How to cultivate soft skills in your IT team

Use these strategies to build the soft skills your IT team members need to succeed
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Career wisdom about developing soft skills is often bestowed with an unspoken catch: You’re on your own. These skills, which comprise areas like communication and empathy, prove hard to define and measure – and the burden of developing them appears to fall squarely on individual employees.

But if soft skills are as valuable as we think – and in the age of the IT organization as a strategic business partner, it follows that these skills are more crucial than ever before – wouldn’t IT leaders be wise to actively cultivate them inside their teams?

Short answer: You bet.

In fact, a great first step to creating an IT culture where communication, presentation, networking, and similar skills abound is to ensure you have them yourself. Flint Brenton, CEO at CollabNet, notes the growth of transformational leadership principles in modern IT, citing “creativity, growth, authenticity, and vision” as the four primary characteristics of such leaders.

[ Read our related article, Transformational leadership: 5 big mistakes execs make. ]

Put that way, transformational leadership sounds like a whole basket of soft skills. And Brenton sees transformational leadership as a means for IT leaders to not only continuously develop their own skills, but also to actively foster them throughout their teams.

“Enterprises with transformational leaders perform highly, as employees are empowered by these leaders to make mistakes, learn, and innovate freely,” Brenton says. “It’s increasingly important to empower employees to think outside the box, have creative freedom, and to lead with an eagerness to learn, not reprimand.”

Regardless of whether you embrace transformational leadership or you call such a management style by another name, CIOs and other leaders can most certainly cultivate soft skills in their departments in a variety of ways. Let’s examine some actionable ideas for doing so.

Make soft skills a visible part of performance evaluations

Kitty Brandtner, manager of major accounts at the recruiting and staffing firm LaSalle Network, offers a good foundational step.

“IT leaders should be transparent that they’re evaluating people on their soft skills – their ability to communicate, present, and build relationships outside of IT,” she explains. “In that vein, they should publicly give praise to those who exhibit those soft skills so employees have a benchmark.”

Brandtner adds that it may be beneficial to create goals or KPIs specifically tied to soft-skills development.

“Whether it’s a goal of presenting one project to a different team a month, or meeting with a certain number of internal stakeholders to understand their processes, build them into how an employee is evaluated,” she says.

As CYBRIC CTO and co-founder Mike Kail advised recently, you should make sure this is a continuous process of improvement and evaluation rather than a once-a-year thing. Otherwise, you’re likely giving the impression that these kinds of skills are an afterthought or a checkbox on a yearly review rather than a highly valued asset. (See the full article: Top soft skills for IT leaders and how to master them. )

Practice open, blameless communication

One fundamental reason soft skills haven’t always occurred naturally in IT, quite frankly, is that legacy IT practices are too often grounded in avoiding mistakes rather than embracing learning and transformation. As Datical CTO and co-founder Robert Reeves recently told us: “Prior to DevOps, we had a culture of punishing failure.” (Read more in 7 leadership rules for the DevOps era. )

This type of mindset effectively kills the growth of soft skills long before they get a chance to bloom. Anders Wallgren, CTO at Electric Cloud, says a culture of open, blameless communication helps soft skills thrive inside IT shops.

“If we operate in an environment that shuts people down when they disagree – even if they're wrong, or perhaps especially when they're wrong – soft skills will either wither away or just leave the company,” Wallgren says.

Open, blameless communication and collaboration go hand in hand – and increased collaboration is crucial for IT groups charged with increasing agility and speed. Collaboration "allows for productive disagreement between actors," writes Heidi Hess von Ludewig, senior technical product manager, Red Hat, in The Open Organization Workbook. "That kind of disagreement then helps increase the level of engagement and provide meaning to the group's work."

[ For case studies and exercises to build open communication and an open culture, download our related resource, The Open Organization Workbook: How to build a culture of innovation in your organization. ]

Bake soft skills into your hiring strategies

While a culture of soft skills begins within, it can be fed from outside: If you value such characteristics in your team, then you’ll want to ensure you’re properly addressing these needs in your recruiting and hiring processes.

For instance, if you’re serious about soft skills, don’t focus too narrowly on technical expertise in interviews.

“During the interview process, ask situational questions of candidates,” says Brandtner. “For example: How have you earned buy-in of stakeholders outside of IT in past roles? How have you dealt with pushback?”

Brandtner also recommends that IT leaders ask candidates for management or executive roles, especially those who will be required to interact widely throughout the organization, to prepare and give a presentation during the interview process.

Keep in mind that at the end of the day, the principles of bringing soft skills on board aren’t all that different from “hard” skills. Just as you might identify technical talent gaps in your team when planning your recruiting and hiring priorities, you can also look for shortfalls in non-technical abilities and give those appropriate weight in your processes.

“If you feel that you are lacking certain skills on your current team or teams, make sure that any job listing emphasizes the type of employee you are looking for, or reach out to your inner circle to see if they can refer someone who fits the bill,” Brenton says.

Not sure how your soft skills, or your team members' skills, stack up? Test yourselves. Check out our related article: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders

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Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.