how to coach an employee on soft skills

People succeed or fail in the workplace based not just on core job skills but on softer skills too – how well they get along with others, how well they communicate with peers or other departments, how they listen, emotional intelligence, and other interpersonal skills that are crucial to performing well.

But all too often, managers who are perfectly comfortable coaching an employee on how to improve her writing or her programming skills shy away from tackling soft skill deficits. Don’t let that manager be you! Here are four ways to coach an employee who needs to shore up in these areas.

1. Articulate the area for development. This might sound obvious, but sometimes just naming the area that you’d like the person to work on (or the different behavior that you’d like to see) can be powerful. For example, if your I.T. manager is struggling to communicate clearly with other departments, you might explain that while she’s great at talking with the experts on her own staff, she needs to be more effective at communicating with non-technical end-users so that they get the information they need to make good decisions.

2. Be clear about why the skill matters. In many cases, soft skills aren’t an optional add-on, but are as much a core part of successful performance in a role as, say, expertise with a particular software. After all, an employee who is abrasive, doesn’t get along with peers, or is otherwise difficult to work with can be as disruptive as one who misses deadlines or turning in sub-par work. But if you don’t take the time to explain this impact, the employee may be frustrated or resentful at hearing criticism for things that “aren’t about the work” – so be sure you explain how it is about the work.

3. Describe what improvement would look like. It might be obvious to you what improvement would look like; after all, in the I.T. director example above, if you’re skilled at explaining technical concepts to non-technical people, adapting your language for different audiences might feel like second-nature to you. But by definition, it won’t come as naturally to someone who’s currently struggling with it, so take time to clearly describe what you’d like the person to do differently. In this case, you might say that when talking to non-technical people, she should stop using jargon, focus more on outcomes than process, and check for understanding.

4. Check in periodically, and be sure to reinforce progress. After you’ve articulated the issue and described what change you’d like to see, make sure you stay engaged on the issue. That might mean simply observing and giving ongoing feedback, more actively coaching the person, or giving positive reinforcement when you see changes. That last part is especially important — if you notice the person making the changes you asked for, it’s key to recognize it. That could be as simple as, “Hey, you did a nice job explaining to Brian why we can’t integrate the functionality he wants into their existing task tracking app, and what we could do instead. You really helped him understand why your proposal was a good path forward.”

In addition to ongoing feedback, you can also reinforce the importance of soft skills in more formal performance evaluations as well (again, making sure to connect it back to the results the employee gets).

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 70 comments… read them below }

  1. simonthegrey*

    My husband was told he won’t advance in his position right now because of how he is perceived (they said it nicer; this was his take-away). He was upset by this, but they’re right. I love him but he comes across as blunt and very problem-solving-oriented, and it can rub people the wrong way. I wish I knew his manager enough to send him this.

    1. M. S.*

      Oh.. I was perceived in a bad way (However never to my face – when I could address the issue in context).

      It soured me on many of the people I though were friends and managers. They had issues with people’s “perception” of me (and I had issues in my perception of my self).

      Let me guess – Your hubby is in IT/IS ? I was (I’m not in a different dept) and that’s EXACTLY the way I was seen, Blunt.. Unfriendly.

      The simplest things can make HUGE differences.

      1) When sending an Email – Instead of diving into the issue in the 1st line, a simple “Hi Mary,” can make BIG perception changes.
      2) Use neutral ways to describe things – Instead of “This code sucks”, “Your solution is wrong”, Use “The code you’ve supplied has some issues.”, “Thanks for you solution, But it has some issues. You may want to try ….”

      It REALLY makes a difference.

      If he can get sent to a 360 assessment course (I did one at Ekard College in Florida) and it was eye opening. You get semi-anonymous feed back and partake in exercises to do team building.

        1. M. S.*

          Yeah.. Loved the experience. For the 1st time in almost 10 years at my company I got some HONEST feedback. I was able to put most of it to use too.

      1. Sam*

        +1 billion! IT curse over here!

