How do you measure a soft skill?

Last Updated: Sep 22, 2015 | Leadership

It’s essential for executives to possess soft skills such as the listening or connecting with direct reports and receiving feedback. Senior leaders frequently work on developing themselves in these areas. In fact, Daniel Goleman, author of the best-selling book Emotional Intelligence, says that at these top levels, the difference between a successful leader and an unsuccessful one is almost entirely due to their proficiency in these skills. Three of the most important soft skills include the following:

Emotional Intelligence is how you respond to others, listen, and communicate. One example of when emotional intelligence is crucial is during difficult conversations.

Positive Recognition and Acknowledgment is recognizing employees when they do something right. By acknowledging your employees for their hard work, you are showing them that you appreciate them.

Perspective is seeing things the way other people seeing them and understanding how they’re thinking. Actually listening to another person and hearing what they have to say is an essential for an executive. In addition to active listening, you have to be able to read them and the signs they’re giving you.

So you want to improve these critical soft skills. But how do you measure these things that are, by definition, not concrete?

We are asked this by clients all the time. Senior leaders are frequently working on developing themselves in these areas. How will we know when we’ve gotten there?

Some steps to help you measure a soft skill: 

1. Identify the skill desired specifically.  Often we throw words around without the specificity that would make them more easily studied and improved.  For example, we had a client Vince, a project manager of a Fortune 1000 company, working on improving his “emotional intelligence.”  Great – a wonderful topic for coaching.   But if we’d stopped there, we would likely have had him attempt to understand his colleagues on an emotional level in order to better communicate.   Not a bad approach, but not detailed enough to make it easier to work on, and not measurable.

When we probed deeper, we realized that he was actually quite able to identify how he and others were feeling about things.  Where he lacked skill was in altering his communication to account for those feelings.  For instance, he knew that his feedback to a direct report might upset them (awareness), but he wasn’t altering his style to make the conversation palatable to the direct report and therefore more effective.  He was more of the “I’ll just tell him straight and he’ll deal with it” school.  By identifying specifically that the awareness wasn’t the issue, but what he did with it could use some work, we gave Vince a more specific item to practice with his colleagues, i.e. softening the approach to the conversation.  This was something specific he could work on: he knew when it showed up and what to do about it. 

2. Determine what you want the end goal to be.  What will be different in the world when you possess more of this skill?  For whatever soft skill you’re working on, ask yourself: “If I had more ________, what would be different?”  For Vince, he said that people would just do things without having to be told (or yelled at).  OK, that’s a start, but don’t stop there: we asked him to get specific about it.   With some more questioning, we realized that there would be three specific things impacted: a monthly team report would get completed on time, his younger staffers would come ask him for advice, and the weekly team meeting would have more participation rather than just him speaking.

Now those things we can measure!  We can measure how much sooner a monthly report gets completed, how many people pop into his office each week seeking guidance, and how many people contribute in a weekly meeting.

What’s especially useful about these items is that they required Vince’s behavior to change in order to create the result.  The monthly teeth-pulling exercise of trying to get the team to complete its report on time hadn’t happened with any of his demands, cajoling, begging or reprimanding.  But once Vince started altering his communication and softening the entrance to his conversations, he found people responded more positively and the report got completed sooner.  (As a bonus, his softer approach also had people share ideas with him about what would help get it done sooner, so he became even more effective in having them complete it on time!) 

3. Rely on others rather than yourself.  While working with Gary, a Vice President working with his coach to become more approachable and build connection with his new team, we initially were tracking the number of times he reached out to his colleagues to connect/chat/get to know them.  We were initially tracking the things he did (calling or inviting someone to lunch, etc).  As he progressed and got traction there, we began to track the behavior of others.  In other words, “If I had more ________, how would others behave differently with me?”  We tracked the amount that others reached out to him, something impacted by his behavior shift, but more accurately reflected how his behavior was being received, since this relied on others to initiate the connection now that his demeanor was more open and approachable.

Frequently there is a level of self-awareness that can be improved when people are working on any of these softer skills, so relying on our own impressions or actions isn’t necessarily tracking a measure a soft skillbehavior shift.  Relying on others rather than ourselves is a more objective measure.

4. Track the items in a meaningful time frame.  Most soft skill shifts don’t happen overnight.  We’re usually talking about habits that have developed over years, or decades.  Altering them may take some time, though working with a coach will accelerate the progress.  Track your measures over a period of time that allows for them to shift.  Remember, you’re not just re-training yourself, you’re also re-training those around you about who you are and how you respond.  Rather than track the number of mentoring requests you get a day, consider tracking them weekly, or monthly, to see the impact over time and account for normal fluctuation. 

Now that you have a better idea of how to track these skills, try it for yourself. Let us know your favorite way to track a soft skill:[email protected]

If you want an outside eye, give us call to set up a consultation. 
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