Chapter 7 Soft Skills: Tougher than they Look – No Cape Required


Soft Skills: Tougher Than They Look

Only one man in a thousand is a leader of men—the other 999 follow women.

—Groucho Marx

At some point in history, someone decided that core skills of communications, sociability, self-awareness, pretty much anything that tapped into our emotions, were a waste of money. To emphasize this point, they were labeled “soft skills” and were further downgraded as a result.

Soft, that is, until those same people discovered how vital these skills are to handling the so-called “difficult” conversations—conversations with people different to themselves, about performance, better teamwork, and improving delivery.

Until, that is, professional services, like doctors, dentists, and other health professionals, discovered that poor communications are linked to:

  • Being struck off from professional practice
  • Poor compliance with medical regimens
  • Overtreating and overmedicating
  • Ignoring the patient’s voice and symptoms
  • High “did not attend” appointment rates

As you’d expect, there’s a price tag on this cost1:

  • “… a survey of 400 companies with 100,000 employees each cited an average loss per company of $62.4 million per year” (David Grossman)
  • “ … miscommunication cost even smaller companies of 100 employees an average of $420,000 per year” (Debra Hamilton)

These types of conversation are perceived as “difficult” because they require strong emotional intelligence (EQ).

They’re “difficult” because in avoiding the root cause of the issues, people make out the issues to be more “complex” than they are, creating a mist of confusion to avoid confronting underlying issues.

At the same time, employers create environments that put people under huge pressure yet expect “resilient” behaviors, where they miraculously bounce back in the face of adversity.

In today’s increasingly complex world, core communications skills, alongside this sociability, are vital. Coaching and mentoring skills are emerging as systematic ways to bring the best out of people and teams. Key elements both in leadership development, and key skills for leaders and managers themselves. Or, as Derek Bok once said: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

In this chapter we’ll look at why these skills are vital to develop, particularly in leaders and managers, and why they are the best place to start in the development process.

Prevention Really is Better than Cure

Our research findings puzzled us.

We’d been asked by a client to evaluate two development programs against some key behaviors, including managing conflict.

On every other measure, one program stood out.

Leaders and managers were actively supporting staff to discover solutions for themselves, by asking open questions and employing open and flexible communication styles with their staff. Elements were independently identified as creating a group of motivated leaders using a sustainable process.

What this group weren’t doing was reporting that they were managing conflict; whereas the second group were.

This matters because conflict costs time, money, and energy. It drains motivation from people, creating “heart sink” moments for leaders and managers. Many people believe that the best way to improve the situation is to learn how to “manage” difficult people; “man up” and have those “difficult” conversations.

Not satisfied with the research results, we dug a little deeper and ran some interviews among the two groups. What we found both surprised and delighted us.

They weren’t managing conflict, because conflict wasn’t arising.

Yes, they still disagreed, but here was a group of leaders working to prevent honest debate turning into heated conflict.

We asked them what they did instead and found that their responses aligned closely to better leadership behavior models:

  • They encouraged staff to explore alternative ideas and solutions
  • They actively listened to staff concerns, goals, values, and beliefs
  • They provided clear and direct feedback

And, most importantly of all, they acknowledged what people had achieved; so the conversations were based on the staff’s strengths, skills, and experience they brought to the table.

Team members’ questioning and exploring behavior wasn’t labeled “challenging”; rather, it was received as a valuable contribution to the debate.

This means that managers’ energy, time, and effort were freed up to get on with the task of delivering.

Communication Skills Development

Those “soft” skills are tougher than they look.

It meant that leaders didn’t feel the need to invest energy in defending their positions or decisions; rather, they took input as part of a shared ongoing learning experience.

This is a more mature response to a potentially ego-threatening conversation.

Of course, because the leaders had ultimate responsibility for certain decisions, it meant that their staff didn’t always agree with them.

Our respondents told us that this became part of the ongoing honest conversations, which included demonstrating the rationale for a decision in a transparent fashion, rather than a “because I say so” rebuttal.

This communications style can be summed up as “coachlike leadership.”

It is termed “coachlike” because the professional executive coach has a more independent, objective perspective and takes a partnership role in the conversation.

A leader–team-member conversation is always going to be one of unequal power, where both parties are subject to shared goals, objectives, and deadlines.

Both leader and team member are working within a framework, but deploying coaching skills can create win–win relationships.

