ATD Blog

Top 5 Soft Skills Gaps and How to Overcome Them

Friday, December 2, 2016

Soft skills are one of the hottest topics in the human resource and business community, and rightly so. Mastery of these skills increases the chance for professional success. If you want to grow professionally, improving your soft skills is the place to start.

Despite soft skills’ importance, many still struggle with them, and everyone has room to grow. Here are the five most common soft skills gaps and how you can overcome them. 


Self-awareness is the ability to understand, identify, and leverage your strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, and emotions. It is critical to individual success, especially in leadership roles. In fact, the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council recently rated self-awareness as the most important competency for leaders to develop.

Still, in a recent study mentioned in Emotional Intelligence 2.0, of 500,000 people, only 36 percent could accurately describe their emotions, proving that this is an area in which many people need help. To improve your own self-awareness, try these actions:

  • Reflect. You must periodically set aside time for self-evaluation and reflection. Many people have difficulty with this, so it may take extra effort to make it a habit. As soft-skills expert Bruce Tulgan says in his book Bridging the Soft Skills Gap, it’s important to have “regular, productive, honest self-evaluation against clear standards.” This can be done through journaling or other reflection activities, such as goal-setting or discussion.
  • Assess. Another great way to increase self-awareness is through the use of assessments, which can give you an objective view of yourself. Self-assessments such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and DiSC can provide a starting point for self-evaluation, but you will also need input from others. This could mean a performance evaluation from a manager, or, even better, a 360-degree assessment that gathers anonymous feedback from a number of sources, such as managers, peers, direct reports, and clients.
  • Measure. Are you accomplishing your work and personal goals? How do you compare with the rest of your organization? You need to honestly assess how you are doing, rather than see yourself through rose-colored glasses. 

Personal Responsibility 

Personal responsibility is the ability to stay focused on what can be controlled. Many lower or midlevel employees have a defeatist attitude that leads to a lack of personal responsibility. They believe what they do ultimately doesn’t matter because the “higher ups” control their fate. If this might be true for you, try the following:

  • Read. Stephen Covey’s classic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is a good resource on the concept of personal responsibility. Understanding that you should focus on what you can influence as opposed to what is out of your control (habit 1) can help empower you.
  • Reflect. Brainstorm all the factors that get in the way of your ability to do your job at the highest level (or how you would like to do the job), then look at each factor and ask yourself, “Is this within or outside my control?” Take note of how many are in each category. Finally, look at each factor and think about past examples of how it has gotten in the way. What could have been done differently? Now think about the future—how might that factor get in the way? What options do you have to change that outcome?

Empathy, Listening, and Keeping an Open Mind 

Empathy is the ability to understand what others are thinking and feeling, listening is a skill that requires paying full attention to others in a conversation, and keeping an open mind requires you to question your own assumptions, suspend judgment, and learn from others. While these are distinct abilities, they all involve paying attention to others and valuing them and their opinions at least as highly as your own.

If you are not strong in one of these areas, you are usually not strong in all three. To grow in these areas, try the following:

  • Learn. If you find it difficult to accept other perspectives, purposefully set out to learn about views that differ from your own through, for example, reading books or developing relationships with different people.
  • Brainstorm. Write down five things you feel certain about, then answer these two questions: What is another belief about that topic? Why might someone believe that? List several reasons.
  • Practice. Practice your listening skills by asking questions to better understand. During this time, resist the urge to spend your time only thinking of responses or just waiting for your turn to talk.

Conflict Resolution 


Conflict resolution is an often-misunderstood soft skill. It’s not just the ability to deal with conflict but also to handle conflict when necessary. Some people tend to be conflict-averse—they’re never willing to deal with a difficult issue, even when it is needed. On the other end of the spectrum, some people are too willing to engage in conflict and might need to learn to back off a little. To improve your conflict-resolution skills, try the following:

  • Understand. You must first understand your tendency for conflict. Once again, a personality assessment could help you better understand your usual reaction to conflict. Once you know what you tend to do in a situation, you can develop an action plan to bring your conflict style more in line with what is necessary for your job.
  • Read. A good resource for improving this skill is a book called Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott (especially for those who are conflict-averse). 

Communication and People Skills 

In today’s economy, most jobs require people skills. You must read other people, develop a rapport with them, and effectively communicate your message in a way that will be well received. This includes effectively using words, tone, and expressions to communicate. To improve your communication and people skills, try the following:

  • Assess. This is another area in which self-assessment can help you better understand your strengths and weaknesses. Feedback from others can also be helpful, as well as utilizing a simple rating exercise: list some communication best practices (don’t interrupt, listen twice as much as you talk, use the correct channel of communication) and then give yourself a grade for each best practice. You can then create an action plan for improving communication in your problem areas.
  • Plan. A big part of communicating well is preparation, so it can be beneficial to understand how you should prepare. Ask yourself: What message am I trying to get across? Whom do I need to be talking to? About what? Through what communication channel?
  • Practice. If you’re not already comfortable communicating with others, it’s important to practice and gain more confidence. Volunteer to present to groups. Go to a networking event with a friend. Eat lunch in the break room instead of at your desk.

Like any skill, better soft skills are possible with time, training, and practice. In fact, smart professionals realize that this is an area that needs continual nurturing and effort throughout their careers. The good news is that your efforts can help build better relationships with others, increase your productivity, and help you feel more satisfied—all worthwhile goals.

About the Author

Daniel White, MSOD, works with businesses and not-for-profits as an organizational development consultant at AGH (@aghlc), and teaches graduate-level organization development. He is a former not-for-profit administrator who has consulted with organizations in the United States, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Ghana. Reach him at [email protected].

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