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Why there’s nothing soft about soft skills


Updated by Hays UAE, March 2016

Alistair Cox, CEO of Hays shares his views around the importance of ‘soft skills’:

Why are soft skills, called ‘soft skills’? This is something I’ve never really understood. In my experience, they’re anything but soft and are often the hardest skills to attain. After all, the best technical skills and qualifications in the world can be taught, but they will have limited impact unless your business is equipped with managers who understand what motivates their employees, can communicate with their team effectively and listen. What frustrates me is that these so called ‘soft skills’, or what some label emotional intelligence (EQ), are often underappreciated and in some cases even ignored by many organisations.

In my opinion, the term ‘soft skills’ completely undersells their fundamental importance. Strong soft skills enable a leader to better understand, motivate and direct people, and as a result their teams are often more focused, productive and happier. Research from Rutgers University found leaders with higher EQ delivered greater profits – 139 per cent higher in one study – as well as higher customer satisfaction levels. I therefore find it staggering that while there is so much focus on technical skills, developing these crucial soft skills is not a higher priority for many in the business world. Recalling my own time at business school, precious little time was spent on developing these skills and while that may have changed in the last 25 years, it still does not get the attention it deserves.

So here are four ways I think leaders can ensure they are keeping on top of their softer skills and promoting the value of high EQ within their organisations:

1. Prioritise visibility

It’s all too easy for staff to hide behind email and shun face-to-face interactions, but everyone in your team should be seen to be accessible (including you) - this promotes better team working and heightened communication skills. As a business leader, you should set an example and actively demonstrate that interpersonal skills carry as much currency within your organisation as technical knowledge. I was once told by my boss at the time “It’s not about who you are, it’s about how you are, that makes a difference in a team”. I’ll never forget that advice. Ensuring you and your managers are visible and accessible, by simply walking the floor to discuss issues with staff face-to-face or dropping into the office canteen to join a team for lunch, for example, motivates and encourages employees to do the same. I’ve always believed that it’s often these unplanned face-to-face connections which prove most valuable in understanding the real mood of the business too.

2. Encourage an open culture

It’s important to build a culture in which all employees, no matter their experience, seniority or job title, feel confident to put forward ideas. You need to encourage yourself and others to think about what prevents someone speaking up in a meeting or putting forward an idea. Remove these barriers and create an atmosphere in which all employees feel confident and comfortable to communicate and share. Leaders should actively be encouraging their teams to get together more frequently to discuss the latest project or strategy and get everyone in the practice of coming to each meeting with a fresh, new idea. This confident, high-energy atmosphere will empower your team and will breed creativity. However, don’t be lulled into the false sense of security that just because you are doing it, that the culture is flowing down through the business. I’ve often encountered layers of what I term “Permafrost management”. Things flow from the top but never get past the Permafrost. Everybody below the Permafrost is in the dark. What’s the best way to get through? Go and see the team yourself and that will immediately tell you if you’ve got a Permafrost problem!

3. Listen properly

When was the last time you properly listened to your colleagues? Not listening to respond, but to really understand what they are saying and how you can help? Our always-on, digital world is making it harder for us to properly listen and learn because we are always so busy on the immediate and urgent tasks. I find that when I have a really important decision to take, I’m at my best when I can get away from the day-to-day environment to really discuss an issue without distraction, and that includes turning off my mobile phone. There is nothing more annoying than trying to debate an issue when someone is busy checking emails or WhatsApp. That basically says “I know you think this is important, but it’s way less important to me than seeing if anyone else wants my time”. How would you feel if you were on the receiving end of that? Not great, so don’t do it to others. Proper listening is hard and requires undivided attention if you are to make any impact. If you don’t have the time right now to do a proper job, be honest and tell your colleague and rearrange a more appropriate time.

4. Lead authentically

An authentic, high-EQ leader demonstrates self-awareness, resilience and can spark real and genuine connection with those around them. However, it’s very hard to fake being genuine or empathetic for long and those that do often find they come unstuck very quickly. You can’t force or mandate this in your own behaviour or throughout the business; it needs to become a habit, or the norm. Small things like recognising an individual team member’s contribution or providing positive feedback on an idea, can have a huge impact. Making sure the performance review process is encouraging and capturing soft skills will also demonstrate that the business’ intentions in this area are genuine.

Innovative products, the latest technology and employees with exemplary sector expertise are all integral ingredients, but in my experience it’s a team supplemented with rich soft skills that gives a business a competitive edge. With an emphasis on up-skilling specific expertise in recent years, a lack of focus on vital inter-personal skills and a dearth of good training in this area is now apparent within many businesses. Training will only get you so far though. Change needs to come from the top and become a part of the culture.

Over the years I have worked with some of the most successful and inspiring leaders in the business world. While their technical and strategic skills were key to their rise up within an organisation, all of them without exception recognised and promoted the value of softer skills, both for themselves and within their teams. More senior leaders need to understand that these important skills aren’t just a nice-to-have in an employee, they are crucial to the success of both the individual and the business. So please don’t dismiss these important skills as ‘soft’ and somehow optional. Make sure you view them with the same importance as technical skills, both in your new hires and in your existing employees.

I hope this provided you with some interesting reading! For more blogs from Alistair and other Hays bloggers, visit our career advice page here.