The “coachlike” leader can also achieve better performance, reach higher sales targets, and maintain better working relationships with team members by using those techniques.

Coachlike leaders have the skills to separate out the attitude and intention from the behavior, such that expectations of the team are focused on effective behaviors yet appreciate people’s good intentions and their desire to succeed.

Using these skills is a pragmatic conflict prevention and reduction strategy.

Emotional Intelligence Skills Development

Yet sometimes it’s impossible to avoid conflict, born as it is out of pressure, stressful situations, and life beyond the control of even the best leader or manager.

This is where emotional intelligence development and resilience training comes in. For many people and organizations, “resilience” is just about the person, the individual’s abilities to “bounce back” from challenge and change.

This ability to recover from challenge is not a constant. We all have factors in our life that knock us for six, either in the present or from our past.

Giving ourselves ways—as well as time—to recover from setbacks is critical to resilience. And sometimes it takes a leader to support others to even give themselves time and permission to “recover.”

The common term for this is “bounce back,” yet this implies a quick return to the norm. It can take a while to recover from some of the knocks life throws at us. And when those knocks come one after the other, there is a cumulative effect that can’t be ignored.

Resilience works hand in hand with workload management, and this leads us back to the point that organizational factors, the work environment, the systems and individual factors are all important.

At the organizational level, the resources the organization puts in place to support positive change will reduce personal and team conflict, and this starts with building better leadership.

Managers and leaders have a responsibility to develop their own emotional intelligence skills and to evoke them in others: teams and individuals alike.

There are a number of dimensions of emotional intelligence, and every one of them is developable:

  • Self-awareness
  • Emotional resilience
  • Motivation
  • Interpersonal sensitivity
  • Influence
  • Intuitiveness
  • Conscientiousness

Leaders can support this development by really getting to know their people—their strengths and development areas, what already motivates them, and how to build that motivation.

Daniel Goleman summarizes these skills into four areas of inner attitudes and external behaviors: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.

A great example of using EQ skills in the area of relationship management came with a coaching client who worked with his team to come up with some creative time and money saving ideas.

One of these included influencing two competing suppliers to share a single workspace so that the resources they offered were more readily available to the customer in a rural location.

There was no financial or other downside to either supplier, other than the move.

The key challenge was that of being willing to work more collaboratively. Using his EQ skills of motivation, interpersonal sensitivity, and influence, the leader enabled both parties to see the win–win and share in the savings.

Leaders can also help to organize the workload such that it plays to people’s strengths—and doesn’t overwhelm people.

It’s a key difference between a leader and a manager.

  • A well-managed workload—such that people get the job done within a reasonable time span—is about task management.
  • Leadership is about tapping into people’s motivation such that they meet those task deadlines.

Task success is also about individuals’ conscientiousness to get the job done well, the self-awareness to know one’s own strengths and development areas.

These are all so-called “soft skills” that can be harnessed to deliver more for the organization.

Leaders also need to understand what “empowerment” really means and put ways in place to deliver. Again, this taps into skills such as delegation, which in turn requires qualities such as evoking trust and respect in team members.

High-Performance Behavior Development

Practical issues need to be taken care of, such as managing expectations, identifying clear delivery paths or ways of working.

These are all high-performance behaviors that are part of a group of twelve skills vital to any leadership development program.

For example, good leadership requires that a culture of learning is embedded in the team for the benefit of everyone. Only when everyone is a “hero,” contributing to that learning in an inclusive way, facilitated by the leader, can true organizational learning evolve. This is a developable leadership behavior.

There are, to be sure, some organizations that involve particularly demanding circumstances: military, health, and other “blue light” emergency services, such as police or fire professionals, are some examples.

Doctors and soldiers alike describe the tactics they employ to switch off their emotions, in tune with the professionalism that is called for to get the job done through traumatic times.

It’s the role of the leader to ensure that these people’s workloads are such that these challenges don’t overwhelm them, however much the circumstances may seem that way.

This isn’t about patting someone on the back and sympathizing; it’s about recovery time after particularly challenging situations.

It’s also the role of the organization, or institution, to support people to relearn and reconnect with their emotional strengths, such that they can “switch back” into everyday society and its norms.

It’s one thing to learn how to switch off from the emotional triggers that most people are affected by, but the ability to discriminate between triggers and to re-engage emotionally, appropriately, is a key challenge.

