If you are someone who tends to operate a lot more from your head than your heart, you might be great with hard skills, but struggle with the soft ones.
You can think of hard skills as the “what” of work, and soft skills as the “how.”
So, hard skills are technical knowledge – how to create a budget or follow through on a process, for example. When leading others, a focus on hard skills allows you to pass on job-related information and teach those around you how to do specific tasks.
The soft skills, on the other hand, are the psychological factors of work – how you relate to other people, influence them, and develop them. They are important because we come to work as whole people with psychological needs, and the better a leader is able to take those into account, the more effective the leader will likely be.
Daniel Goleman, an expert on emotional intelligence, argued that emotional competences are twice as important in contributing to success as pure intellect and expertise.
I have seen this dynamic at play in my work consulting with senior leaders – at a certain level, most people have adequate technical skills. However, to truly get outstanding results from a team, the individuals who are emotionally intelligent with strong soft skills, start to stand out from their peers. In fact, I have even seen leaders with average technical skills get great results, because of their ability to recognize talent, build a team, and harness each team member’s abilities through their soft skills.
In my experience, finding the balance between hard skills and soft skills can be particularly challenging for individuals in fields that place a high emphasis on logic and analysis like finance, law, or IT, for example. Because these fields are very focused on objective and tangible data, some professionals in these areas (and many other fields) can tend to undervalue emotional considerations.
Thus, all too often, when interacting with other parts of the business, people from highly technical fields can sometimes make arguments that are very strong from a data perspective, but can feel too harsh or impersonal – as if they don’t value people and only care about the bottom line. In reality, the best decisions really account for both facts and feelings, and so a decision that might seem very good from a financial perspective could totally backfire if it doesn’t take people’s feelings into account. However, the exact same decision, communicated in a way that shows that interpersonal factors were considered and valued, can come across very differently and be accepted much more easily. This is the benefit of soft skills.
Luckily, soft skills are very trainable. While they require effort and focus to improve, the work is worth it, as they are a key aspect of strong leadership.
Read on for a few strategies to develop your soft skills:
1. If you are in a job in which you have to may have to say “no” to others a lot (like an accountant who authorizes budgets, a CIO who has competing priorities, or a lawyer who has to uphold regulations), soft skills are particularly important. If you push back on another’s request, it is important to do so after conveying that you have fully listened to the other person and taken his or her feelings into account. Most reasonable people don’t expect to get their way all the time, but they are more likely to cooperate if they truly feel that they have been given an opportunity to express their opinion to a receptive audience. Respectfully explain the reason why you have to say “no,” while also expressing that you understand the other person’s perspectives and needs.
2. Also, instead of just saying “no,” try to determine if there are indeed ways the other person can accomplish his or her goals while staying in alignment with the company’s practical realities. I liken this to the mental image of thinking of you and the other person working together on the same side of the table, instead of being at odds, sitting on opposite sides of the table. Remembering that you work for the same organization, and hopefully both have the best interests of the organization in mind can be helpful.
3. Remember that an important part of your role is to develop the soft skills in the people who report to you. People who favor logic and analytics may excel at the parts of the job that have to do with teaching and conveying knowledge to their direct reports. However, to get their people ready for leadership positions, it is important for them to also make sure they focus on coaching their people to influence and relate to others effectively. For any department to thrive, cultural elements such as engagement, teamwork, and communication need to be strong. An emphasis on these factors is the mark of a great leader.
4. As I have mentioned in other articles, the foundation of having strong soft skills is self-awareness. In order to become more self-aware, some strategies I would suggest are: identifying your strengths and developmental opportunities, asking others for feedback, paying attention to how you interact with others and the impact you have on them, noticing your stress triggers, and observing other effective leaders and thinking about skills they exhibit that you would like to develop. You can also work with an executive coach or read a book designed to help you to work on soft skills (like my book, The Consummate Leader).
Developing your soft skills will position you for greater career success. What commitment are you going to make today to develop yours? Share it in the comments!
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