        At least when it’s the personal stuff, I’m okay. But once it’s “work” time, I tend to be very black and white- which some people read as cold and unfriendly. When it’s pointed out and I ask for an example, I got vague things like “you’re email was cold” and “you made so-and-so feel bad”. Or worse, the fact that I asked for an example seems confrontational.

        But when I started adding “Hi Chris” and “thanks!” – magically my emails were “warmer”. Also “That’s a good idea but here are some things to consider if we go that route” works really well instead of “I considered that but that won’t work”

      2. simonthegrey*

        Worse – he was but is now in a customer service type position. He’s also a little on the spectrum (brought up by school counselors but never diagnosed formally) and he will definitely say that he doesn’t understand wasting time in small talk. 100% engineer brain.

        I’ve coached him on using nonverbal cues (he also has a resting irritation face) such as faint smiles and nodding when others are speaking to him, instead of fixing them with a stare (or not looking all together).

    2. BobtheBreaker*

      I get this a lot, too. And it is (EVAR!!!!). It virtually never comes with any kind of specific correctable conditions. Perception is Reality, and Impressions are Persistent. Whenever I get this, I generally consider it the Death Knell of my career there, bad culture fit.

      1. Ad Astra*

        I have always loathed hearing the phrase “perception is reality” in feedback because, uh, no it’s not. I would respond so much better to something like “Relationships are really important to your success here” or “We value the social part of our work, too.” Don’t tell me “People think this thing about you so now that thing is true.”

        1. Frustrated ENTJ*

          Thank you for pointing this out, and I completely agree. I heard this so much when I started in the working world, and it confused me to no end. I’d hear that there was a perception that I was unresponsive or not helpful when in fact I had amazing metrics… ???

          What finally helped me was when a different manager shared that I would need to alter my communication style with different people – that it was probably my all-email default was making people think they couldn’t come to me in person for questions or call me. That specificity changed my thinking from “I can’t fix people’s perception if their perception is WRONG” to “Oh, I need to demonstrate that I can be helpful and responsive in different ways.”

    3. Stranger than fiction*

      Same with my significant other. He really should have been a director years ago but is stuck in a senior pm role and still does a lot of directing without the title, and I think this is why. it’s really been getting him down lately but none of his bosses have ever come out and said it.

  2. TreeSilver*

    We have this exact issue with an employee in our department now, and have been struggling to identify some sort of structured training that could be a good resource for developing soft skills. Any recommendations?

    1. Teapot*

      I’m also interested for myself. The advice that I have gotten is stuff like take acting lessons, smile more, etc.

          1. AnonEMoose*

            And I know that’s not the way it “should” be. I will (politely) disagree with my current supervisor if we’re talking one on one, or bring up things it sounds like he may not have considered. But he has demonstrated that he expects me to do this and supports me in doing so. And I can tell him, in so many words, if something is frustrating to me. Unfortunately, my experience in the workplace is that this is relatively rare. So, if I’m dealing with an unknown quantity in that respect, I’m going to play it safe.

    2. Stranger than fiction*

      My only tip is a pretty common one: Sit on emails a bit before sending. If you’re one of those knee jerk reactor types or just plain have a habit of coming across gruff, write it, read it, and rewrite it until it sounds soft enough that the recipient shouldn’t be able to take something wrong like you were throwing someone under the bus or being too curt or whatever. This has been a hard habit for me to make but I’m sure it’s saved me lots of times.

    3. UK Nerd*

      My boss sent me to join the local Toastmasters club. I was initially horrified by the whole idea, but ten years later I’m still a member. Additional bonus: I can also do Powerpoint presentations that don’t send everyone to sleep.

    4. Dr. Johnny Fever*

      Yeah, I do recommend acting classes, improv classes, ToastMasters, or some other activity that gives you an outlet to begin to get comfortable with being in front of people, speak dynamically, and learn to relax and be yourself in the process. In some cases you may find classes called Executive Presence or something along that theme that combine some of these techniques.

      As you progress, communication becomes key as work switches from execution to strategy and direction.