Examples of this can be found in the military and police forces around the world. People are trained to move forward, quickly, in times of trouble. Not to think but to engage, to get into action. This is great in conflict zones, but not in social situations, and certainly not when ordinarily decent people misread the signals and escalate to conflict when de-escalation is the better solution.

Soft Skills: The Success Link between Leaders and Teams

Teams need EQ too, as the work of Dulewicz and Higgs2 makes clear. Not every team needs the same culture, but they do need to be able to work together on problems, not as a “group of individuals” or pitted, competitively, against another department.

It’s important for the team to own their challenges together. To address change, introduce improvements; try them out and celebrate success. It also means that the team can push back when overloaded; finding ways for that “well-managed workload” to become a reality by using their influencing and negotiating skills.

This means that team members need to find constructive ways to give and receive feedback and, most importantly, to own “failure” and find ways back from that.

A coaching or mentoring conversation is an adult-to-adult conversation. More than a transactional “if you do this, then….” dialogue, it’s a transformational conversation where the leader embodies good leadership, as a role model for the team.

The individual factors in developing soft skills include knowing one’s own boundaries, such that we can develop resilience, together with the other EQ skills.

Knowing the theory isn’t enough; having a wider range of language for emotions (and we’re not talking four-letter words here) and knowing which triggers are most likely to affect our emotions—positively or negatively—really helps.

Consciously practicing the EQ skills is also important, whether that’s by asking others for feedback on a particular skill or taking one and using it in different situations.

Ways to Develop Leadership Skills

Too many leadership development programs are based around analyzing and fixing weaknesses. Too much training money is invested here.

Assuming people have more than the basic abstract, verbal, and numerical reasoning skills, plus the ability to read a financial report and manage a budget, the best place to invest in skill development is in building upon people’s strengths.

The rationale for this is that it provides a confidence boost and a track record on which to then address other development areas.

Starting with development needs means starting from a low emotional base, where defensiveness (“why do I need to change?”) and other negative reactions can act as a developmental barrier.

Leadership development also typically starts with external behaviors, even when it’s shifts like attitude change that they’re trying to create.

I find it fascinating that people accept this point in theory, yet push back strongly when it comes to reality. So many learning and development designers, and leaders and managers, strongly feel the need to push people “out of their comfort zones.” For some reason the “discomfort zone as a good thing” paradigm prevails.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying we don’t all need to stretch and grow. The difference is, who’s dictating the challenge?

When leadership development starts from inner strengths rather than outer skills, it’s easier to embed new behaviors.

When people take on a challenge, rather than being thrown into it, you’ll have higher intrinsic motivation.

And there’s a good psychological reason to encourage intrinsic motivation: Put simply, we’re more likely to stick it out when times get tough.

My recent challenge was to take 2 weeks improving my Italian, in Italy. Working closely with our business partners showed me how poor my language skills were. So I took myself off to Trieste for some intense learning.

The early morning of day 1 was particularly tough. It was dark, cold, and wet, and I was on my way to a 30-minute exam. I remember asking myself what on earth I was doing this for.

By day 3, I had reached rock bottom. Tired from the focus; trying to understand my tutor (no mobile phones or dictionaries allowed; we only spoke Italian). And it felt like I was making no progress.

Then something shifted. I understood, really “in the moment” understood, what someone said to me. It felt like a switch had been turned on in my brain and there was light.

The progress I made after that point was much faster. I was able to tap into all the vocabulary I had in store, and conversations flowed. (Well, they didn’t stagger along as they had previously.)

If new behaviors can be summarized as being “ready, willing, and able” to perform a task, then readiness and willingness need to be developed first.

That’s because when willingness and readiness to change are already taken care of: it’s just the skills and abilities associated with the task that need to be addressed.

Of course, systematic course design matters.

But if people don’t feel ready or willing to change, then the learned behaviors won’t embed. By starting a leadership development program with all these elements, the whole program will be more successful.

Peer Learning Methods

When we worked with a national rail organization as part of a leadership development program for more than 2,000 people, the pilot phase put the leadership coaching skills workshop in the middle.

At the 12-month review stage, it was clear that the participants valued this workshop highly, because it not only helped them to work with their teams in practical ways to improve performance, but also helped the learners gel together as a team.

