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Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success

There are a LOT of workplace soft skills to choose to develop. But misunderstandings about soft skills could lead you astray.

Before you can master soft skills for workplace success, there are a few myths to dispel.

Misunderstandings About Soft Skills in the Workplace

First, master these five misunderstandings about mastering soft skills at work:

  1. Emotional Intelligence is the same thing as soft skills.
  2. Soft skills are only needed in service, healing, and high-contact professions.
  3. Soft skills are all you need.
  4. Women are better with soft skills than men.
  5. Extroverts have a natural advantage when it comes to soft skills.  

Graphic Showing Too Much Talking1. Emotional intelligence is the same thing as soft skills.

Soft skills do have crossover with emotional intelligence. But soft skills encompass so much more. In the introduction to The Ultimate Guide to Soft Skills for Managers you’ll find a list of soft skills and a breakdown of how they differ from hard skills.

When it comes to the misunderstanding that soft skills and EI are the same thing, perhaps the best way to differentiate is this: Some soft skills require preliminary work on some aspects of emotional intelligence AND emotional intelligence can be enhanced by working on some soft skills. Though not interchangeable, EI and soft skills are interdependent. Broadly defined, EI is an ability to be aware of + control + express your own emotions and to handle interpersonal relationships effectively. So it’s easy to see how it can get confused with the general term “soft skills.”

2. Soft skills are only needed in service, healing, and high-contact professions.

Because soft skills get confused with emotions, they sometimes get sidelined. Professions where it might seem like people don’t need soft skills include jobs that involve

  • Logic
  • Numbers
  • Technology
  • Science
  • Systems
  • Machines
  • Processes

Not true! Soft skills serve you well in any profession. Fields where there is a lot of interaction with people may, indeed, require more frequent use of soft skills. But those fields are not the only ones where you’ll need these abilities.

3. Soft skills are all you need.

By contrast, there is no free pass that comes from soft skills. No matter what your profession, there are technical/functional (hard) skills that are essential. Soft skills alone are not enough. This myth is sometimes applied in sales, with a mistaken belief that a “sales personality” is all that’s needed to succeed. Not true! There are technical skills that make even the most “natural” sellers better.

4. Women are better at soft skills than men.

The gender myth is a prevalent one. But women do not have automatic access to soft skills. Nor do men have a predetermined gap in them.

Soft skills are available to anyone and everyone who chooses to work on them. Furthermore, the term “soft skills” is a broad one -- broad enough that most people have some that come naturally and some to work on (regardless of gender or any other demographic characteristic).

5. Extroverts have a natural advantage when it comes to soft skills.  

The last myth is, perhaps, the most prevalent. The association between personality and soft skills leads to a conclusion that people with “big personalities” have a lock on soft skills.

Extroverts who are outgoing, comfortable around people all the time, and seek out social engagements do not have any more or any less soft skills than others. In fact, some extroverts have big gaps in their soft skills -- they may be “life of the party” storytellers but lack solid listening skills, for example.

The Introvert’s Advantage

Introverts prefer to have some time, alone or with their “inner circle,” to process information and ideas. They don’t like to be “on” all the time in large groups or with a focus on them.

But that doesn’t mean that introverts lack soft skills. Some are excellent communicators. Some are empathetic. Some are strong in their critical thinking, conflict resolution, handling of change, or other soft skills.

For introverts who lack some communication skills, they can be the complicating factor of being uncomfortable with intense interactions or speaking in front of a group. That’s why you’ll find so much advice online, in books, and elsewhere for “Communication 101 for introverts” and other basic-sounding support. There are tons of resources like this webinar, which explains how and why to powerfully use your voice in meetings and when you have something to add.

For some introverts, that’s exactly what they’re looking for. (Sorry, extroverts, you won’t find “Communication 101 for extroverts” because the widely held assumption is that you’re already good at it!). But not all introverts lack basic communication skills. They may choose not to use those skills as often or as publicly, but don’t misinterpret their rationing for lacking.  

If any distinction is to be made when it comes to soft skills development, I think it’s more accurate to say that introverts may  have an advantage.

The introvert’s advantage is the way they take information in and process it. They typically prefer to think things through and reflect before speaking or acting. Reflection is a key ingredient for one very important competency (more below). It’s also an opportunity to evaluate a situation and process:

  • Observations
  • Thoughts
  • Experiences
  • Motives
  • Options

Doing more thinking -- so long as it doesn’t create unnecessary delays -- has the potential to improve decision making and outcomes.

