Most managers don’t spend much time talking with their employees about soft skills development—unless they are dealing with a specific instance of failure. Right? When do managers most often talk with their direct-reports about matters of self-management or critical thinking or people skills? When an employee is late or dressed inappropriately or loses something or fails to follow through or makes a “stupid” mistake or curses at the wrong time or has a conflict with a customer or a coworker… or something else that is a petty failure.
That’s why managers often say things like, “Do I really have to talk to my employees about these things? They are adults. They should already know how to manage themselves and solve problems and play well with others.” Sorry. You really have no choice. If you are in charge of anybody, then it is part of your job.
At the very least, you must build into your regular management routine time to talk about the high-priority soft skills. These conversations should occur during team meetings, as well as during your ongoing one-on-one dialogue. Focus on the high-priority behaviors in your organization, your team, in each role, or those that are particular focal points for particular individuals. Trumpet the broad performance standards regularly.
Managers often ask me, “At what point can I back off on giving them so much attention?” My answer: “Whenever you want to start losing that employee’s best efforts.”
To be sure, some employees need more attention than others. But they all need your attention. The superstars want to be recognized and rewarded, but they also want managers who are in a position to help them do more, better, and faster—and earn more for their hard work. Meanwhile, low performers are the only ones who don’t want their managers’ attention, but they need it more than anyone.
Finally, mediocre performers—the vast majority of employees who are somewhere in the middle of the performance spectrum—often they don’t know what they want from a manager. But the fastest way to turn a mediocre performer into a low performer is to leave that person alone without any guidance, direction, support or coaching. Your job is to lift up all those employees and help them do more work, faster, and better every step of the way.
Bottom line: You can become a true champion of soft skills by becoming a teaching style leader. Make teaching/learning the soft skills basics an explicit part of your mission and goals for your team going forward:
Talk about what’s going right, wrong, and average every step of the way.
- Remind everybody of broad performance standards regularly.
- Turn best practices into standard operating procedures and teach them to everybody.
- Use plans and step-by-step checklists whenever possible.
- Focus on concrete actions within the control of the individual employee
- Monitor, measure, and document individual performance in writing.
- Follow up, follow up, follow up, and provide regular candid feedback.
- Ask really good questions.
- Listen carefully.
- Answer questions.
- Get input.
- Learn from what your employees are learning on the front line.
- Think through potential obstacles and pitfalls – make back-up planning part of every work-plan.
- Anticipate and prepare.
- Train and practice.
- Strategize together.
- Provide advice, support, motivation, and even inspiration once in a while.