Leaders may have more soft skills than you think

Most people use soft skills already, without perhaps knowing what they are

Based on what I have seen in my 30 years as a leader in the military, business and government, most of it developing senior leaders, I think there is a weakness in the analysis of how to solve the 'soft skills' issue. What are soft skills supposed to do? At their heart it's about deepening the relationship between the leader and the individual so that the individual maximises their effort and focuses it on what delivers success. So are soft skills courses the best way to deepen this relationship?

I would suggest that using soft skills training should not be the first step. Instead encourage leaders to take simple actions on a day-to-day basis that deepen relationships, and then add soft skills training to leverage their impact as a multiplier.

Over the years I have worked with 5,000 or more leaders and I asked them 'what were the day-to-day actions that the best boss you ever had did that made you want to give super performance?' The answers were fairly consistent irrespective of sector, level in organisation, culture, location or other factors. It is about 12 to 14 simple actions that leaders always come up with when asked what made them give super performance.

What is interesting is that all of these actions also align to some of the areas that soft skills training covers: asking for ideas, telling people what’s going on, listening, giving constructive feedback... But they also cover areas that most soft skills training misses: understands when I make genuine mistakes, supports me when I need it and knows when that is, lets me get on with things and doesn’t interfere, treats me with respect, acts with integrity, shows they care...

When analysed in more depth 80% of the things on the list are based on the emotional interaction between the two people, only 5% are task related, and maybe 15% a little of both. Again this seems to be consistent irrespective of other factors. That is because it's about being human and not what your job is in which organisation.

I believe that the secret for success in developing the best 'people skills' is not to distinguish hard and soft skills, just to ask leaders the things they know would make them give super performance themselves and do those for their people. Give them the chance to say what’s on their list. For the average line manager this is much easier to understand and can be implemented immediately without a training course.

Once leaders are clear in their mind about these day-to-day actions and the associated potential performance uplifts – for example most of them can deliver an increase in effort of around 25% to 30% – it makes simple cost-benefit sense for leaders to do more of these. At organisational level that can deliver up to 10% on the bottom line at no cost.

When these are being implemented more effectively it is the time to add the soft skills training. So it then becomes about how to give feedback, communicate and listen, explain the big picture – but even better than you are already. If you move to soft skills training straight away without the first step, it can mean some of the actions that deliver super performance are missed and no-one will be aware of that shortfall.

Too often HR tells leaders that they need to do things better our way through our development programmes when so often they are actually already covering much of the same ground their way. To get behavioural change it’s always easier to build on existing positive behaviours even if they are not quite up to 'HR best practice', building on what people already know and do. HR also has a tendency to sometimes complicate the simple. For example, you could call it 'building a culture of authenticity'; I would say 'show you care and can be trusted'.

Non-HR people know as much about what makes employees deliver super performance as HR professionals do, as they’ve experienced it over their careers. HR just needs to help them understand that they have that knowledge, are probably doing some of it already, and how to do it even better to unleash their full potential.

Maybe HR needs to listen a little more, which is strangely what we tell everyone else to do on our soft skills training...

Chris Roebuck is honorary visiting professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School, City University of London

Further reading

Is HR getting too 'soft' in its focus?