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Measuring Soft Skills in the Workplace

Throughout this 18-part series, The Ultimate Guide to Soft Skills for Managers, we’ve examined the importance of soft skills in the workplace and how managers can build and use soft skills to improve employee engagement and boost business results.

How important are soft skills? In a study from Wonderlic, 93% of employers rated soft skills as either “essential” or “very important.” In another survey, employers rated soft skills like the ability to work in a team ahead of traditional “hard” skills. At the same time, this LinkedIn data revealed that 59% of hiring managers believe it’s difficult to find candidate with sufficient soft skills.

Graphic Showing Holding a Laptop and Asking QuestionBecause they’re so important,  there’s a strong desire to measure soft skills. Hiring managers want to know whether or not candidates are equipped with soft skills. Employers want the ability to quantify which team members have the “right” soft skills to excel and contribute fully. Employees want the ability to assess leaders and managers with more than a “gut feel” about them.

But how can you measure soft skills? They’re intangible, poorly defined, subjective, interpersonal, situational, and squishy. They’re related to emotions and relationships. They don’t show up on resumes and reviews. They aren’t taught in college courses or vocational schools. Unlike function-specific hard skills, there aren’t cause-and-effect outcomes that can be directly linked to soft skills. Demonstrating mastery of a soft skill isn’t as simple as following a step-by-step guide.

Nevertheless, attempts have been made to measure soft skills. These include:

  • Using assessment tools as predictors and indicators of emotional intelligence, communication, critical thinking, and other groups of soft skills. Most of these are self-assessment or self-reporting tools.
  • Using 360-degree feedback instruments to get input from those who interact most frequently with the subject of the feedback.
  • Using employee engagement surveys to gauge how committed employees feel to a manager and how effective they believe the manager is in creating a positive workplace.
  • Establishing metrics related to frequency for behaviors that exhibit soft skills (for example, number of times per week you praise an employee).
  • Creating elaborate rubrics to define exceptional, acceptable, and unacceptable demonstration of soft skills.

Even when these measures are in place, soft skills are still thought of intangibles. They’re seldom discussed. Most people don’t know how to talk about them and aren’t comfortable doing so. People with gaps in their soft skills are often blindsided the first time they hear that there’s a problem. They’re given vague feedback like “you’re just not a people person” or “we need someone who shows more leadership.” Then they’re left to their own devices to try and figure out what that means and how to fix it. Mostly, though, they’re confused because something that’s never been quantified feels arbitrary, personal, and optional.

It begs the questions: should soft skills be measured? If so, how?

 Before You Decide How to Assess Soft Skills:

The first of those questions is the more important one. Should soft skills be measured at all?

 This depends on how you’ll measure them and what you’ll do with the information. There’s no way around the fact that it will seem subjective and unfair to evaluate people on aspects of their personality. Soft skills are deeply associated with personality, so that’s the first issue to tackle.

It looks like a personality assessment if you’re measuring the way someone communicates, the approach someone takes to conflict resolution or problem solving, the amount of positivity or resilience someone demonstrates. That gets into red flag territory very quickly. Measuring personality traits is subjective and, therefore, subject to unconscious bias and favoritism. Be careful!

What’s more, who’s to say what any particular soft skill looks like when it’s been mastered? How do you define something like “good listener” or “highly organized?” When and how can someone demonstrate these skills since they are often influenced by the environment and situation?

Some additional cautions and questions to consider:

  • Once you set measurements and expectations for soft skills, remember that the evaluation goes both ways. If managers and senior executives aren’t consistently role modeling these soft skills, organizational credibility is at stake.
  • Since it’s all subjective, how will you defend hiring and promotion decisions based on measuring soft skills?
  • How important are soft skills vs. hard skills? If soft skills will always be overlooked in favor of technical proficiency, is it really necessary to measure them?
  • What will you do when someone doesn’t meet the expectations that have been set? Is a lack of soft skills grounds for progressive discipline and/or termination? Are managers equipped for properly offering feedback about soft skills without crossing over into dangerous territory that could sound like bias or unfounded concerns?
  • Are you prepared to support the development of soft skills? Are you adequately resourced with coaches to help people develop their soft skills? Will you offer training courses and job aids so people can improve in areas where your measurements say they are lacking?

We can make a fairly strong case for NOT measuring soft skills. That’s probably why so many companies choose not to measure them.

But even with all these red flags and questions, it’s still true that soft skills are extremely important and increasingly lacking in employees. Measuring them when hiring IS a good business practice. But how?

The Right Way to Measure Soft Skills

 As with all business metrics, the best practice is to measure only what matters. Sure, it would be nice if every employee in every role were strong in all the soft skills. But that’s unrealistic and unnecessary. Do your software analysts who work remotely and barely interact with people need to have strong listening skills? Probably not.

Once you’ve determined, by job, what’s necessary, you’ll determine the best way to measure soft skills of the employees in that role. Just like hard skills, the soft skills you need will vary by job. They should be in the job description, in the hiring process, on the performance review, and talked about in routine feedback. If they are truly job requirements that are worth measuring, they need to be identified in advance and baked into all your people practices.

