Leadership Communication

Why Soft Skills Are the Hardest Skills of All

At least half my work is with mid-level up to senior managers who come from highly technical backgrounds, so I know how hard it can be for them to master the “soft skills” of effective communication. But even so, I was surprised by the extent of the problem described in this Quartz article, ”Almost 70% of US managers are scared to talk to their employees”.

The article cites research in a 2016 Harvard Business Review article which found that 69% of 616 managers surveyed confessed that “they’re uncomfortable communicating with employees”, with the biggest concern (37%) being their discomfort with giving direct feedback which their employees might take badly.

“Discomfort” may not be the same as “scared”, but if discomfort with a certain behavior prevents you from doing your job, it’s definitely a problem. If discomfort prevents you from saying what needs to be said, that’s a problem for you as a leader; it’s a problem for the employee who does not get useful feedback; and it’s a problem for the entire team.

It’s human nature to be uncomfortable delivering a difficult message, but it’s a necessary part of being a leader. The best way to get over the discomfort  is to be good at it, and the only way to be good at it is to learn the appropriate skills. There’s a misconception that one automatically picks up the ability to be an effective communicator through osmosis—as is “soft” means easy. While I don’t have hard evidence, I’m convinced that the major reason for the Peter Principle is that people get promoted beyond their ability or willingness to communicate.

If you want to succeed as a leader, first you must learn to communicate. Hard skills may get you there, but soft skills will keep you there.

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