Sharpening Soft Skills With Situational Learning

Developing soft skills requires the most authentic context possible.

Getting along well with others and having good interpersonal skills requires a high level of emotional intelligence.

Soft skills such as good communication abilities, dealing with interpersonal conflict, and self-promotion skills do not come naturally to everyone, but they are vital in the workplace. Indeed, some 77 percent of HR professionals believe soft skills to be as important as hard skills, according to a 2014 Career Builder Survey.


There’s a subtle irony in learning hard skills vs. soft skills. Hard skills are relatively easy to learn, while soft skills are often hard to learn.

Hard skills are specific, teachable abilities that include technical proficiencies and are easily defined and measurable. You usually obtain a degree or diploma when you have these skills, such as software programmer, mathematician, accountant, tool-and-die maker, forklift driver, etc.

When interviewing a job candidate, you know a person has hard skills by his or her degrees, professional designations or licenses, and reputation using these skills.

Soft skills, on the other hand, are less tangible and harder to quantify. There is no degree or diploma for soft skills. They’re mostly learned through life experience on the job, such as active listening, interpersonal skills, knowing how to recognize people, and demonstrating caring concern.

Sometimes we expect people to be born problem solvers and leaders because of their technical skills. Hard skills are not a good litmus test for having the necessary soft skills.

The bottom line is soft skills are people skills, and whenever you’re dealing with people, nothing is straightforward or easy.


We often promote people based on technical competency only to find out they’re lacking people skills, which damages their careers due to reduced employee engagement and frequent employee misunderstandings. Learning soft skills on the job is not the best way when using employees as guinea pigs in real time. It would appear as a workplace reality TV show, with someone voted out of a job.

One way to get around the trial-and-error approach to learning soft skills is to create situational learning opportunities. Situational learning is an instructional approach, like learning a foreign language by immersion in the actual country. Learning participants are put into some form of contextual setting where they can authentically learn and put the soft skill into practice, and hopefully master it.

Contextual-based learning takes the learner from being a passive observer to becoming an active participant in a community where he or she can safely practice the desired skill. Situational learning puts soft skills to the test by actively using them in new situations that come by dealing with people in the workplace. Because situational learning brings in the social and people interaction, it mimics the relational context more authentically than classroom or online learning.


Learning soft skills through situational learning is like a “choose your own adventure” storybook. You decide how the story progresses through situational learning by developing yourself through a targeted soft skill as if you were on the job.

Situated Learning Theory recommends knowledge be presented in authentic settings where you normally would encounter the specific knowledge or skill. Social interaction and collaboration are essential elements of situated learning. As learners practice desired skills through immersive experiences, they more easily increase their proficiency.


Let’s explore a few of the different types of situational learning.

  1. Mentoring: A great way for learning soft skills on the job is to seek out exemplary mentors to learn from. Mentors guide and support learners until they’re proficient in the skill. They show and tell learners how to improve and observe as they apply the skill. Mentors coach learners and give feedback on their performance.

It’s important to negotiate time availability and commitment, expectations of both parties, preferred methods of interaction together, and how to know when a skill has been effectively learned.

Learners must be respectful of a mentor’s meeting times, come prepared with questions and topics to discuss, and keep commitments as far as applying skills in between sessions.

  1. Apprenticeship: Creating an apprenticeship for cultivating soft skills and attributes is a novel approach used in a variety of fields such as general practice medicine, carpentry, and electrical.

Apprenticeship relies upon mentors and good teachers. It brings in the social dynamic of working with peers who also want to develop interpersonal skills for the job, usually in simulated or real-world scenarios.

  1. Group Activities: You often will see group activities as a situational learning method in organizations with an emerging leaders development program. They follow a blended learning approach with a significant amount of classroom learning, reading, and homework followed by a multi-week group activity assignment.

Assignments address problems or needs identified by senior leaders. Group activities can take several months to complete and require researching, working together as a team, calling upon internal and external stakeholders, problem solving and decision-making, and developing a presentation and report with recommendations to senior leadership.

Each team member is evaluated by his or her peers, instructors, and the senior leadership team on using targeted soft skills, as well as the final solution.

  1. Game-Based Learning (GBL): Game-based learning uses “game playing” as a method to both impart knowledge and apply the learning in a virtual setting. The virtual environment allows participants to learn and practice soft skills in a risk-free environment.

Most game-based learning includes some form of competition and provides a reward/penalty framework that offers a method to assess transfer of learning.

As we make learning as situational as possible, the needed soft skills of today will not be perceived as hard to learn after all.

Roy Saunderson is author of “GIVING the Real Recognition Way” and Chief Learning Officer at Rideau Recognition Solutions. His consulting and learning skills focus on helping companies “give real recognition the right way wherever they are.” For recognition insights, visit: For more information, e-mail him at or visit

Roy Saunderson, MA, CRP
Roy Saunderson, MA, CRP, is author of “Practicing Recognition” and Chief Learning Officer at Rideau Recognition Solutions. His consulting and learning skills focus on helping companies “give real recognition the right way wherever they are.” For recognition insights, visit: For more information, e-mail him at: or visit: