best manage their own professional development as well as the development of those who they manage.

At Einblau & Associates, we refer to these soft skills competencies as “essential skills” because we don’t want there to be any doubt as to their value. Here is how we present a personalized profile of the 25 essential soft skills competencies managers and leaders need to master:

So you find out which soft skills you need to develop, now what?

It’s great to gain self-awareness, there’s no doubt about that. The real question then becomes, how do I develop each of the soft skills? That’s where the TriMetrix® DNA stands out far and above other assessments. For each skill area, it provides the specific sub-elements to work on to master each skill. Take the soft skill of personal accountability as an example. The majority of leaders feel they are well developed in personal accountability. When you see the elements that make up mastery of this important soft skill, you might find there’s still room to grow on a few of them. This helps prioritize and focus development efforts.

Personal Accountability: Being answerable for personal actions.

  • Demonstrates the ability to self-evaluate.
  • Strives to take responsibility for their actions.
  • Evaluates many aspects of their personal actions.
  • Recognizes when they have made a mistake.
  • Accepts personal responsibility for outcomes.
  • Utilizes feedback.
  • Observes and analyzes data to learn from mistakes.
  • Sees new possibilities by examining personal performance.
  • Accepts responsibility for actions and results.
  • Willing to take ownership of situations.

Access the power of the TriMetrix® DNA Assessment for your own leadership development! CLICK HERE

What to look for in soft skills training courses?

At Einblau, & Associates, we like to say, “Theory is good. Results are better”. When looking for soft skills training, you want to ensure the program goes beyond just concepts. Most people enjoy learning about soft skills, but aren’t so good at putting them into practice and applying them every day. It’s not their fault; a lot of training programs stop short at the actual implementation, follow up and evaluation of success.

The example below shows how helpful tips and techniques can be when properly combined with learning. In this case, a manager wants to give corrective feedback to an employee with a performance issue. Learning about empathy, controlling their own emotions, and managing conflict is good, but now, that manager has to practice how to start the conversation in a neutral and respectful manner. This is the stuff of good performance coaching. Here’s some things to keep in mind in this type of conversation:

Do

  • Pre-plan the conversation: what’s the problem, the impact of the problem on the employee’s success, and the exact change in their performance that you need help them clearly understand.
  • Choose the moment wisely: try to avoid confronting an employee when they are busy meeting deadlines or stressed by other obligations.
  • Consider the situation from your employee’s perspective so you can develop mutual agreement there is a problem.
  • Be specific.
  • Focus on a single, specific example of an employee’s poor performance, not a big list of everything they do wrong.
  • Facilitate their engagement in problem-solving by asking great open-ended questions.
  • Focus on what needs to be done differently, in the future, for their success.

Don’t

  • Confront a problem based on hearsay.
  • Assume you know everything about the situation.
  • Jump to solution mode based on the limited information you have.
  • Fixate on past mistakes or personal faults that come from a place of judgement or resentment.
  • Neglect to engage the employee in finding their own solutions by telling them how to do things your way.
  • Be vague about next steps.

The time and commitment to learn techniques, like good coaching skills, pays dividends in the long run. But it’s not going to without putting training and learning into action. It’s why you want to select programs carefully. Look for training that teaches practical application with experiential learning so you get actual results that build new habits.

Are you focused too much on your technical expertise? Learn essential soft skills through Coaching for Commitment–your success depends on it.

In today’s fast-paced and technology-focused working environment, many feel that the scale is being tipped toward mastering hard skills. All too often, a hiring manager thinks in terms of needing a “software genius”, rather than a “collaborator.”

If you find this is the case in your organization, it may be time to look at tipping the scale back to an increase in soft skills training. The foundational Coaching for Commitment management coaching skills course, is a great place to start, especially for those who are in management and leadership positions in technical industries looking for a step-by-step process approach to effectively manage and inspire people.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, Einblau’s Coaching for Commitment course was originally created to get at the root of performance management challenges and teach soft skills that make employee coaching successful. With the practical techniques and tools taught in the course (like those illustrated in the example), leaders and managers can effectively have difficult performance conversations immediately after the training. Over 1800 current and former clients consider this course to be a keystone of their supervisor/management development plan because the methodology works. Follow up learning opportunities include:

  • Coaching Skills Reinforcement
  • Coaching for Commitment Refresher
  • Coaching for Commitment Peer Groups

At the core of the program,  the management soft skills learned and practiced through the program equip participants with a greater understanding of the influence of what they do and say each day, and how these directly impact not only their own success and satisfaction, but also, those around them.

Rachelle Lee is President of Einblau & Associates, a full-service management consulting firm serving clients across North America. She specializes in leadership coaching and training, strengths-based assessments, and succession planning.

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