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By: Rupak Bhattacharya
The executive dragged himself into the conference room to deliver the bad news: he was going to have to cut his employee’s pay. But the words he had carefully prepared came out as smoothly as sandpaper, and the employee left in a huff. Word spread, morale sank, and a small corner of social media had a field day calling out the firm for its “insensitive” cutbacks.
These kinds of awkward scenarios—increasingly common in these tough economic times—require leaders to use so-called soft skills that serve a firm’s overall strategy and minimize knock-on effects. This sounds straightforward enough; the only hiccup is that companies don’t really train their leaders in soft skills, says Chris Westfall, business coach and author of Easier and Leadership Language. That’s largely because they can’t quantify soft skills, he says. This makes it difficult to carve out a budget to address them. “If you improve your communication skills by 26 percent, what does that really mean?” he asks.
Yet few would disagree about how important these skills can be. Employees complain that managers have been apologizing too much in the past few years, after the pandemic caused one letdown after another. Now, with firms announcing more layoffs or cutbacks, leaders who lack emotional intelligence can drive away business and workers. “All you’re going to be measuring is the number of people who are walking out the door to go work for your competition,” Westfall says.
Mark Royal, a senior client partner for Korn Ferry Advisory, suggests that managers get away from the idea that “because I don’t do it perfectly, I’m reluctant to do it at all.” A leader’s fear that she can’t answer all of an employee’s questions may keep her from addressing anyone else’s, either, potentially creating a communication vacuum.
Royal says that a firm’s HR department can be an important asset for managers shaky with communication skills. HR can also help guide leaders who are dealing with workers’ mental-health issues, providing resources that managers may not be equipped to offer. For additional support, Westfall suggests executives consider using communications consultants or business coaches. “You don’t have to go it alone,” he says.
Experts say it’s important to keep in mind that soft skills encompass a range of abilities, and that strength in one can compensate for weakness in another. Maybe you’re not a good communicator, for instance. “You may have another very important skill,” Royal says. “Perhaps you’re a particularly good listener.”