Developing a consistent and fair way to measure soft skills is easier when it’s job-specific and clearly linked to job performance. Once the links are clear, you can better identify and convey what the actual expectations are. This is where a rubric approach comes into play.

A rubric is a scoring guide used to evaluate performance. It has criteria to be evaluated, a rating scale, and indicators. Check out this article from ATD for an example of a rubric used to measure soft skills.

With a rubric, you’ll pick the soft skills that are absolutely essential for a job. You’ll describe what they look like in practice. And you’ll assign a points-based system for evaluating demonstration of soft skills. Instead of “good listener,” you’ll have three descriptions that differentiate between poor listening, good listening, and exceptional listening. An evaluator can objectively assess which of the three examples is the closest match to the behaviors demonstrated by the employee. This is more objective than other ways of measuring soft skills. It also provides a blueprint for employees about what to aim for.

Specifically, here’s how you can use a rubric approach in three different scenarios: hiring, developing, and promoting employees.

Measuring Soft Skills When Hiring 

Behavioral Interviewing includes a selection process that has a rubric. It starts with pre-determining competencies (including soft skills) and then asking certain types of questions to determine whether or not a candidate has those competencies.

What Is Behavioral Interviewing?

Behavioral Interviewing (BI) is not the same as traditional interviewing. The questions you ask will be different, and the insights you get about your candidates will be more comprehensive and more useful.

BI is a technique for gathering specific information about what a candidate has actually done in the past. By probing real situations, you’ll ascertain whether or not a candidate has the skills, knowledge and traits needed to do the job.

When you ask BI questions, you won’t get scripted answers that fool interviewers. Instead, you’ll get examples and stories that illustrate exactly what the candidate did in a situation. The premise here is that past behaviors are the best indicator of future behavior. 

Here’s what happens in a traditional interview. 

Let’s use an example of a sales manager hiring a sales person. The sales manager in a traditional interview asks questions like “How effective are you at prospecting?” The candidate replies “I’m the best in our organization. I always have a full funnel, and I prospect every single day.” The sales manager likes that answer, hires that candidate, and finds out after they’ve started that their prospecting skills are grossly inadequate.

The candidate furnished the answer that the sales manager wanted to hear. It might even have been true. “Best” in one organization can still be worst in another. “I prospect every single day” provides zero information about the quality of those calls or what they produce. 

For contrast, here’s what happens in a behavioral interview.

First, you ask situational questions like “In your current job, how much time and attention is needed for prospecting?” When the candidate replies, you listen for a situation that is similar to the one you’re hiring for. If you need an experienced and confident “hunter,” you’ll know it might be a poor fit if the candidate says “all our leads are prequalified by marketing” or “we’re mostly responding to inbound leads.”

No matter what the candidate says about the situation, you’ll follow up to find out about the candidate’s own specific behavior. If the candidate described a situation where prospecting is required, you still need to know more about what this candidate actually did in that situation.

You’d ask, “What were your own routines or practices for generating new business?” You’re looking to hear details that describe what the candidate did -- not what was measured, what was ideal, or what others did. You want to hear a response like, “Each day, I ...” followed by specific actions. If you hear, instead, descriptions about generic guidelines, you press for specifics. If you hear “we” or “they” instead of “I,” the you press for specifics about the candidate’s own behaviors. If the candidate fumbles to try and give the “right” answer, it will usually be a series of generic ideals without personal, specific behaviors. That’s a clear sign, for you, that the candidate hasn’t mastered this competency or resists prospecting altogether.

Finally, in a behavioral interview, you’ll also ask about results. You need to know if the candidate understands the cause-and-effect between their behaviors and the outcomes produced. A question about results also clues you in on whether the situation and behaviors are being accurately portrayed. With a candidate in a role that demanded prospecting and describing behaviors that sound like the ones you want to see in your sellers, the results question would be something like “With those daily activities, what did you see long-term in terms of customer acquisition” Once again, you’re looking for very specific examples and details.     

Using these three questions, you have a BI Question Set. For each competency, you’ll develop a question set with a Situation, Behavior, and Result question (as shown in the table above).

Behavioral interviewing is proven to identify “best fit” candidates more accurately than traditional interviewing. Hiring for specific competencies also boosts the success rate of hiring. BI begins with determining the competencies needed for the job you need to fill.

What Is a Competency?

Competencies include skills, knowledge, and traits that are proven to enhance employee performance and success in a job role. Competencies are objective expressions of what it takes to be effective in a particular job.

There is no universal set of competencies that fits all sales jobs. Within your organization, different roles require different competencies. Back to our sales example – the competencies in any role will depend on the sellers’ interaction with clients, the sales cycle and complexity, the industry you serve, and more. SDRs and account managers, for example, rely on different skill sets and need different knowledge to excel. Sales competencies may include:


    Making cold calls, conducting discovery meetings, making compelling presentations, etc.