So being a willing learner, surrounded and supported by other willing learners, also matters.

In the “rollout” phase, the coaching skills workshop was moved to the beginning of the program, which embedded the values of a leadership and learning culture, combined with practical coaching skills, into the whole program.

Of course, it’s not enough just to value a learning opportunity. It’s vital to put those skills into practice as early as possible, because that is the only way we can we build up our competence in them.

And it’s only by seeing the benefit of those applied skills that we see the return on the significant investments in employee learning and development.

This means that skills application must be supported, not just taught. This is the value of combining classroom learning with on-the-job support, preferably soon after the initial learning.

Peer learning includes peer coaching, and, in some circumstances, mentoring. So learning these skill sets in a leadership development program is a practical step.

Facilitated peer learning is particularly valuable in this regard. We call them PALS—Peer Action Learning Sets—by which we mean having a tutor facilitate conversations between course participants on how they are applying their learning; what they’ve learned about what does and doesn’t work.

The tutor focuses on the leadership behaviors (identified at the “define” stage as important to the organization) and on supporting participants to see how these are being applied.

It’s more than just facilitating a conversation; it’s helping learners to identify what works and to shift their behaviors toward consistent application of successful behaviors.

The goal is to train learners in the PALS method and ease out the tutor so that once the participants are familiar with the high-performance behaviors expected of them, they facilitate their own learning sets.

Measure the Impacts

Identifying and measuring impacts is a key challenge in the field of leadership development.

Knowing what and how to measure impact is context specific, and therefore return on investment (ROI) should be closely linked to the aims and objectives of the learning; specifically, to the reported outcomes linked to the learning and the observed leadership behaviors of participants back in the workplace.

For one (financial services) client, we measured the impacts of a Manager as Coach soft skills workshop using before and after surveys in three factors: feeling confidence, being equipped to deliver, being effective in coaching conversations. Most people reported double-digit improvements afterwards, except for one group who either remained the same or dropped their scores. This group reported themselves as having over rated themselves first time around. Known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, this is where people over estimate their abilities, and which can be linked to blind spots as to their competence. 360 degree feedback methods can help provide more objective evidence in these situations, for everyone’s benefit.

Using these tough “soft skills” delivers real value to the organization.

If ever a myth needed to be nailed, it’s the myth that skills like empathy; relationship management; better communications between leaders and peers, customers, or patients are “soft.”

These skills are vital to our success in every area of relationships: as leaders, in teams, and as individual human beings.

Soft skills are tougher than they first appear. They have a vital role in the workplace.

These skills may not be visible to the organization, in terms of physical outputs, but their value can be measured in costs avoided, conflict reduced, and innovation increased.

The biggest challenge is that we take these skills for granted and only value them when they’ve gone. As the song says, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” And when conflict reappears and performance drops, it’s a lesson to be learned all over again.

Worksheet: Stimulus Questions

In this chapter we looked at the value of so-called “soft skills.” You might care to do a financial audit on the costs to your organization of poor communications, but an easier way might be to identify key areas where improved communications could benefit individuals and teams.

We focus, in this chapter, on the skills of communication, coaching, emotional intelligence, and peer learning.

For this piece of fieldwork, we encourage you to undertake a survey and ask your colleagues, leaders, and managers these questions:

  • What benefits do they see in having and deploying these skills (listed below)?
  • Who is most likely to benefit as a result of improvements in these areas?
  • What’s likely to be different as a result?
  • What time, money, L&D, or other investment costs might be needed?

Skills Checklist

  • Better communications
  • Successful (annual/quarterly, etc.) performance reviews
  • Difficult conversations
  • Conflict Prevention
  • Improved Emotional intelligence
  • Coaching skills for managers and leaders
  • High-performance behavior development
  • Shifting learning from weakness to strengths-thinking
  • Facilitated Peer Learning


1.P.M. Buhler and J.D. Worden. 2013. “Up, Down, and Sideways: High-Impact Verbal Communication for HR Professionals (SHRM),” quoting The Cost of Poor Communications,, (accessed March 17, 2018). quoting David Grossman D., (author of The Cost of Poor Communications) and Hamilton D.

2.V. Dulewicz and M. Higgs. 2000. “Emotional intelligence—A review and evaluation study.” Journal of Managerial Psychology 15, no. 4, pp. 341–72.