Whether you just graduated from college—congratulations!—or have accumulated years of work experience, you are just like the rest of us—you can always improve your soft skills. While soft skills are certainly a combination of talent and ability, you can always improve upon the ability portion of the soft skills you possess—that’s the good news.
In his book Bridging the Soft Skills Gap, training expert Bruce Tulgan defines soft skills as “a wide range of non-technical skills ranging from ‘self-awareness’ to ‘people-skills’ to ‘problem-solving’ to ‘teamwork” (8). Tulgan, author and founder/CEO of RainMakerThinking Inc., reminds us that “soft skills are all about the regulation of the self. They must be fully embraced in order to be learned” (Tulgan 29). Tulgan’s book provides a road map for employers and organizations interested in training and developing employees’ soft skills.
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- Identify which soft skills matter most to you.
Don’t take a shotgun approach to improving soft skills. You can perform a Google search and find countless lists of which soft skills matter most, but what you need to determine is which soft skills matter most to you. How do you determine that?
When you work with a career coach, you’ll be asked multiple questions to help you determine your priorities. Some of these questions might include:
- “Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years in terms of your career?” Understanding your career goals/journey can help you determine which skills you need to add or improve upon.
- “What feedback have you received during performance reviews and job interviews (or during follow-up conversations with recruiters/hiring managers)?” If you pay attention to feedback about your performance instead of blowing it off, you may pick up clues about which soft skills you lack or need to tweak.
- “Which soft skills does your company value and emphasize?” If three particular soft skills matter most to your current employer, take note. To succeed at work, earn a salary increase or promotion, or simply feel content with your daily job performance, align your values and mission with your employer’s.
- Determine where you stand before you begin training/developing your soft skills.
After determining which 3-5 soft skills matter most to you, evaluate yourself in terms of performance/ability of each soft skill. If communication skills matter to you, where do you measure up on a scale of 1-5, 1 being poor performance and 5 being excellent, consistent performance? Are you able to communicate verbally, non-verbally, and in writing clearly, consistently, concisely, comfortably, effectively, and appropriately in almost every situation? If not, this is a soft skill you might want to develop.
How should you evaluate your ability to perform each soft skill? You can do this in a variety of ways. Work with a career coach to use various assessment tools (some tools you must pay to use, and others are free). Search online for free assessment tools; proceed with caution when using free assessment tools because some are more valid than others. As Tulgan mentions in Bridging the Soft Skills Gap, you can informally assess your own soft skills by measuring your soft skills against others’ soft skills. I explain this strategy at length in the video. In his book Bridging the Soft Skills Gap, Tulgan notes the importance of having an “external objective standard against which to measure one’s reflection” (70).
Take stock of where you stand in each of these soft skill areas one way or another—using one assessment tool or another—but be sure you use some external objective standard. Simply put, we can’t fix the stuff in our heads with the stuff in our heads. That doesn’t work well in life, and it won’t work well when assessing and improving soft skills either.
- Develop an action plan.
Once you determine where you measure up in each of the 3-5 soft skills you’ve selected to work on, develop an action plan. First, check with your employer/organization to determine if they will provide/fund soft skills training or professional development for employees. Many companies and organizations understand the value of soft skills in the workplace and will help employees in this area.
If your company will not fund soft skills development, you may have to pursue soft skills training/development on your own. Reach out to a career coach for assistance. If you can’t afford to pay for soft skills training, check out the array of blog posts and videos available online. You may not make as much progress on your own as you would with the assistance of a coach, but any attempt at development is better than none. And finally, don’t forget to seek the help of a career mentor if you don’t have one already.
- Assess your soft skills after you’ve completed the training process to determine if more/different training is needed.
After you’ve put your plan into action and worked to improve your soft skills for a period of time, assess your soft skills again, using the same or similar tool(s) you used at the beginning. Where do you stand now?
Assessing yourself after training is important. You need to determine if training worked. If it didn’t, why would you pay for more training? Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. If something isn’t working for you, try something new or different. If you assess your soft skills and find that you’ve grown in 2 of the 3 areas, that’s wonderful! Keep up the hard work. “When you combine the necessary hard skills with the right soft skills, the added value is so much more than the sum of its parts” (Tulgan 58).