There’s nothing soft about the power of interpersonal skills in leadership
In a world where most people are talking about how AI and technological advancements are going to necessitate the development of new technical skills, the importance of interpersonal skills is seemingly going under the radar.
These ‘power’ skills – previously, and somewhat painfully referred to as ‘soft’ skills – are integral to leaders being able to maintain a motivated and productive workforce. And as younger, less experienced workers increasingly take on leadership positions, it’s important that all leaders, especially those new to this level of seniority, recognise the importance of developing these qualities.
Employees have had to face immense change in recent years; from the shift to hybrid working, to the ongoing financial strain of the cost-of-living crisis, and now the perceived threat to job security posed by AI. They’re being met with uncertainty at every turn. And it’s in the wake of this uncertainty that a need for leaders with strong interpersonal skills has come to the fore; as it’s only through having leaders who approach leadership with a human-centric mindset that employees will feel capable of navigating such unrelenting change.
But what exactly are employees looking for from their leaders?
Research tells us that more and more employees are looking for flexibility, empathy and collaboration in the workplace, and that they want their leaders to demonstrate these qualities. Trust also continues to be a key factor, with 71% of employees saying they want a leader they can trust, and 79% saying they want to work with people who are trustworthy. Employees simply want to know that their leaders empathise with their worries and that they’ve got their back.
And while businesses may be tempted to focus their recruitment and development initiatives on technical skills to boost productivity in response to a rapidly changing world of work, research has found that employees view more interpersonal qualities as better enablers of good performance. In fact, collaboration (83%), problem solving (82%) and trustworthiness (82%) were all identified by employees as being more essential to doing their job well, than being technically proficient high producers.
Employees now want their leaders to build an environment where these characteristics are ingrained into the working culture of the organisation, and this is only possible if leaders embody and demonstrate these qualities themselves.
As a leader, how can you meet the demands of your workforce?
Our research outlines a number of key capabilities that leaders can prioritise in order to deliver the greatest impact:
Employees want leaders they can trust, and so you’ll want to focus on delivering against short- and long-term promises, while demonstrating integrity in your relationships with others. Quick wins within your team can be just as important as achieving wider strategic goals for the organisation, as this will demonstrate to your direct reports that they can hold you to your word.
Employees want to collaborate, meaning you’ll need to connect them with colleagues who share a common purpose, while always actively seeking and encouraging the input of those around you. Hybrid working has left teams feeling dispersed and disconnected from each other; so it’s important to regularly present them with opportunities to reconnect both with you, and their colleagues.
Employees want empathy, and will be looking for leaders who demonstrate emotional intelligence and who will consider all available information before making a key decision. Whether you’re conducting a particularly difficult career conversation, or an employee’s personal situation has changed and resulted in them needing greater flexibility, it’s important that you lead with an empathetic mindset and put employee wellbeing at the heart of any decision.
Employees want flexibility, especially in how they approach their work. Which is why you’ll need to moderate your level of personal engagement based on the situation, and provide employees with the authority to work in a way that suits them. Nobody likes to be micromanaged, and as long as you’re available should they need support, employees will appreciate being given the freedom and trust to complete their work in a more autonomous environment.
And the best thing about interpersonal qualities is that they can be learned at any time, and continuously refined throughout your career – especially with the support of an experienced coach.
Having regular conversations with a coach can help you reflect on your current capabilities as a leader and identify any opportunities to develop. You’ll then be able to put learnings into action and demonstrate new behaviours, helping you respond to rapid change and developing situations more effectively.