In case you missed it, please see part one and two of out blog series on “soft skills”, as we now move into part three, which is often the place where clients have the most trouble:

3. Difficult to measure objectively/provide feedback

One frequently cited barrier to discussing, training, and reinforcing soft skills, like those mentioned by Eikenberg, is that they are difficult to measure in an objective manner. Because of the variations in definitions, like those described above, employees are left uncertain as to what expectations are around soft skills, have not been trained on those skills, haven’t been provided useful feedback on those skills, and yet are required (and often evaluated) based upon their leadership, communication, collaboration, or time management. This can lead to employee dissatisfaction and disengagement: if I don’t know what’s expected, how to do it, or how I’m doing, why am I being punished? And why should I keep trying?

Managers, too, can become frustrated while trying to evaluate soft skills. Being a manager is a difficult task without adding this ambiguity: they’re often following up on productivity, regulatory compliance, problem behavior, and often don’t have time to observe and provide opinions on these fuzzy concepts when concrete dollars and cents are at risk. They’re also being held accountable by their bosses; not on whether their employees are collaborating well, but if deadlines are being met and profit margins are high. Their behavior will gravitate towards those things that impact them the most, and unfortunately soft skills rarely make the cut on the list of priorities.

How do we do better in business?

If you’ve taken the time to define these soft skills, both personally and organization-wide, you’re halfway there. You now have a list of concrete, observable behaviors that can be used when evaluating employees, managers, and leaders on the skills on question. But a list is only a list: we need a system in place to provide feedback in a way that gets the behavior change we are looking for.

First, since you have good definitions, you should be able to measure the occurrence or nonoccurrence of a soft skill. Managers should be, in an ideal world, regularly observing their direct reports, and therefore should be able to answer questions related to the soft skills of those individuals. “Did the employee communicate about project priorities this week? Did they speak up in the goal-setting conversation?” You should be able to observe these things that represent the skill of collaboration, and even look at permanent products to verify (i.e. look for the update emails). You can collect data and provide feedback based upon the definitions you’ve agreed upon, and the subjectivity is then removed from the feedback interaction. “Hey, I see you have forgotten to send your project updates to the team this week. In order to collaborate most effectively, we would appreciate if you could send your update as soon as you can.” “You weren’t really engaged in the goal-setting meeting today, as you didn’t speak up and were looking at your phone. Our organization puts a lot of value on these collaborative meetings, so if there is anything we can help with or can do to encourage your participation in the future, we’d love to hear from you.”

Second, based upon your definitions, can you describe what the perfect example of this behavior is? How about an “okay” example? Or a very poor example? If you can do this, you’re ready to start developing a Behaviorally-Anchored Rating Scale (BARS), which can be used to make more subjective behaviors, or collections of behaviors under a single umbrella term like leadership, more concrete. Let’s say you wanted to provide guidance on leadership behaviors, specifically around effective feedback delivery. Given the occurrence or nonoccurrence strategy above, you may end up being misled… Yes, perhaps they delivered feedback, but was it a quality feedback delivery?

I usually develop my BARS in a matrix format. Across the top row, I label the components that I consider essential for the soft skill being discussed. For effective feedback delivery, I could use timeliness, specificity, action-based, and agreement (which will be based on what your culture sees as best-practice in feedback delivery, and this is just a sample of dimensions of feedback for the sake of brevity).

Then, on the leftmost column, I could elect to use various scales: high-medium-low quality, excellent-above average-average-below average-poor, or others. And you would add points depending on the performance, allowing you to rank one performance over the next. For simplicity in this example, we’ll use the first, with three levels of performance, and point values of 0, 1, and 2.

Now we’ll begin providing a definition for each cell in the matrix. What does high-quality timeliness look like? Medium? Low? Then do the same for specificity, and so on. And always remember, you should be able to observe what you are defining! 

Voila! You’ve created a scale by which you can evaluate the quality of a behavior! Notice that each box is objective and defined in a way that consistency can be achieved across multiple raters. You can develop these for soft skill aspects that may not lend themselves well to a simple “did it happen or not?” inquiry. The specificity within the dimensions of the behavior in question helps managers provide feedback on specific ways the employee can improve what they’re doing, rather than more general feedback (i.e. “Good job”). This also allows us to collect data on each instance of the behavior, and see measurable improvements over time.

Establishing a system by which to measure and provide feedback on soft skills is essential to remove the confusion and ambiguity that often surrounds and confounds managers and employees alike. By clearly defining the behavior, and specifying what quality performance looks like within your specific organizational culture, you can more easily measure when the behavior occurs, and when it occurs in an effective way. This can be a game changer for businesses: you can now provide feedback to employees, track progress and skill development, and create trainings on soft skills, making them more concrete and less soft.

To be continued…