      I came into IT through the humanities and arts; one of the ways I stood out immediately was my comfort level running meetings, asking questions, adjusting communication to multiple audiences, and thinking fast on my feet. That all came from choir, theatre, and debate.

      1. Dr. Johnny Fever*

        Oh! If you have an option, look into taking a basic communications class (like Intro to Comm) or a Business Communications class. There are a tons of models and cultural assumptions that go into our communications (verbal and non-verbal) that we do every day without realizing it. Intro to Comm breaks those down so you learn how they affect your message and how it is received.

        Business Comm helps you tailor that information specifically within the workplace.

        If you aren’t able to take a class, head to the textbook section of your local thrift store. Chances are you can find communications and organization behavior textbooks for a few bucks – they are quite common for donation along with old math texts.

  3. Anna*

    In my work I meet regularly with employers and when we ask for feedback on how our students are doing or what they see as lacking in their new hires, it is ALWAYS soft skills. They literally say they can train people how to do the tasks of the job, but it’s much harder to train soft skills and they are sorely lacking.

    1. JMegan*

      I once had a manager who hired almost exclusively on soft skills, with that same rationale. Including one person who was temping for the summer at reception, and had zero previous training or experience in our field. We were surprised by his choices more than once, but he was really good at it, and built an incredible team.

      In contrast, we had another manager on the same team, who hired exclusively by the book – and by “the book,” I mean the super-structured, fully quantitative, government interview format. Whoever got the highest technical score got the job, no further questions asked. And his hires, while technically competent from the beginning, were never a good fit with the team. They got the job done, but just never seemed to feel comfortable hanging out and chatting with the rest of us – which is not important in every job, and not even necessarily important in that job, but it was a big part of the culture of that office.

    2. Libervermis*

      I teach college, and I’ve been bringing in more explicit soft-skill practice with my students because many really struggle with these intangibles of communication, eye contact, working with people they don’t like, working in groups generally, problem solving before coming to me, etc. Also looping the instructor in on something before it becomes a crisis.

      Academia has its own set of norms that don’t always align with those in the professional world, but whenever I can I try to pattern my policies off the kinds of things that will be expected of my students in the workplace, and tell them so. I hope it helps, and am always looking for new ideas – soft skills don’t come super naturally to me, so I know the kind of work it takes to develop them but also that they can be developed.

      1. fposte*

        But that’s why it’s so great to learn soft skills in academia–it’s an easy way to get a competitive advantage. I say this with a certain amount of amusement, but it really is true.

  4. neverjaunty*

    This is a GREAT article. And really needs to be emphasized for people who think ‘maybe he’s introverted/has Asperger’s’ is a reason to avoid expecting soft skills from an employee. Concrete, clear coaching is exactly what is helpful to people who don’t naturally have those soft skills.

    1. Teapot*

      It helps when the manager displays the desired skills themselves, and views coaching as a learning tool to help the employee. Some of us have had bad experiences and view this sort of thing as the manager teaming with HR to document and get rid of the employee.

      1. neverjaunty*

        It certainly can be abused, and sadly often is when “soft skills” means something like “we expect people of your gender or ethnic group to be nicey-nicey rather than being as blunt and assertive as white guys”. But if you read the article, AAM’s point is that concrete, specific coaching is about a thousand times better than vague noises about how an employee needs to be ‘nicer’, or rejecting an employee who could be easily taught these soft skills.

      2. Maxwell Edison*

        This. Lack of soft skills and vague, never-substantitated claims of “insubordination” were used to force out several people at Former Employer (I’m guessing it was a mere coincidence that all these people were women of a certain age and pay bracket). I ran afoul of it myself when my manager told me that tilting my head when I walked in the hallways was disrespectful and going on my PIP.

