Winter 2017
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CTDO Magazine

Unlock the Power of Soft Skills

Friday, December 15, 2017

Measure the high-priority behaviors by first defining them

So many business leaders and managers at all levels fall for the myth that soft skills are a "nice to have" rather than a "must have"—simply a luxury they cannot afford to prioritize. That is a huge mistake.


Hard skills are easier to define and measure, yes. Hard skills are critical and they deserve much attention, but don't let anybody fool you: Soft skills are every bit as important. For the vast majority of your workforce, soft skills are the key to your success in the workplace and competitive differentiation in the marketplace. Soft skills are the source of a huge amount of power that is always right there hiding in plain sight—a tremendous reservoir of often untapped value, a secret weapon for any smart organization, team, leader, or individual performer.

Like the technical skills gap, the soft skills gap in the workforce has been developing slowly for decades. But the soft skills gap runs across the entire workforce—among workers with technical skills that are in great demand, every bit as much as workers without technical skills. What's more, the soft skills gap has grown much worse in recent years.

But how can leaders define and measure soft skills to improve them in the workplace? It helps to first identify what key behaviors you would like to see more of in your organization: Is it better people skills, better time-management skills, better problem-solving skills, or something else?

12 soft skills to refine

As a starting point, I've developed a soft skills competency model that breaks the skills down into three main categories—professionalism, critical thinking, and followership—and 12 "missing basics" that capture the thousands of details of behavior described by managers.


  • Self-evaluation: Regularly assessing one's own thoughts, words, and actions against clear meaningful standards, and one's own performance against specific goals, timelines, guidelines, and parameters
  • Personal responsibility: Staying focused on what one can control directly, and controlling one's responses in the face of factors outside one's own control
  • Positive attitude: Maintaining and conveying a positive, generous, enthusiastic demeanor in one's expressions, gestures, words, and tone
  • Good work habits: Wellness, self-presentation, timeliness, organization, productivity, quality, follow-through, and initiative
  • People skills: Attentive listening, observing, and reading; perceiving and empathizing; effective use of words, tone, expressions, and gestures, one-on-one and in groups.

Critical thinking

  • Proactive learning: Keeping an open mind, suspending judgment, and questioning assumptions; seeking out information, technique, and perspective; and studying, practicing, and contemplating to build one's stored knowledge base, skill set, and wisdom
  • Problem solving: Mastering established best practices—proven repeatable solutions for dealing with regular recurring decisions—so as to avoid reinventing the wheel; using repeatable solutions to improvise when addressing decisions that are new but similar
  • Decision making: Identifying and considering multiple options, assessing the pros and cons of each, and choosing the course of action closest to the desired outcome.


  • Respect for context: Reading and adapting to the existing structure, rules, customs, and leadership in an unfamiliar situation
  • Citizenship: Accepting, embracing, and observing, not just the rights and rewards, but the duties of membership, belonging, and participation in a defined group with its own structure, rules, customs, and leadership
  • Service: Approaching relationships in terms of what you have to offer—respect, commitment, hard work, creativity, sacrifice—rather than what you need or want
  • Teamwork: Playing whatever role is needed to support the larger mission; coordinating, cooperating, and collaborating with others in pursuit of a shared goal; and supporting and celebrating the success of others.

Prioritize soft skills training

As you read the descriptions of the missing basics, ask yourself: What are the highest-priority behaviors for your organization, for your team, for different roles on your team, and for the various individuals on your team? Which behaviors are crucial to success? Which ones offer the greatest potential to increase competitive differentiation?

Once you've defined the high-priority soft skills for your team, in order, complete a competency evaluation for each employee, or ask direct reports to complete a self-evaluation, to get a sense of where your team really stands on these soft skills. On a scale of 1 (weakest) to 10 (strongest):

  • When it comes to natural abilities and inclinations, is this soft skill
    a natural strength? Or is it a natural weakness?
  • When it comes to learned skills, is this a skill that's been practiced and made strong? Or is it a weakness?
  • When it comes to experience, is this a skill in which a lot of experience has been gained? Or very little?
  • When it comes to interest and motivation, is this a skill in which team members are interested and motivated?

Like any skill, soft skills require a performance management and talent development system to improve them. Once you've identified the soft skills strengths and weaknesses on your team, create a structured improvement plan that is all about continuous improvement. If you want your employees to focus on high-priority soft skills behaviors, then you need to:

  • Set clear goals for specific behaviors.
  • Monitor and measure each employee's performance on those specific behaviors in relation to those goals.
  • Provide candid feedback, direction, and guidance on those behaviors.
  • Solve problems and troubleshoot when course correction is necessary.
  • Identify opportunities to improve on those specific behaviors while on the job.
  • Recognize and reward success on those specific behaviors.
  • Identify high performers for key assignments, opportunities, and promotions based on success on those 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.

Of course, every manager, team, or organization may have their own way of monitoring employee performance. Below is one successful basic teaching strategy I have seen.

  • Make employees aware: Name the soft skill and describe what that skill means to the organization.
  • Make employees care: Explore what the skill means to them and their role in the organization.
  • Sell it: Explain the "self-building" value of the skill.
  • Break it down: Spell out exactly what employees need to do, step by step.
  • Make it easy: Use ready-made lessons and exercises.
  • Involve the employee: Give them some kind of credit for self-directed learning.
  • Make it practical: Spotlight opportunities to practice on the job.
  • Follow up with coaching-style feedback to reinforce the lessons whenever possible.

Ready-made exercises and lessons can be found easily in the form of quizzes, worksheets, or other resources online, if you know what soft skill to specifically search for. Encourage employees to direct their own learning, and help others in the organization by finding their own learning resources to experiment with and share:

  • They can be given as take-home exercises to an individual or group.
  • They can be used to guide one-on-one discussions with direct reports.
  • They can be conducted in a classroom as written exercises or group discussions.

Some exercises may be such a good fit for the needs of a particular individual or for your team as a whole that you may find yourself returning to them over and over on a regular basis.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is a bestselling author and the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, a management research and training firm. He is the author of numerous books, including It’s Okay to Be the Boss; Not Everyone Gets a Trophy; and The 27 Challenges Managers Face. His newest book, The Art of Being Indispensable at Work, is due for release in the summer of 2020 from Harvard Business Review Press. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his website at

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