The most effective leaders tend to possess both hard and soft skills. While conventional wisdom says that soft skills are innate, business psychologists and performance experts point out that they can be studied and learned.
While new entrepreneurs and CEOs may feel the need to focus on “hard” skills that involve technical aptitude and other skills that are easily quantified, the “soft” leadership skills that involve empathy, communication, negotiation, and relationship-building are just as important—if not more so—for keeping employees, customers, and funders happy over the long term. Here are some essential soft skills that the most successful leaders possess.
Possess Social Intelligence
Social intelligence is cited repeatedly as one of the premier traits that make an effective leader. The term can be used broadly, although at its core it connotes an in-depth understanding of the dynamics between and among people, as well as an ease and comfort about operating in a wide range of interpersonal settings.
Some researchers specifically find that social intelligence consists of traits such as a sensitivity to the different personalities, needs, and drives of others, as well as tact, sensitivity, and the capacity to take on varied social roles, as needed.
Business psychologists recommend making a conscious effort to talk to and get to know a wide range of people from diverse backgrounds and different social contexts as one of the best ways to increase social intelligence.
Interpersonal skills, one of the skill subsets of social intelligence, are often best developed by maintaining a focus on active listening. The listener strives to see the world from the speaker’s point of view and to understand it as the speaker experiences it.
Networking organizations, as well as nonprofit groups devoted to public speaking, are often excellent venues for honing interpersonal and social skills.
Demonstrate a Positive Attitude
Experts point to another “soft” skill that is frequently overlooked, but which can have a positive ripple effect in the workplace: a positive attitude. This does not mean failing to acknowledge bad news or the existence of problems. What it means is that you should not allow negative situations to lower your own spirits and those of your team.
Leaders who respond to setbacks and challenges with a positive attitude that focuses on problem-solving will be able to keep themselves and their employees working productively, and the company will be more likely to be able to weather rough situations, well.
Additionally, leaders who possess hope and belief in their team and its mission can serve as an inspirational example over the long term for any company.
Reward Good Performance
The best corporate leaders consistently demonstrate to their employees that they value their contributions to the company. They reward innovation, loyalty, and effort by offering both praise and perks. Even when a new idea or process doesn’t lead to the desired results, the employees who created it deserve commendations for their hard work.
Acknowledge Special Events in Employees’ Lives
It’s important to acknowledge special events in employees’ lives: their birthdays, anniversaries, and personal and professional milestones. Celebrating—and when necessary, grieving—together knits a team closer together and boosts individual and collective morale.
Keep Employees Informed
The more broadly and deeply that employees are kept informed and up-to-date about their work and industry, the better their performance will tend to be. Well-informed staff members are more likely to make good decisions that further the interests of the company in a competitive marketplace, and they can often build on their knowledge to upgrade products, services, or processes.
Pre-hiring screening processes, combined with effective training, will result in companies with technologically skilled executives who can get the job done. However, when a business fails, it tends to do so because its leaders lacked soft skills.
The ability to empower employees and to provide the kind of inspiration and encouragement that makes them want to always do their best is harder to teach, but it remains a vital skill.
Managers who are skilled in the art of delegation and who build the scaffolding that supports a sense of ownership among staff, set their teams up for success by giving them more than just a job. They are empowering them to take the initiative necessary to drive further innovation.
Communication is the linchpin that holds work teams and companies together. Today’s most effective leaders understand that good communication skills can turn around a struggling company, while poor communication can confuse key stakeholders, destroy relationships, and drive away customers.
A leader who communicates well is respectful and courteous toward people at every level of an organization. He or she also displays a healthy amount of self-confidence, avoiding weak-sounding words such as “perhaps,” “possibly,” “just,” and “asap.”
Manage Conflict So That Everyone Comes Out Ahead
One particularly important component of communication is the ability to manage conflict in a constructive way. A capacity to help your employees and peers to achieve positive resolutions to interpersonal conflicts is one of the primary hallmarks of higher-order leadership.
A manager who can serve as an empathetic, but impartial arbiter of personality clashes and differences of opinion—ideally facilitating a solution in which everyone collaborates and wins—will earn the respect of co-workers throughout every level of an organization.