  5. Lily in NYC*

    Ugh, my entire dept. needs soft skills training. Except for one guy, they are all a mix of socially awkward and condescending. I’m fine with socially awkward people but not when it comes with a heaping dose of condescension. They are disliked by the other depts here and people come to me to complain about how obnoxious they are in meetings. At first I wondered if I should tell my boss that people are complaining, but she’s the one who hired these people and to be honest, she’s very blunt and curt and people don’t like her all that much either (I like her but I’ve seen her be pretty cold/harsh). So I decided to keep my mouth shut and I just don’t bother engaging with them much. But they always want me to go to their happy hours because I’m the only one who can keep a conversation going and it’s so painful.

  6. Argh!*

    After years of being told “Be yourself” people are expected not to be themselves. Perhaps we should stop telling people to be themselves.

    1. Anna*

      If being yourself means you’re not connecting at all and people don’t want to work with you then probably yourself needs a tweak.

    2. Anonymous Educator*

      You’re not supposed to be yourself at work. You’re supposed to be the professional version of you.

      Be yourself with yourself and those closest to you. You do have to modify your behavior when you’re with acquaintances and strangers, or when you’re in public spaces or in the workplace.

      1. Ihmmy*

        ^^ this x1000. Be your best self, not your lounging in PJ’s and messed up hair self. Be your work self, not your talking-baby-talk-to-animals/young-people-self. Be your office self, not your bedroom self.

      2. Mallory Janis Ian*

        I wish someone would get this through to some of my family members, like my sister and one of my brothers, in particular. We grew up in a very strict household where we really weren’t allowed to be completely ourselves even at home. Two of my siblings waaay overcorrected for this by never, ever requiring their kids to be polite or pleasant or presentable in any way, shape, or form. They could have corrected more toward moderateness, but noooo, they had to go to the opposite extreme.

      3. aebhel*

        This. I’m an opinionated, blunt, and pretty foulmouthed person by nature, but I make the effort not to act like that at work because it actually isn’t at all important to me that my coworkers know ‘the real me’ and it makes my life easier if I can get along with everybody at my job. It’s the same reason I don’t wear ratty jeans and geeky t-shirts at work, the same reason I cover my tattoos.

    3. fposte*

      I don’t think “be yourself” ever means “don’t be thoughtful about how you behave,” though. And we’re just talking about learning specific skills and actions–you’re not less you for knowing how to work a conversation any more than you are for knowing how to work a spreadsheet.

    4. LQ*

      I’ve always thought “be yourself” is the weirdest form of advice. It is the least concrete and solid thing. It, to me, has always seemed like a way to sell books and bs. I am awesome, but I can be more awesome and why would I want to stop growing and improving? “Be yourself” actively discourages growth and development, it says that people can’t change, it says that if you are an abusive asshole everyone else should just deal with it, or be abusive back.

      I totally agree that we should stop telling people to “be yourself”. I think that most people are able to handle a nuanced converstion about how to interact with the world, and those who don’t are much better off with concrete examples. “Smile the first time you meet people unless it is a Sad Occasion*” “Shake hands for 2-4 seconds firmly, but without increasing grip strength” whatever…

      *Followed by an official Sad Occasion list.

      1. fposte*

        Yes! It’s also suggesting that there’s some immutable core of truth, when really skills you’ve learned well enough to internalize become “natural” and they feel unnatural when new.

        It’s particularly annoying that “Be yourself” is so often told to adolescents, whose whole developmental challenge is figuring out just who they are.

        1. A Bug!*

          Yeah, I think it’s the result of an oversimplification and misapplication of actual good advice.

          I feel deeply uncomfortable if I climb into bed without brushing my teeth, but when I was six, I would do pretty much everything I could to resist it, even going to ridiculous lengths to pretend I’d brushed my teeth without actually doing it. If “who I am” is a collection of immutable properties, then was I resisting my true self at six, or am I resisting my true self now?

          The answer is, of course, that “who I am” is more than my predispositions and aversions, and as a human being with sentience and free will, I have the privilege of being able to choose to influence my own behaviour. Today I’m not the person who I want to be, but the choices I make will bring me a step closer tomorrow.

          The topic of how “be yourself” ought to be explained to kids is a separate long diatribe.

