Most organizations recognize the need to train new employees with the technical skills they need to perform their jobs: how to use equipment, perform work tasks or complete complex procedures, for example. While these “hard” skills are fundamental to an employee’s performance, industry research and surveys show that employers more often have concerns about gaps in employees’ so-called “soft” skills. Some of the most important soft skills that today’s employers desire are:

  • Teamwork and collaboration
  • Oral and written communication
  • Analytical reasoning and critical thinking
  • Complex problem-solving
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Ethical decision-making

When a performance gap exists, it is up to the leadership team to recognize the gaps and partner with the learning and development team to explore ways to fill them. But all skill gaps aren’t equal when it comes time to address them. Why is it easier to develop new hard skills, such as a new procedure or task, than it is to develop a new soft skill, such as active listening?

Here are five key challenges to soft skills programs and how to overcome them.

1. Soft skills are hard to measure.

It’s easy to know when a learner has mastered a skill such as how to use a software – you ask them to do the task, and they perform it. You can use quantitative measures for these skills. Creating assessments for a soft skill like time management is just as important but more nuanced and contextual.

Overcoming the challenge: When developing training for soft skills, focus on scenario-based knowledge checks; role-plays; and other context-based, qualitative measurements of learning. For example, you could provide managers with a checklist of observable behaviors to look for in employees.

2. Hard skills training can be “one-and-done.” Soft skills take repeated effort.

For any training program, follow-up and follow-through are key to making a lasting change in behavior. For soft skills, such as leadership skills, real growth will only occur after repeated practice, feedback from others and much reflection.

Overcoming the challenge: Rather than building a short-sighted training event, create a long-term learning program. For example, plan opportunities to reinforce and extend the learning over the course of a year with incentives for continuing to participate, rather than expecting the change to happen overnight.

3. Some skills are harder to learn than others.

While almost anyone can learn certain hard skills, such as computer programming, developing soft skills can feel nearly impossible – but it’s not. Shy people can develop themselves into powerful public speakers. It happens all the time.

Overcoming the challenge: Motivation to change is key to developing soft skills that are not a natural part of an individual’s personality. Soft skill training programs must include a strong, clear “what’s in it for me?”, also known as the “WIIFM.” If learners understand that by developing the soft skill, they will further their personal aims and goals, they can learn anything.

4. You can teach someone to fish, but you can’t teach them to enjoy fishing.

Hard skills such as balancing an accounting ledger do not depend as much on learners’ personality traits. Developing soft skills (like relationship-building) requires understanding themselves, seeing the need for change, having a desire to change and developing the new habits that solidify the change.

Overcoming the challenge: Never rush into soft skills training. Learners must decide for themselves to change, learn and develop new habits. They may not like it at first, but once they commit to the change and practice, the new skill will take hold.

5. It’s not about you; it’s about me.

Soft skills such as communication skills are deeply rooted in people’s personalities and are related to their habits and life experience. Without an understanding of self and how experience influences habits and soft skills, learning could make participants feel inauthentic and fake.

Overcoming the challenge: The best way to learn a soft skill is to be a part of a team. Working with leaders or other experts who can model the skill helps learners see what “good” looks like in action. It also offers opportunities to practice and receive feedback. Rather than trying to force-feed soft skills training, provide experiences where individuals can learn through observation and practice over a period of time, receive periodic feedback, and reflect on their learning and development.

As you think about increasing your organization’s ability to master soft skills, consider the importance of motivating the learners by showing a WIIFM; including modeling, practice, feedback and reflection in activities; building in ways to measure success; and reinforcing training over time. You’ll soon find that soft skills aren’t as hard as you thought they were.