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How to Improve Leadership & Management Skills: Start with Soft Skills

The number one, most frequent problem I hear as an executive coach is that people just don’t know how to improve leadership and management skills. It’s perplexing. The skills required to manage work being done by other people are entirely different than functional skills you mastered to do the work yourself. The short answer is that you need soft skills, like these, to be effective in managing.


Soft Skill





Hearing most of what’s said while multi-tasking.

Actively listening to process what’s said while preparing a response.

Empathetically listening to pick up on content AND emotional sub-text.

Emotional Control

Barely suppressing outbursts; body language that signals emotions.

Maintaining a neutral expression; redirecting emotional energy.

Appropriately expressing needs AND considering impact on others.

Asking Questions

Asking yes/no questions to compel agreement or compliance.

Asking questions to see if others are on track with your views and ideas.

Asking questions to truly understand others’ view and ideas.

Problem Solving

Avoiding problems and sticking to the status quo. “Admiring the problem” instead of solving it.

Putting out fires when they can no longer be avoided. Operating in triage mode.

Troubleshooting to stay ahead of problems and creatively solving the existing ones.


Doing your own share of the work and not getting involved with others.

Cooperating, as time allows, to complete shared tasks.

Collaborating for win/win outcomes for every member of the team.

Conflict Resolution

Avoiding all conflict and “staying in your lane” so there is less chance of stirring things up.

Handling conflict that arises to ensure group harmony.

Engaging in healthy debate and challenging group think for continual improvement.

Work Ethic

Doing the bare minimum to get by.

Occasionally exerting extra effort when the work is interesting or others are watching.

Consistent initiative and commitment, taking pride in the work you do and the results you achieve.

Customer Service

Seeing customers as a nuisance or distraction.

Doing what’s necessary to provide customers with adequate service.

Prioritizing customers to ensure they have a positive experience in every encounter.

Handling Stress

Being affected, day to day, by pressures that mount or stressful situations that arise.

Maintaining healthy outlets for stress and finding good work/life balance.

Developing strong resilience and ability to “not sweat the small stuff.”


Rigid and unbending in routines or policies, resistant to change or making exceptions.

Able to make changes when they are required, may not like change but will try new things.

Nimble, even when outcomes are uncertain or when dealing with ambiguity.



You’ll never come into your own as a manager or leader by using the functional, technical, hard skills that earned you this promotion. Those were you price of admission into a management role. You need these to understand the work others are doing so you can effectively coach them and monitor their work performance. But these skills are no longer enough.

The soft skills are the ones that best enable you to get work done through other people. It takes strong communication, critical thinking, conflict resolution, assertiveness and influence, change management,  and interpersonal skills to lead people. These skills are often overlooked in supervisory skills training courses. In many organizations, managers are left to fend for themselves and expected to figure it all out on their own.

That is, of course, unfair. If you’ve never learned these skills or had an opportunity to practice and perfect them, you can’t expect to instantly acquire them by virtue of your new title. You have some work to do. It starts by discovering which soft skills you should work on. 

How to Know If You’re Lacking Any Essential Soft Skills 

Yes, the first step in figuring out how to improve leadership and management skills is to identify which soft skills you need to work on. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Identifying what you need could be the most difficult part of the work you do.Graphic Showing Error in Laptop

That’s because more than 90% of people are thought to have a “blind spot” that becomes a career roadblock. Most of the common roadblocks are related to soft skills, not technical skills or functional proficiency. The problem with blind spots is that you can’t see them for yourself. They don’t get fixed because they don’t get recognized or acknowledged. Often, the people who observe them are unwilling to tell the person with the blind spot. Soft skills are harder to talk about than hard skills because they seem more personal.

Make sure you don't have a blindspot when it comes to your soft skills or style. Take the free, self-paced course called The Essentials of Personal Effectiveness to build transferable skills and improve the quality of workplace interactions. You’ll get a report back that flags any potential blind spots and offers some advice for moving past the roadblock to get your career back on track. You can also get a copy of this eBook that goes deeper into these roadblocks and how, left unchecked, they become toxic in the workplace.

There are, of course, other indicators. Here are some of the warning signs that you have work to do when it comes to your soft skills:

  • People aren’t doing what you’ve asked them to do.
  • Team members seem to be holding back in meetings, not giving their input.
  • Workplace morale is low and attitudes are negative.
  • The employee engagement survey shows significant room for improvement.
  • The rate of turnover on your team is higher than the company average.
  • You have to micro-manage the work or it doesn’t get done right.
  • There is infighting and internal competition between members of the team.
  • Problems aren’t getting solved and keep resurfacing.
  • There is backlash and resistance to the decisions you make.
  • Your peers aren’t including you in discussions that might affect your team.


