How to Coach Employees on Soft Skills

Jan 14, 2016
5 Min Read
soft skills coaching

soft skills coachingPeople 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 IT 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 IT 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. So in that case, you might tell the employee 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).