The Key Ingredient In Developing Good Soft Skills: Experience

These days when robots and computers can handle more and more technical jobs, our competitive edge as humans increasingly depends on non-technical soft skills. According to a research overview by the National Soft Skills Association, 85% of job success comes from “well-developed soft and people skills” while only 15% comes from technical knowledge. And Bruce Tulgan, founder of Rainmaker Thinking, writes for Training Magazine that “Nine times out 10, an unsuccessful hire fails due to soft skills, not hard.”

What are soft skills?

Soft skills refer to the capacity to work successfully within a group of people and a culture. The term most commonly refers to abilities such as communication, self-management, time management, teamwork, problem-solving, empathy, and ethics. It’s easy to understand why these would make even the most technical of employees more effective.

Can you learn soft skills or are you born with them?

Many hiring managers view soft skills as “unteachable.” Either you have them or you don’t. This attitude plays out in the job market. A study of 25 million unique job postings over one year by Burning Glass concluded that most job applicants don’t have key soft skills, particularly in writing and customer service. But according to a 2015 survey by Udemy, 72% of companies don’t bother to offer soft skills training.

Fortunately for those of us who aren’t natural networkers or good speakers, you can develop non-technical competencies. Unfortunately for corporate training programs, however, it takes more than a traditional course-centric approach.

Yes, you can develop soft skills – with one key ingredient.

Soft skills take practice. You can’t take a class on “good communication,” pass a test and become a good communicator. You have to deliberately work on the ability over time. Most people, for instance, who become accomplished public speakers have done so over years of giving presentations, not after just taking a course.

If you want to improve your team’s non-technical tool box, take the long view and help them get the experience that will hone their abilities. As a manager, you can apply some soft skills of your own to coach your people into better speakers, writers, listeners, or more.

Here are a few strategies:

Start with a good example.

It’s hard to nail these abilities down into a clean list of “do this or don’t do that.” So it helps to learn from someone who’s already good at it. For instance, if you’re asking your team to become better listeners, first show them what good listening looks like. If you’re not a great listener yourself, identify people who are and help the team see what they do differently.

Break out sub-skills.

Many soft skills are composite abilities. For example, coaching requires good listening, but also the ability to ask open-ended questions, explore a problem from different perspectives, and let your coachee find the solutions. A learner can practice this sub-skills one at a time rather than trying to master all the nuances of coaching at once.

Some skills are collections of good habits, as well. For example, people can get better at time management by adopting habits that decrease distractions and improve the efficiency of their workflow.

When you break a complex skill down into little abilities or habits, it’s much easier to focus on developing each one and building them up over time. If you’re not sure where to start, you can often find resources that will help you break down the sub-skills. (Check out this article for an example.)

Find ways to practice.

Soft skills take practice, which means you have to find opportunities for your team to exercise their developing abilities. When you assign a work task, set an accompanying learning goal. For example, in responding to a disgruntled customer, an employee can also try out problem-solving strategies.

People can work on their public speaking while giving presentations. They can practice explaining complex topics by mentoring new hires or develop teamwork by completing a project together. The opportunities will present themselves once you look for them.

And if you’re having a hard time finding suitable tasks at the office, try volunteering. Encourage employees to work on their skills while they’re supporting a cause they love. Just be sure to give them credit for their efforts.

Introduce feedback.

People will learn best from practice if they have feedback. As you establish a new ability, you need some sense of how it’s going.

Most people are terrible at self-assessment, so it’s crucial to get non-judgmental evaluation from a helper, such as a mentor, manager, or peer. As a manager, you can provide feedback through coaching or pair team members into accountability partners.

Rinse and repeat.

As I’ve already noted, soft skills take time. You’ll hone them for years. So you can’t expect at some point to brush off your hands and sigh with relief that your team has finally learned soft skills. But stay focused on small improvements and you’ll see the results stack up.

And don’t forget that as you’re helping the team improve, you’ll be working on your own leadership, mentoring, and management abilities, which coincidentally, are the top three desired skills named in Udemy’s survey. Well played.


Carol Bleyle
Carol Bleyle
CAROL handles client services and marketing for Software, a training platform designed to promote experiential, on-the-job learning and development. She works to realize the vision of turning the 70% of informal learning we do at work into a powerful training and development tool. With an M.A. in Cognitive Linguistics from the University of California at Berkeley, Carol views skills development through the lens of cognitive science and psychology And over the past 23 years, whether in traditional classrooms or on-the-go mentoring in her own company, Carol has constantly searched for realistic ways to make learning more natural and engaging. As a writer, trainer, consultant, entrepreneur and public speaker, Carol helps business owners find practical solutions to employee performance. She and her husband reside in beautiful Loudoun County Virginia with three energetic dogs and two lazy horses.

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  1. Like all skills, even soft skills can be learned, focusing on the analysis of the self and the interactions with the other. These are specific strategies that help the individual to self-analyze and focus on his strengths and weaknesses, thanks to the use of his own emotional intelligence. Self-awareness, emotion management, stress management, empathy, effective communication and problem solving are not just innate qualities. Surely there are those who have a greater or lesser propensity to use them, but we can all be able to cultivate them and enhance their potential in our professional and personal relationships. Unfortunately, however, these qualities, now so coveted and required, do not study at school, do not go into depth at the university, we must conquer them. Mostly they can be learned with time through experience. And this is a limitation.

    • Thanks for your insight, Aldo. I agree completely. Many people don’t think these skills can be learned, but that’s probably because traditional “schooling” ignores it.

  2. Hi Carol…. quick comment to say thanks for a straightforward and practical article on soft skills.

    Soft skills is a passion of mine and I love that you mentioned “You have to deliberately work on the ability over time.” Developing soft skills does take patience and its not highlighted enough in discussions.

    Keep up the great work! 🙂

    • Hi Andrew,

      Thanks so much for your kind words and for keeping up the passion for helping people focus on these crucial skills!