Maybe this is why so many leaders are introverted. That brings up another myth we need to dismantle ... that leaders are charismatic and “larger than life.” It’s not true. That may be the persona some leaders project publicly, but not all of them are extroverted. Many leaders are more reserved, introspective and demure than stereotypes suggest.

Research from CPP Inc with 122,800 leaders ages 28-70 found that people in the C-suite represent all 16 of the Myers-Briggs personality types. Introverts lead. When they do, they often create vision and put complex pieces together because of their reflection and thoughtful evaluation of opportunities and problems.

Introverted or extroverted, everyone can work to develop additional soft skills. There’s a universal advantage that comes from having a robust tool bag of skills to choose from. But where to start?  

The Power of Compensator Competencies

Again, there are a LOT of soft skills to choose from. If you’re planning to work on soft skills, here are two that make for a good starting point: active listening and learning.

Korn Ferry International describes these as “compensator competencies.” They compensate when you are lacking in other skills. They offset the gap with something valuable enough that others will overlook the gap (at least temporarily) while you work to develop the missing skills.

Here’s an example. Maybe you’ve known someone like Dinah who is an excellent listener. She picks up on the emotional cues and notices when there seems to be something left unsaid. She devotes her complete attention to the person speaking, and she asks probing questions that demonstrate genuine interest. People trust her, almost instantly, because she is such a good listener.

Dinah’s listening skills compensate for some big gaps in other competencies. She calls listening her “superpower.” Dinah isn’t a polished presenter, and she’s not comfortable speaking up to voice her opinions in meetings. She doesn’t “think on her feet.” So why do people want her at so many meetings? Because she listens well and asks the questions that reveal information others would miss. When Dinah is in the room, everyone’s contributions improve because they know she’s really listening.

As she moves up in the organization, Dinah knows she’ll need to keep working on presentations and on contributing her own ideas “in the moment.” Her superior listening skills won’t compensate forever or in every situation. But they have served her well in building trust and workplace relationships.   

How’s Your Active Listening?

Active listening is when listeners suspend their own frame of reference and fully focus on the speaker’s without:

  • Drawing conclusions
  • Making assumptions
  • Thinking ahead to their own reply

Most of us are guilty of partial listening. Ineffective listening impedes our effectiveness, causes misunderstandings, results in rework or errors, and diminishes others trust in us. Do a little self-assessment with these 10 warning signs that you’re not listening as well as you could be.

Passive listening is when we hear what’s being said but fail to process it fully. It’s when we selectively listen for key words and allow ourselves to be distracted by other things going on around us or in our own heads.

Active listening is when we fully engage and focus on what’s being said. When listening actively, our brains (not just our ears) are involved. We process what’s being said.

Empathetic listening takes it up a notch. This is when you engage your brain and your heart as you listen with your ears. You notice subtle cues that reveal emotional context. You pick up on body language that suggests more than the content of the message itself. You feel as well as hear what’s being shared.

When you actively listen (at a minimum), you form stronger connections with people. They feel heard and respected. They trust you more because they see that you’re interested in them.

The most common mistakes people make when listening to others are:

  1. Thinking of something else, daydreaming, or mentally multitasking. This happens because our brains think faster than other people talk. That extra processing ability tricks us into thinking we can be effective listeners at the same time that we’re doing other things.

  2. Planning our response to what’s being said. Here again, our speedy brains get in the way of slowing down to devote our full attention to what’s being said. While planning your response, you may be missing some additional information that would change your response.

  3. Looking for something familiar in what’s being said. We do this because we want to bond with others. We seek what we have in common. Then, when we hear it, we pounce on it and steer the conversation. We inadvertently signal that we value our experience more than what the speaker was sharing.

  4. Having an agenda that drives what we listen and respond to. This includes having a preconceived notion about what the speaker is sharing. It takes away from our objectivity in listening with an open mind. As a result, we hear what we want to hear and interpret it in a way that fits our agenda.

When you focus more intentionally on listening actively and with empathy, you will connect with people in profound ways. Your communication and collaboration will dramatically improve, making you more effective in everything you do. And, since active listening is a compensator for other competencies, you’ll also benefit from getting grace when you’re lacking.

To build stronger listening skills, start by getting an assessment that identifies your listening habits. The ECHO Listening Profile will be a game-changer for you. 

How’s Your Learning Agility?

Learning agility is the ability and willingness to learn from experience, and then apply that learning to perform successfully in new situations. (Definition from Korn Ferry competency research)

This not the same as learning ability. Being able to learn is one thing. Being astute and flexible to apply what you’ve already learned in a variety of ways is another thing altogether. It’s learning agility. Learning ability gets you to a certain point in your career. Learning agility gets you past that point.