      2. Mianaai*

        Plus, there’s the fact that I think a lot of us engage in, essentially, social code-switching. “Myself” at work is different from “myself” when giving a presentation, is different from “myself” when at home with my partner, is different from “myself” when socializing with my student government friends, is different from “myself” when socializing with my geek friends… The vocabulary, tone, body language, and personality traits I choose to use or highlight are different in each of those situations.

        1. Pennalynn Lott*

          Yes, this exactly. Whenever someone tells me to “just be yourself”, I always want to ask, “And which version of me would that be?”

      1. Anna*

        Hm. I don’t agree. I’m pretty much myself with my husband and he’s pretty cool with it. And when that means I’m a jerk, I apologize because even though being myself may sometimes mean I’m a jerk, that doesn’t necessarily make it okay.

        I’ve always taken it to mean “feel comfortable about who you are.” But yes, that does still mean don’t treat others poorly.

      2. Mallory Janis Ian*

        I’m also pretty much myself when I’m at home with my husband and kids. I’m not ever completely un-self-monitored, though. I mean, if I expressed annoyance or peevishness as often as I feel it, there’d be a lot more discord at our house. So even at home, I’m myself, but I’m my ‘be-patient-for-the-sake-of-domestic-tranquility’ self.

    5. Jaydee*

      I always thought “be yourself” was more like “be true to yourself” or “don’t try to change your core traits/beliefs/preferences for someone else” not “if it feels good to be a jerk, then just be a jerk.” I thought it applied to situations like dating where you go out with someone who loves opera or grew up in a huge family and wants 7 kids. You don’t pretend to love opera just to impress them, and you don’t pretend to want 7 kids when you’re really not sure you want any. In the work world, when someone says “Terry, you are the best Teapot Tipping Tester we have, you should apply for the Teapot Tipping Tester Trainer opening!” I think “be yourself” means feeling comfortable saying “Actually, I think I would be terrible at training others to test teapot tipping. I love testing teapots, but my real passion is for the process. If there were an opening for a Teapot Testing Process Planner, I would apply in a heartbeat.”

  7. Parfait*

    The skills in the picture don’t look terribly soft. I was hoping they’d be made of marshmallows.

  8. OriginalEmma*

    I struggle with the soft skills part of my job. Some days I feel like I’m killing it with the appropriate social pleasantries and behaviors. Other days I’m emotionally exhausted and just want to behave how I naturally behave without acting.

  9. Cautionary tail*

    I had someone, years ago, who could fix teapots faster and better than anyone else. And they would regularly belittle people about breaking the teapots in the first place and about a host of other things too. I embarked on a multi-year soft skills training process and he got much better.

    Fast forward to 2015 when I met him again and saw he was working for an overlord who valued technical prowess above all else and despised treating others with respect. The two of them get on famously and now leave a trail of destruction in their wake as they insult, belittle and backstab anyone in their path, forcing things to be accomplished their way. It just rattles my sabre.

    Cue music: dun dun dun, dun duh dunn dun dun dun.

  10. F.*

    The problem seems to be that some people are results-oriented and some are relationship-oriented. I am results-oriented, and that rubbed a previous manager the wrong way so badly that she did conspire successfully to get rid of me. I got the job done and done well, but she wanted to have three-hour long staff meetings where she emoted, cursed (we clandestinely played swear word bingo!) and otherwise accomplished nothing except have a captive audience for her cathartic hystrionics. When I was told that I was “abrupt” in emails, I asked for specific examples of what to do and not do, and she answered with a very abrupt, one-word email. While I do understand the need to be polite and maintain good working relationships, I do not take to being micromanaged even to the point of telling me who I could and could not eat lunch with. By that point, I knew there was no hope for my career there and waited her out until she laid me off. It was definitely a bad culture fit, at least in that department. In contrast, I get along very well with my coworkers where I currently work. Makes me wonder exactly who had the problem.

    1. Anna*

      I think you’re conflating good soft skills with shitty management. I can be abrupt in emails, but I also know how to not be abrupt in emails so when I do it I make sure I’m not coming across as a jerk. Also it’ not so much a dichotomy. A results-oriented person still as relationships and relationship-oriented people still get results. If it were really you either one or the other, not much would really get done.