Many managers find it’s beneficial to participate in a 360-degree assessment like The Leadership Practices Inventory®. Observers share more when a confidential survey gives them a chance to comment on a leader’s behaviors. You can use this instrument to get a baseline and see which areas you should focus on to become more effective.

A coach can also help you identify the gaps. Consider bringing in a coach to shadow you and observe what you aren’t able to see. (No one, btw, can see their own behaviors the way an outsider can!) Hearing someone’s observations is not easy, but it’s a great way to accelerate the process of zeroing in on the soft skills you lack. Just think of it this way – if professional athletes benefit from a whole cadre of coaches, couldn’t you benefit from one, too?

There are very few people who have mastered all soft skills. There’s no shame in not being fully developed in this area. You should be a work in progress, and you won’t be if you try to pretend you’re a finished product.

Sadly, when managers try to present themselves as a finished product, they cast blame on employees rather than considering that they, themselves, might be the real problem. So let’s talk about those “problem employees.” 

Problem Employees: Is the Problem Really Them? Or Is It You? 

As an executive coach and management trainer, there are seven types of “problem employees” I hear about most. They are:

  1. The Needy New Hire...

    ...who relentlessly questions everything. This “problem employee” taxes busy managers because they make mistakes, don’t know what to do or how to do it, stumble while learning and navigating team dynamics, struggle to find their place, require training and shepherding, and seem different from the person who showed up at the job interview.
  1. The Constant Critic...

    ...who grouses about everything. This “problem employee” frustrates managers by questioning and pushing back against policies, procedures, paperwork, culture, colleagues, decisions, expectations, norms, and feedback. Seemingly unpleasable, this employee also wears out co-workers with all the negativity and devil’s advocate responses.
  1. The Apparition...

    ...who seems absent even when present. This “problem employee” seems disinterested, disengaged, disloyal and uncommitted. It appears that this employee is merely “going through the motions” or doing the bare minimum to get by.
  1. The Pogo Stick...

    ...who’s always up and down when it comes to performance. This “problem employee” befuddles managers because you never know which version of the employee you’re dealing with. At times, this employee is too good to lose. At other times, this employee is too bad to keep. Managers get their hopes up, and then get disappointed over and over again. What’s more, this employees ability to “turn it on” means that some never see the other version.
  1. The Untrustworthy...

    ...who doesn’t even seem to realize that trust has been breached, and that it’s a big deal. This “problem employee” isn’t necessarily dishonest or lacking integrity. More likely, they have exhibited poor follow through or violated one of the other 12 Dimensions of Trust.
  1. The Maverick...

    ...who doesn’t abide by norms and standard practices. This “problem employee” is a little too self-reliant and may even be defiant. Managers may admire this employee’s creativity but are also burdened by the clean-up work they have to do when protocol violations trigger cries of “unfair” or result in mishaps.
  1. The Change Resistor...

    ...who worships the status quo and won’t budge even when change is positive and necessary. This “problem employee” slows transitions down and fatigues managers who just want change to be implemented swiftly and easily.

If you have any of these “problem employees” on your team, you’ve got to ask yourself one very important question. Be honest.

Do you really have problem employees… or… do you have a problem with putting people first?

Every one of these problems could be (and more often is) the result of poor management or neglect. If you’re not applying soft skills to set expectations clearly, communicate regularly, give feedback routinely, and explain decisions transparently, YOU are the problem.

Harsh, I know. But blaming “problem employees” and labeling them in these ways won’t really help you to succeed. You can replace a “problem employee” today, but you will undoubtedly have another one tomorrow. These common problems stem from poor soft skills or neglect in the management ranks, not in the employee base.

That’s why highly successful teams train and equip managers with appropriate supervisory and soft skills. It’s why they have strong cultures of accountability for managers. And it’s why they focus heavily on building and sustaining high levels of employee engagement.

This on-demand webinar, How to Handle 7 Types of Problem Employees, will give you a fresh perspective on how to interact with and view renegades, chronic complainers, inconsistent performers, and others who make your job more challenging.

It’s Time to Take a Hard Look at Your Soft Skills 

Before you jump to conclusions about problem employees, you really should look in the mirror. What could you be doing differently that would produce different results from the team? What soft skills could you improve so that you are more effective in drawing the best and most out of others? What shifts do you need to make so you’re not over-relying on the hard skills that are essential for frontline contributors?

The umbrella term “soft skills” includes most skills associated with management and leadership. The characteristics of people we admire and choose to follow are not related to their hard skills. Sure, we expect them to be competent (and you already are!), but that’s not what inspire us.

For deeper level work on your supervisory skills, including soft skills, you can access Workplace Conversations, a self-paced online course for managers. It’s comprehensive and includes the same 16 modules as the two-day workshop by the same name that’s been completed by thousands of front-line managers in companies of every size. If your company doesn’t offer classroom instruction in supervisory skills, this is one way you can invest in yourself and get a solid return.

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