    Business acumen, understanding of the market, sales psychology, buyer industry, etc.

    Resilient, perseverant, competitive, empathetic, analytical, etc. This is where soft skills are most likely to be found (but not exclusively).

To determine which competencies are the right ones for each of your sales roles, observe the most successful sellers in those roles. What skills enable them to outperform others? What do they know that makes them more effective? What traits or characteristics do they display? Use this information to select no more than 10 core competencies for each job role.

Here’s something else to consider. You can, if you choose, develop sellers’ skills and knowledge through training, coaching and practice. You cannot, however, build traits in someone else. They either have these or they don’t. For this reason, many behavioral interviewers emphasize traits in their selection process.

Although we’ve used sales examples and functional skills to make this more concrete, this is all transferable to any type of job and to any soft skills.

Measuring Soft Skills When Developing Team Members

As a manager and coach, part of your job is to continually develop team members and help expand capacity. Developing people includes giving them routine feedback, stretch assignments, and support for continual growth.

As people set goals for their own professional development, encourage them to set goals for soft skills development. Most will choose functional skills development and may not realize the importance of building interpersonal and other soft skills.

With people development, promoting self-awareness and facilitating an interest in continual learning is extremely important. You want people to be intrinsically motivated to set their own goals and work to achieve them. Unlike goals related to getting immediate work completed, development goals should not be set by a manager. Each person should set their own development goals.

Once you’ve encouraged and facilitated goals related to soft skills, it’s also a good idea to get people thinking about their own measures of success. Most will be more committed to goals they set for themselves than they are to goals set for them. This is fully described in Patrick Lencioni’s book The Three Signs of a Miserable Job.

Measuring Soft Skills When Internally Promoting People into Next-Level Roles

Internal promotion processes are enhanced by Behavioral Interviewing, too. This objective process minimizes perceptions of unfairness and favoritism. It also provides an opportunity to better understand candidates’ perceptions about their own soft skills and how they are demonstrating them. This, of course, also leads to opportunities for coaching and development after the interviews are concluded.

Measuring with a rubric makes sense in all phases of employee selection and development. Giving feedback is the next logical step after measurements have been established.

Giving Feedback about Soft Skills 

Once you’re measuring soft skills and have clearly identified what they look like in practice (using a rubric), you’ll want to communicate to employees. Be sure to explain what you’re looking for and why. Then, provide routine feedback to reinforce what’s important and to support ongoing development in those areas you’re measuring. 

To give quality feedback and minimize the recipient’s defensiveness, keep these five tips in mind:

1. Don't Personalize the Feedback

 Avoid using the word “you” in a way that sounds like blame, shame, or judgment. Instead, say “we” or “I.” For example, rather than “You have to be more assertive” say “I’d like to see more assertiveness.” Yes, it’s a bit indirect. But avoiding the accusatory sounding “you” makes it much easier for the other person to hear, receive, process, understand, and positively respond to what you’re saying.


2. Don't Use Hyperbole or Generalizations

 You may be emotionally charged going into this conversation. Take a deep breath, pause, and step back so you won’t exaggerate or overstate what you’re trying to say. Avoid words like “never,” “always,” and anything ending in -st (best, worst, biggest, etc.).


3. Be as Specific, Factual, Objective, & Neutral as Possible

 Keep your tone matter-of-fact. Be straightforward in describing the situation as specifically and objectively as possible. Talk about the behaviors and not the person. For example, simply state what’s going in objective terms like “I’d like to see us improve our communication and avoid misunderstandings like the one we had this morning about what needs to be included in your weekly report.”


4. Describe the Impact of What You’ve Observed

Explaining why provides context and makes it easier for people to change. Criticism alone feels like being picked on and is easy to dismiss. Tell people why you’re providing feedback. Continuing our example from #3, you might describe the impact like this “It’s important for us to communicate openly and ask questions freely so we’re on the same page. Misunderstandings cause a lot of tension and rework, and we’re both too busy for that!”


5. Offer an Alternative & Ongoing Support

 This is where you offer some closure and comfort. State exactly what you want to see being done differently AND offer help so the recipient of your feedback understands your intention is to make things better, not to merely criticize them. For example, say something like “Going forward, I need to hear your questions and concerns right away. I’ll be sure and ask you for your input and reactions, and I want you to be assertive in getting any clarification you need.” When it makes sense, offer additional resources (training, coaching, tools) to address recurring issues.

Need a little more help on giving feedback and associated soft skills? Check out this free, on-demand webinar, one of the most popular in the entire PFPS library with thousands of views and 50 five-star reviews: 10 Reasons Employees Under-Perform and How to Turn Them Around. While you’re there, subscribe to Deb’s BrightTALK Channel (it’s free!) so you’ll always have access to new content that gets posted every month. 

Measuring soft skills requires soft skills. That’s why it all starts with you, the manager, developing your own soft skills and modeling them to others.  If you'd like to get an outside opinion, talk to Deb today about consulting with PFPS.

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