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More Than Ever, Leaders Need Soft Skills

Hiring leaders used to mean identifying their areas of technical expertise, looking at the positions they had held, and evaluating their rise in organizations. 

Now leaders are being evaluated for their non-cognitive skills, their ability to communicate, to develop relationships, and to make decisions based on complex information and competing needs. Part of this change is based on the increase in the number of jobs requiring these skills. In the last 50 years or so routine tasks have been automated and decision-making has been pushed down through the organization, increasing the number of jobs requiring decision-making skills from 6% to 34% of the workforce. These skills were originally discussed in terms of the better relationship skills women brought to the organization.

In the same 50 years or so the cost of management has risen from 15% to 32%, and with people living longer, peak earnings years have also risen from people’s 30s to their 50s. The communications and decision-making skills developed over longer careers are now seen as more valuable than previously thought, raising the value of older workers. (The Bulwark, May 27, 2021) 

Now though, work has also become much more complex, with positions of leadership demanding increased skills for motivating a workforce that is more diverse and technically experienced than ever, decision-making skills to deal with increased data sets and competing needs, and communications skills that are effective with different and often public constituencies. ((Harvard Business Review, July-August 2022, p.44). 

As a result, ways of training leaders in their social skills and evaluating them during the hiring process are also more complex than ever. Assessments and AI programs will play increasingly large roles in evaluating leadership qualities, but even sophisticated assessments can’t measure everything or always measure accurately. Sometimes people simply don’t mix well, or changing circumstances change the context of the relationship, affecting communications. And sometimes the skills that worked well with one group may not be well-suited for another. Context can change the effectiveness of skills.

Relationship-building skills were associated with groups lower on the social or organizational hierarchy than others. Executives, mostly men, had power and prestige while women and older workers developed relationship skills to balance their lack of power and gain influence in there realms of activity, like the family and the community. It’s finally clear, though, that everyone at all levels needs finely honed soft skills; they make work a better place to be and they make us all better people.

If organizations want leaders with more effective soft skills, then they have to start cultivating those skills in staff members very early in their careers and prioritize them in hiring and training. By now, you’re probably aware of my preference; train people in mediation to develop the soft skills and the conflict resolution skills that are key to leadership and decision-making, will last forever, and contribute to individual and organizational performance at all levels. 


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE

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