The First Soft Skill to Develop in Students

Frequently, I meet young job candidates who are freshly graduated from college and have never been taught how to make a good first impression. Or if they have, the adult who taught them did a miserable job.


In our work with employers who hire recent graduates, we hear from them that their job interviews with teens and twenty-somethings go south far too often. HR executives say young adults come across as…

  • Too loud
  • Too forward
  • Too self-absorbed
  • Lacking self-awareness

If they’re smart enough to get the job, they often fail to show up on time, gossip about colleagues or never develop a strong work ethic. Many treat the workplace like their dorm space: sloppy, careless and too casual. Even if they don’t care to keep the job, they embarrass themselves at some point due to a lack of job etiquette.

Further, youth often tie too much of their identity to appearance traits like tattoos, hair length, wardrobe, etc. This conditions them to believe that the “cosmetic” or the superficial is a central source of their identity. They don’t want to give these elements up when a supervisor asks them to for the sake of customers.

Why are these challenges so frequent?

Perhaps young adults have always needed tips to know how to act on a job. But reflecting on past generations, young employees tended to keep their mouths shut or knew enough to show respect to that eccentric boss. Today, they often don’t.

Millions of parents have praised and affirmed so much — and perhaps corrected and trained their child too little. Now, it’s time we begin to be honest about the job market and the real world. We owe it to our young people to communicate how they come across. In short, it’s time we cultivate social intelligence in them.

Building social intelligence

Making a first impression – and for that matter, a lasting impression — is usually a matter of social intelligence. This term has been defined as “The capacity to effectively negotiate complex social relationships and environments.”

Author and popular science writer Daniel Goleman tells the story of Lt. Colonel Christopher Hughes, an officer overseeing soldiers in Iraq years ago. Hughes and his troop had received a shipment of blankets and food to be distributed to displaced Iraqi citizens, and believed the best place to distribute these resources would be the Muslim mosque. When they approached the mosque, however, villagers assumed they planned to bomb it. Those villagers grabbed rocks or sticks and began yelling as they surrounded the mosque. As Hughes perceived the ensuing conflict, he knew he had to come up with a way to evade confrontation. Quickly, he commanded his soldiers to drop to their knee, put their guns down, look up at the people, and smile. Immediately, this single step disarmed the emotions of everyone, and soon they found a way to communicate.

That’s social intelligence.

It was originally defined in 1920 by Edward Thorndike as, “The ability to understand and manage men, women, boys and girls, to act wisely in human relations.” It’s the ability to develop healthy relationships. Social Intelligence separates good leaders and teachers from the rest. When we model this for students, we not only set an example, we teach them how to grow in this area themselves. If we can’t get this right, they have little hope to mature in it either.

Recently, I read Daniel Goleman’s book on this topic, “Social Intelligence.” He has drawn on social neuroscience research, proposing social intelligence includes:

  • Empathy
  • Attunement
  • Social cognition
  • Concern
  • Self-presentation
  • Influence

Goleman’s research indicates that our social relationships have a direct effect on aspects of our physical health, such as blood flow, breathing, moods such as fatigue and depression, and the weakening of our immune system. In fact, the deeper the relationship, the deeper the impact. To fully understand this subject, it’s helpful to review today’s social intelligence hypothesis. It states that complex socialization such as politics, romance, family relationships, quarrels, collaboration, reciprocity and altruism are the driving force behind the development of the human brain. It separates us from animals, as our brains are able to navigate complicated circumstances with other human beings. We are only fully developed in this arena when we become astute at negotiating win/win situations within difficult relationships.

Needless to say, prevailing technology allows us to interact with others and never develop this all-important skill set. This is why social intelligence is a differentiator. When young team members have it, they become more marketable. It all begins with first impressions: appearance, a handshake, a smile and common courtesy.

Let’s prepare these graduates in this important skill set.


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The First Soft Skill to Develop in Students