Motivate People to Develop Soft Skills

Sarah Flesher

Did you know that research into Fortune 500 CEOs revealed that "75% of long-term job success depends on people skills, while only 25% on technical knowledge"? IF you want to improve performance in your employees, you need to take steps to enhance their soft skills. As you're no doubt well aware, you can hardly impose improvement from above. You can offer training, but real progress requires motivating your workforce to take the training and implement what they've learned.

What Are Soft Skills?

Soft skills are also called professional skills, generic skills and essential skills. Like many of the things I've been writing about lately, soft skills are hard to define. It's common to define them by what they are not. Hard skills are technical and usually job- or position-specific. Soft skills are everything else and tend to be:

  • Hard to distinguish from personality and character traits: Is punctuality a skill or a matter of character? How about creativity?
  • Difficult to teach and measure: Soft skills are often a combination of highly complex skills, such as critical thinking or project management, and attitudes that fall into learning's affective domain.
  • Transferrable: Although certain soft skills are more important in some positions than others, most soft skills have value in any position at any organization.

Soft skills are wide-ranging, falling into multiple categories including:

  • Communication skills: listening, writing, presenting
  • Critical thinking/problem solving
  • Interpersonal skills: ranging from conflict resolution to persuasion to intercultural awareness and sensitivity
  • Team work/working with others
  • Leadership
  • Organizational skills
  • Project management
  • Creative thinking/entrepreneurship/innovation
  • Ethical reasoning

What's the Problem?

Last week, I wrote about motivating people to take training. Why a separate article for soft skills? Because soft skill training presents a specific difficulty.

Bloggers often bemoan employers' tendency to assume all is well with the soft skills of their workforce and overlook the opportunities presented by further training and development. But what do employees think? Employees aren't always sure about their coworkers, but they're pretty confident that their own soft skills are up to par. Well, somewhat better than that, really.

In a survey of recent Canadian graduates, a statistically implausible 93% rated their skills in continuous learning, writing and thinking as above average. This presents your average Learning and Development (L&D) department with a problem. How do you motivate employees to engage in training to develop skills that they believe they already excel in?

Let's start by breaking down the issue of people's self-assessment of their soft skills. Why is it so inaccurate? I believe there are two factors at play. First, there's the innate human tendency to overrate our abilities. The theory of 'depressive realism' suggests that the people most likely to accurately assess their own abilities are those with mild to moderate depression. It seems that accurate self-assessment isn't entirely healthy.

Next, there's the well-known Dunning-Kruger effect. Since "the knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task", people who are particularly poor at the task usually rate their performance highly because they lack the ability to recognize good performance.

So where does this leave the L&D professional? In order to motivate employees to engage in soft skills training, we have to find some way to overcome their initial assumptions and convince them it has something to offer.

Five Ways to Motivate People to Develop Their Soft Skills

Here are five ways to convince people that soft skills training has benefits for them.

1. Hire people who are already motivated to learn

Michael Hansen at eLearning Industry suggests you start at the beginning by considering a candidate's willingness to develop soft skills in your hiring decisions. You might wonder why you shouldn't just skip the training and focus on hiring people with excellent soft skills. Soft skills can and should continue to develop throughout a person's career. In the long run, you're usually better off with an employee with acceptable soft skills who recognizes the value of soft skill development than with one who has stellar soft skills right now but sees no reason to continue working on them.

2. Involve employees in your Needs Analysis (NA)

If the problem with motivating employees to take soft skills training is that they don't see the need for the training, start by asking them what they do need. Not only will this help them acknowledge that the training offers support for real problems they're experiencing. but it encourages them to buy in and engage with the program.

3. Write meaningful learning objectives

The training program's learning objectives should be another place where the program's benefits are clearly stated. Focus on specific problems the training will help learners overcome. In particular, knowledge objectives should focus on the higher functional levels of Bloom's taxonomy: applying, analyzing and evaluating, more than remembering and understanding. If you'd like a primer on writing learning objectives and Bloom's taxonomy, read How to Write Effective Learning Objectives.

4. Use effective and engaging learning strategies

Soft skills require practice as well as knowledge. Choosing the right learning strategies can go a long way to motivate learners to engage with the training. For soft skill training, consider:

  • Simulation games: Give employees the opportunity to practice decision-making and explore consequences in a risk-free environment.
  • Microlearning: When learners seek out a short module on presentation skills while working on a presentation, they not only develop their knowledge of soft skills but get an immediate opportunity to practice what they've learned.
  • Opportunities to practice and reflect: Get managers on board with your training schedule. After a session on teamwork, ensure employees are assigned a team project. After and during the project, give them the opportunity to discuss their progress with their manager.

5. Improve learners' self-assessments by increasing their knowledge

Do you know the solution the Dunning-Kruger effect? It's training! As people learn more about the skills they lack, they begin to recognize the deficiencies in their own performance. Of course, the problem we're discussing here is how to get them into the training in the first place.

Two strategies for motivating poor performers by overcoming the Dunning-Kruger effect are:

  • Make training mandatory: This strategy has its downsides and should be exercised judiciously, but it can be effective.
  • Encourage employees to complete pre-tests: Once they find out their skills aren't as impressive as they thought, people are usually more open to improving them. There is a caveat to this approach as well; the goal is not to simply tell people that their skills are poor, but to explain what good skills look like. Motivation comes from feedback, not failure. An effective pre-test might focus on a single skill or a small subset of skills and end in a mini-lesson on enhancing the target skill.


Soft skill development is essential to good performance in any position, yet most employees find it hard to believe they need improvement. If you want to improve the soft skillset of your workforce, start by selecting employees who are open to the idea of learning. Next, involve them in every step of training program development, identifying the problems they're experiencing and clearly stating how the training will help them. Finally, pick the most effective learning strategies to help them learn what superb soft skills look like.

📘 Ready to Elevate Your Learning Strategy?

Explore our comprehensive library of eBooks and tools on learning resource development, competency-based learning, and LMS implementation. Transform your training programs with insights from industry experts and practical templates.

Sarah Flesher

Sarah, our President, graduated from Concordia University in Montreal with a BA and an MA in Public Policy and Public Administration and completed her doctorate in Educational Technology. Sarah brings over 15 years of operational and management experience to her role as President at Base Corp. She works collaboratively with organizations to develop strategic learning plans, determine training requirements. When she doesn't have her nose in a book you can find her at the gym, on the ice, on the ski hill, drinking wine or in a coffee shop … with her nose in a book.