Most large organizations have some sort of formalized performance management system, and nowadays, more and more are extending those systems to include a more structured approach to talent development. The essence of performance management and talent development is simple: It’s all about continuous improvement.

Organizations with these types of formal systems typically start by setting long-term goals and then aligning those goals with each division, department and team. But at the individual level, employees usually spell out annual or quarterly goals for themselves. If they are serious about driving their own development, then they take the process further and create monthly, weekly and even daily goals. Usually, these goals are focused on key performance indicators related to the employee’s tasks, projects or responsibilities. Sometimes, these individual initiatives align well with larger corporate goals, but sometimes, they don’t. That’s why soft skills tend to be overlooked in the context of formal systems. Soft skills behaviors may not be spelled out explicitly or identified as specific goals in a performance management system.

Usually, when soft skill behaviors are spelled out – if at all – in a formal performance management system, it is in one of two cases:

  1. If an employee is failing to meet performance goals, then corrective measures might be spelled out in terms of his or her related sub-optimal soft skills behaviors. Often, however, it’s already too late. If you wait until an employee has demonstrated a track record of failure on a key soft skill behavior, the performance management system is probably going to serve simply as a way to document that failure and provide a paper trail to help fire that person.
  2. Soft skills behaviors might be included as part of an individual’s personal goals and/or for “professional development.” The problem here is that they are often the part of the employee’s performance goals that are given the least weight and the least attention. Employees are likely to give these goals weight and attention in direct proportion to how much the organization itself does.

Your employees – and you – can only focus on so many things at once. If high-priority behaviors are truly priorities, then you must make that clear in your performance management and talent development. Whether you have a formalized system or not, remember, whatever you measure, whatever has consequences and whatever is rewarded is what your employees are going to focus on.

If you want your employees to focus on high-priority soft skills behaviors, then you need to:

  • Set clear goals for specific behaviors
  • Monitor and measure each employee’s actual performance on those specific behaviors in relation to those goals
  • Provide candid feedback, direction and guidance on those behaviors
  • Problem-solve and troubleshoot when course correction is necessary
  • Identify opportunities to improve on those specific behaviors
  • Recognize and reward success on those specific behaviors
  • Identify high performers for key assignments, opportunities and promotions based on success with those specific behaviors

Your employees need to know exactly what is expected and required of them when it comes to high-priority soft skills behaviors – every step of the way. They also need to know that their performance will be measured and that the score will have real consequences for failure and real rewards for success.