Most large organizations have some sort of formalized performance management system, and a growing number of firms are extending those systems to also take a more structured approach to talent development.

Organizations with formalized systems typically start with annual or quarterly corporate goals and then cascade those larger goals down the chain of command—to each division, department, team and individual. This is to create alignment from the top to the bottom, so everybody is moving in the same direction at the same time.

At the individual level, employees typically spell out goals for themselves, such as annual and quarterly goals. If they are smart, they take the process further to monthly, weekly, or even daily goals. These goals are primarily focused on key performance indicators (revenue or profitability), productivity goals (output), or quality gages (negative error rate) related to the individual employee’s specific tasks, responsibilities, and projects. While soft skill behaviors have a huge impact on any individual’s performance when it comes to key performance indicators, the specific behaviors may not be spelled out explicitly or identified as specific goals in a performance management system.

Often, soft skill behaviors are spelled out—if at all—in a formal performance management system in one of two cases:

  • If an employee is failing to meet performance goals, then corrective measures might be detailed in terms of an employee’s specific sub-optimal soft skills behaviors. The problem is that by this point, it’s already too late. If you wait until an employee has demonstrated a track record of failure on a key soft skill behavior, then the performance management system is probably going to serve simply as a way to document that failure and provide a paper trail to help fire that person.  
  • Soft skill behaviors might be included as part of an individual’s personal goals or for “professional development.” The problem with this strategy is that the employee’s performance goals are often given the least weight and the least attention. Consequently, employees are likely to give these goals weight and attention in direct proportion to how much the organization does.

Your employees can only focus on so many things at once, and managers can only focus on so many things at once. If high-priority behaviors are truly high priorities, then you need to make that clear with real stakes in your performance management and talent development. Whether you have a formalized system or not, remember that whatever you measure and what has consequences and what gets rewarded. That is what employees are going to focus on.

If you want your employees to really focus on high-priority soft skill behaviors, then you need to: 

  • set clear goals for specific behaviors 
  • monitor and measure each employee’s actual performance on those specific behaviors in relation to those goals 
  • provide candid feedback, direction, and guidance on those behaviors 
  • problem solve and trouble shoot when course correction is necessary 
  • identify opportunities to improve on those specific behaviors 
  • recognize and reward success on those specific behaviors  
  • identify high performers for key assignments, opportunities, and promotions based on success on those specific behaviors.

Your employees need to know exactly what is expected and required of them when it comes to high-priority soft skills behaviors—every step of the way. They also need to know that their performance will be measured and that the score will have real consequences for failure and real rewards for success.