Leadership is required to help organizations survive, grow, and succeed in a changing environment and challenging times. It is most critical and visible at the top of the organization, but it is also vital at different levels down the hierarchy. Several organizations recognize this need and invest heavily in training programs to develop leadership skills for their managers.
How are leaders different from managers? While managers focus on fulfilling their job responsibilities in terms of operational activities and functional tasks as mandated by their job role, leaders contribute towards taking the organization to the next level.
Managers are necessary for the organizational machinery to run efficiently. Leaders are required to help the organization adapt, innovate, and grow over time. All organizations expect managers to eventually transform into leaders in their given roles.
Certain capabilities that set leaders apart from managers are strategic thinking, a visionary mindset, an understanding of new-age technologies, a spirit of intrapreneurship and innovation, risk-taking ability, and soft skills. Though all these capabilities are important, one of the most underrated is soft skills. Soft skills, or people skills, refer to the capability of dealing with people.
Why are they important? Because leaders cannot succeed on their own, they succeed only when they can influence subordinates, peers, and supervisors. These employees need to be aligned with the leader to actively and willingly participate in the leader’s journey. Some of the critical soft skills that leaders should possess are team management, effective interpersonal communication, and empathy. Let us understand the importance of these skills in influencing employees.
In most organizations, leaders manage a team of employees with diverse attitudes, aspirations, competencies, and degrees of interpersonal bonding. To enable the team to collaborate and perform, leaders should be able to help the team stay focused on the collective goal, coach and mentor members, build commitment, manage conflict, and cater to individual needs.
They would also need to network with the senior management or the power centres to highlight the teamwork, negotiate support for the team activities, and ensure recognition for the team performance. All these efforts help build team spirit and motivation.
Effective Interpersonal communication
Leaders need to be very articulate and transparent in their communication with the employees so that they understand the leaders’ vision and expectations of them. They should provide frequent and constructive feedback that helps employees perform and grow.
They should also encourage feedback from employees, which helps them improve as a leader. This requires them to be active listeners so that they can identify areas of self-improvement openly and positively. A two-way communication channel also builds trust and respect for leaders.
Leaders need to feel and display care and consideration towards their employees. Every employee has a different personality, strengths, and weaknesses. Leaders need to understand them so that they can guide and advise them to navigate challenges. Besides, employees may go through difficult situations in their personal and professional lives.
Leaders should then be able to provide them with some resources that ease the difficulty and make them feel emotionally supported. This would not only enhance the sense of employee well-being but also build loyalty towards the leader.
Most organizations understand the importance of soft skills in theory but do not invest in practicing them. As a consequence, few leaders are good at these skills despite being competent, strategic, and innovative. This not only results in poor satisfaction, motivation, engagement, and retention of the employees under the leader but also impacts overall organizational performance in the long term.
There are certain reasons why organisations are wary of investing in soft skills. First, it is difficult to demonstrate returns on this investment since they do not visibly impact performance. Second, soft skills, by their very nature, are difficult to assess and measure.
Third, they are difficult to develop since they require behavioural changes, and not all employees may be amenable to this fundamental transformation. Fourth, developing soft skills requires intensive self-assessment, coaching, and mentoring, involving considerable time, money, and opportunity costs that organizations are unwilling to bear. Fifth, employees themselves have to be convinced about the value of soft skills and their own need for them.
One way in which organizations can develop soft skills in leaders is by propagating the intent in a top-down fashion. For example, senior management has to act as an appropriate role model for leaders down the hierarchy. It has to frequently and explicitly encourage the use of soft skills and ingrain their importance in the organizational culture.
Most importantly, it needs to recognize these skills through recruitment, performance appraisals, and career development processes. All said and done, as long as organizations reward leaders without considering their soft skills, they will lose the opportunity to prepare themselves for long-term success.