    2. fposte*

      Yeah, I’m agreeing with Anna. I’m deeply results-oriented but I still think soft skills are very important, and most of what you’re saying isn’t about why they’re not but why your manager sucked.

      1. neverjaunty*

        Right. And “results-oriented” and “relationship-oriented” aren’t polar, binary opposites where never the twain shall meet. I am also results-oriented, but building respectful relationships with others is an important part of getting good results.

        1. fposte*

          Totally agreed. I also think there’s a possibility that results-oriented people have a shot at coaching these skills better, because we’re likelier to have broken them down into conveyable tasks than people who just intuitively are that way.

      2. F.*

        No, I was not implying that soft skills are not important. I was actually hitting on two things: 1) Management can and does abuse “you need to improve your soft skills” when they can’t fire someone they simply don’t like who is getting the job done well; and 2) Sometimes the soft skills deficiency is not in the employee so much as the manager, as evidenced by the fact that I found a new job where I fit in quite well and have been promoted twice in eight years, all without leaving behind a trail of destruction.

        Soft skills are VERY important. The brilliant a$$hole is worthless unless they are a complete hermit who never has to interact with others.

        1. Anonymous Educator*

          It sounds as if your problem, then, isn’t actual soft skills so much as so-called “soft skills.”

      3. Ad Astra*

        I usually hear the opposite of relationship-oriented described as “task-oriented,” which I think makes a little more sense. It’s still more of a spectrum than a dichotomy — the most successful employees tend to fall somewhere in the middle or find jobs where leaning strongly to one side or the other is a good thing.

        For as social and chatty as I am, I’ve learned that I’m not great with professional relationships. I have to make an effort to soften my emails (especially the ones where the message is really just “I’m leaving at 3” or “Your project is approved”) and I’m still trying to figure out how to nurture relationships in a way that’s strategic and not just based on who I do and don’t like. This got a lot easier when I left my old job, which had a very formal hierarchy and expected me to defer to more senior employees a lot more than what I was used to.

  11. Stranger than fiction*

    Someone should do an anthropological type study on how ones soft skills change or evolve depending on where they work. I’ve changed a ton at my present job in response to my environment. I’m snappier and short tempered more than I’ve ever been but at the same time my boss responds similar to the same stimuli and totally gets me. That would never fly some places but it’s kind of understood here.

    1. newreader*

      Good point. At a previous position, I was so overworked and stressed that many soft skills went out the window while I just tried to get it all done. My current role has a more manageable and reasonable workload, allowing time to utilize more appropriate soft skills. Environment certainly can be a factor.

  12. Ihmmy*

    now if only I could teach client/customer types to be better with their soft skills instead of getting mad at me, it would be grand!

  13. AnonEMoose*

    It took me awhile to understand the importance of soft skills. I tend to be task oriented in the workplace, and when I’m incredibly busy, no matter how much I like you, I don’t want to hear about your weekend. I’m also introverted, so happy hours and the like are just not high on my list. That, plus previous supervisors who were unable or unwilling to give specific examples or feedback really didn’t help much.

    I finally mostly got it sorted out with a previous boss. Who was not a good boss in many ways. But at least she was willing to give specific examples. That helped. And I sat down and thought “I like this job and want to keep it. If that means I have to be soften some things (even though, if I were male, what I’m currently doing would probably be fine), then I’m willing to do that.”

    So I started never being the first person to speak up about something in a meeting. And phrasing things as questions more. Plus a few other things. And pointing out to said boss what I was doing. Eventually it became habit. Some years down the road – I’m still at this company. She’s not. And my current boss is fine with me being blunt with him, so it worked out well in the long run.

  14. Anamou*

    What about when it’s your boss that desperately needs the soft skills? How do you manage up successfully and/or provide feedback without alienating your boss?

  15. Vicki*

    >>”so be sure you explain how it is about the work.”

    And if it isn’t about the work, keep your “coaching” suggestions to yourself.

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