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Leaders and Employees Need Soft Skills Now More than Ever

A man is talking to another man in an office.

Lisa (not her real name), the daughter of a friend of mine, is in her late 20s. Her career got off to a great start. She moved from her home on one coast to further her professional advancement and sample life on the other coast. 

Everything went great until the coronavirus. Lisa's been furloughed. She's stuck at home with no work to do in a totally new environment, far away from family and friends. She has enough money to pay her bills for now but doesn't know if her company will survive.

We all know Lisa's story is not unusual. Millions of employees are being similarly effected. Once people like Lisa do go back to work, either in their former jobs or for a new employer, things won't be like they were before the pandemic. For millions of employees, career upheaval, economic loss, anxiety, isolation and loneliness will have taken their toll. And for some, there will also have been suffering and loss of loved ones.

These employees will need to work in organizations led by compassionate leaders who demonstrate great soft skills. And these leaders will need the help of HR professionals who model these skills and coach others on using them.

In his pioneering work on emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman listed the following necessary attributes of emotionally intelligent leaders:

  • Self-awareness
  • Motivation
  • Self-management
  • Empathy
  • Social skills

For today's times especially, related soft skills would include active listening, resilience, perseverance, approaching disagreements in a solution-finding rather than fault-finding manner, and having an abundance mentality versus scarcity mentality.

Compassion may be the most valuable asset of all. In his recent SHRM webcast, Arthur C. Brooks, Harvard professor and columnist for The Atlantic  pointed out that compassion is a better leadership trait than empathy. "An overly empathetic leader can become an annoyance. Empathy doesn't necessarily translate into useful action. In today's times, what we need are compassionate leaders."

In her presentation at the 2020 SHRM Talent Conference, Susan Collins, director of talent acquisition and employer branding at Talbots, shared some eye-opening statistics. Ninety-seven percent of employers surveyed said that soft skills were either as important or more important than hard skills. However, 46 percent of new employees fail within 18 months and of these, 89 percent fail because of a lack of soft skills, such as professionalism or the ability to get along with others.

After our economy begins to rebound, hiring will be a high priority. Employers should avoid the common mistake of focusing on hard skills—experience, expertise, degrees, certifications, etc.—at the expense of soft skills. To paraphrase the research Collins shared, employers should be more concerned about the 89 percent than the 11 percent.

Interviewing for Soft Skills

Here's perhaps my favorite soft skills interview question: "What's a significant mistake you made and what did you learn from it?" I once put this question to two finalists for a VP-HR position. Both had great resumes.

 "Candidate A" responded with a laugh, "Where do I begin?"

She shared an experience from her first job, scooping ice cream. "A woman came in with her kids and purchased ice cream cones for each one of them; nothing for her. They left the store. A couple of minutes later, they returned. One of the kids was crying. The woman said, 'he dropped his ice cream cone. Can he have another?'

"I said, 'Yes but since it happened outside the store, I'll have to charge you.' The woman became angry and said, 'Do you think I'm lying?!'

"'No,' I said. 'I'm sorry but I have to follow the rules.' Tearfully, the woman said, 'I'm a single mother on a limited budget.' She reached in her purse and gave me the money for another ice cream cone. As they walked out, she said, 'This is terrible!'"

I asked Candidate A what her takeaway was from this experience.

"First," she said, "I felt sick to my stomach and ashamed of myself. I was more worried about my job than anything else. I didn't want to risk getting in trouble.

"I came away from this experience thinking that sometimes it's right to break the rules from a human conscience standpoint. And frankly, since I never saw them again, it may even be right from a business standpoint."

I put the same question to "Candidate B."

"I'm having trouble thinking of a mistake," she said.

"Take your time," I replied.

In the ensuing silence, she could tell that a non-response wasn't going to win her points.

Eventually, she said, "There was a time I hired a finance professor to teach classes at our company so that employees could better understand our financial statements."

"Sounds good. What was the mistake?"

"He didn't connect with the students, and they were very dissatisfied."

"So what was your mistake? Was it a lack of due diligence before hiring him?"

"No," she said. "He was highly credentialed and came highly recommended."

I made a couple of other futile attempts to elicit what her mistake was and finally gave up. I said, "So what was the outcome? What was the takeaway?"

"I fired him and taught the classes myself."

Which Candidate Would You Hire?

Readers, of these two candidates, which one demonstrates the soft skills you'd like to see, especially now? Who shows empathy and compassion? Who seems self-aware? Who would you rather work for—the person able to acknowledge and learn from mistakes or the person incapable of doing so?

More than ever, employers and HR professionals should prioritize soft skills in hiring, onboarding, training and development, performance management, promotion, succession and retention. As Candidate A observed, it's the right thing to do morally; and it's the right thing to do for the business.


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