Learning agility comes in handy when you are faced with a new problem and don’t know what to do ... if you manage to figure it out, using similar situations and ideas that worked on other problems, then you’re using learning agility.

In “The Lessons of Experience,” researchers reported that the “glaring difference between successful people and those whose careers falter ... is their ability to wrest meaning from experience (i.e. learning agility).”

To develop learning agility, there are four important steps. These are the things that people who are learning-agile consistently do well. You can think of these as the piece parts of learning agility.

  1. Learning agile people are critical thinkers who examine problems carefully and look at them in new ways.
  2. Learning agile people know themselves and are able to handle tough situations.
  3. Learning agile people like to experiment and can deal with the discomfort of change.
  4. Learning agile people deliver results in first-time situations through team building and personal drive.

According to one researcher, learning agility requires an ability to digest a large volume of information quickly and be able to spot what’s most important. Then you are nimble in accessing what you’ve known or learned in the past so you can apply it to what’s new and different.

The Center for Creative Leadership concluded that learning agility is more important than ever. It’s essential for “adapting to new business strategies, working across cultures, dealing with virtual teams, and taking on assignments that demand flexibility.”

CCL frames learning agility as a mindset with corresponding behaviors that allow a person to continually develop and access new strategies for the increasingly complex problems they will encounter. In their assessment tool, used to measure learning agility, they consider five facets -- four that enable learning agility and one that impedes learning agility. These facets are:

  • Innovating – questioning the status quo with the purpose of discovering new and innovative ways of doing things; generating new ideas by viewing issues from multiple perspectives.
  • Performing – learning while working through an unfamiliar challenge, handling stress and ambiguity to adapt in order to perform effectively.
  • Reflecting – because it’s not enough to have an experience, getting feedback and processing information to better understand your own assumptions and behavior to generate insights.
  • Risking – venturing into unknown territory and putting yourself “out there” to try new things; pioneering with risk that leads to opportunity (vs. thrill-seeking).
  • Defending – This is the derailer of learning agility! Remaining closed or defensive when challenged or given critical feedback prevents you from developing learning agility.

When you become more learning agile, you can expect to become more original, more resilient, and more focused.

If you’d like to learn more about learning agility and take a self-assessment of your own learning agility, check out this paper from the CCL.

DIY Resources for Building Your Soft Skills

Not many businesses offer soft skills training on an ongoing basis. Not many college courses focus on soft skills development. That means it’s up to you to find resources for building your own soft skills.

Each of the tools below can be used individually or with a team. Here’s a list of options to get you started. Contact PFPS for help accessing, interpreting, or applying these tools.

1. Listening Skills

For listening skills development, there’s no better starting point than the ECHO Listening Profile. You’ll take an online assessment and receive a profile, plus coaching to help you identify your dominant listening habit(s). Then you’ll learn how to modify what you do when listening so you become better at it!

2. Communication Skills

For broader communication skills, check out this basic communication skills webinar. This is a recent addition from PFPS, delivered in response to community members’ requests. It’ll help you ID specific gaps in your communicating and ways to work on them. It’s a good tool for team lunch-and-learn sessions, too.

3. Conflict Management Skills

For conflict management skills, the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Instrument (TKI) gives you insights about your likely response to a conflict situation. It also reveals other responses and helps you understand how you can improve your effectiveness when others enter into the conflict differently than you do.

4. Your Behavior

To understand how others are perceiving you, the 360-degree assessment tool we recommend is the Leadership Practices Inventory® (LPI). This one gives you feedback about your behaviors, so it’s objective and clear about specific changes you can make.

It’s for leaders at every level (not just managers, like so many other 360s).

5. Collaboration Skills

To build collaboration skills, start with the Myers-Briggs Type Assessment (MBTI). Don’t waste your time with the free knockoffs you’ll see on the Internet. The low cost of a valid assessment is well worth the investment. You’ll get incredible insights into yourself and others.

6. Critical Thinking Skills

To improve critical thinking, take a look at this video series with mini-lessons about all aspects of decision making, problem solving, and building your mental might.

7. Emotional Intelligence

To develop emotional intelligence, take the Emotional and Social Competence Inventory (ESCI) from Korn Ferry. It’s based on the work of Daniel Goleman, a pioneering research in EI.

8. Finding Blind Spots

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.

9. Tackling Specific Goals

To work on specific goals, work with a certified coach who can guide you on developing goals, overcoming obstacles to those goals, and crafting an action plan.

Now, Take Action!

Whatever you do, take action. Intentions won’t build your soft skills. Plans won’t help you improve your workplace success. Action will get you moving down a path to stronger skills that will make you successful.

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