At a recent Q&A at Meta, Mark Zuckerberg caused backlash among employees by calling for a culture of aggressive goal-setting that would, in his words, “turn up the heat a little bit.” As the pressures of unpredictable economic challenges collide with talent shortages, The Great Resignation and now “quiet quitting,” leaders across industries are searching for ways to stimulate growth against the backdrop of tightening budgets, burned out employees and disillusioned workers. But they can’t drive meaningful change using an old leadership playbook that prioritizes profits over people.
Leading in the New World of Work
Organizations looking to drive productivity and business outcomes have long revered authoritative leaders for their hard management skills like financial analysis, budget implementation, market perspective and negotiation. In the past, being a good leader was synonymous with a no nonsense approach backed by quantifiable technical acumen, but as the workplace is changing alongside the world we live in, the definition of a “good leader” has fundamentally changed with it. Today, in order to support teams through unpredictable challenges and drive organizational progress amid constant uncertainty, leaders need strong soft skills like emotional intelligence (EQ) and adaptability.
Once regarded as intangible or innate, soft skills such as these have been undervalued compared to their quantifiable counterparts, especially in relation to effective leadership. Considered less technical and more emotional or social, soft skills took a back seat in an era where extraversion, toughness and competitiveness were seen as prerequisites for natural-born leaders. But in light of the changes the pandemic imposed on the workplace, research into effective leadership has highlighted the many flaws in this limited view of soft skills.
Part of the stigmatization of soft skills has been, in part, the historical gendering of these traits, even though it has been proven time and again that they drive better results. Recently, a Zenger Folkman “extraordinary leader” 360-degree assessment conducted during the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic showed that women in leadership were better at managing a crisis than their male counterparts. Data gathered from over 60,000 participants further showed that women leaders outperformed men on 13 of 19 soft skills competencies including, taking initiative, developing others and championing change. Based on the data from this assessment, employees valued leaders who, during challenging times, demonstrated the ability to adapt, emphasize employee development, display integrity and express understanding of the stress, anxiety and frustrations they were feeling.
While this assessment pointed to women in positions of leadership excelling in these categories, all leaders can and should be held accountable for meeting these very human needs. Employee calls for increased workplace wellness, opportunities for meaningful development and the ability to bring their passions and interests to the table are growing louder every day. Individuals across industries are emphatically requesting that employers rise to the occasion and leave the past in the past once and for all. Meanwhile, leaders clinging to micromanagement, scare tactics and old ways of leading continue to lose talent, and that won’t change if they don’t change first.
The new leadership playbook requires a shift in perspective: Trading the overemphasis on measurable technical skills for proper emphasis on the development of in-demand soft skills. A recent SHRM survey on the current state of leadership training in America’s Workplaces found that continued training and development were essential for success, citing that leadership soft skill development was an area where both employers and employees saw value.
Such skills have been easily dismissed as being difficult, or even impossible to assess and develop. How can skills like emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, or time management be measured? Continued hang-ups around these valuable competencies, however, are beginning to wane thanks in large part to advances in behavioral science that have made it possible to empirically measure soft skills like collaboration and conflict management in the same way technical skills like analytical thinking and financial savvy can be measured already.
Like any other measurement tool, soft skill competency assessments are backed by thoughtful research, making their normative data outputs comparable to that of a hard skill test. EZRA Coaching’s assessment platform EZRA Measure, for example, was developed by a team of behavioral scientists who rigorously studied and analyzed behavioral competencies across thousands of individuals to build a framework and taxonomy that allows for true evaluation of coachable behaviors through assessment tools.
Similarly, 15Five offers evidence-backed performance measurement methodologies grounded in Positive Psychology research, and eSkill, a global leader in skills testing and behavioral assessment solutions for employers, boasts an extensive library of customizable skills testing “beyond hard skills assessments.” Their research-based cognitive aptitudes and personality testing provide comprehensive pre-employment assessments that allow for the evaluation of soft skills with high potential for development.
These are just a few of the existing development tools that are transforming behavioral competencies into hard skills that can be measured at every stage, from onboarding to promotions. They’re also examples of how the learning and development (L&D) industry as a whole is evolving to support the demand for transformational leaders. Case studies from these companies further prove that soft skills are at the heart of what drives stronger teams and happier employees. Global leaders in behavioral assessments have made these important soft skills quantifiable, and because of that, opinions around their value and necessity are already changing.
Employers are recognizing that the post-pandemic work environment necessitates a people-focused approach with compassionate leaders at the helm. The significance of personal connection has been made clear in the hybrid work era as digital disconnects have made effective and emotionally intelligent communication skills paramount. What’s more, the mental health crisis has put developing soft skills at the forefront of workplace wellness initiatives, as many managers need to now support employee wellness alongside employee performance.
Focusing on soft skills has been cited as one of the top 10 leadership strategies for 2022, and when considering what employees want in a leader, it is a logical conclusion to make. People want to work for leaders who show them respect, create a sense of trust and empower them to see value in their unique traits. They want to feel like their managers care about them as an individual and share excitement in their passions and goals, and they want to feel like their mental and physical health is a priority, not a luxury or perk.
Yesterday’s soft skills are today’s most in-demand hard skills, and when embraced as such leaders can equip themselves and their teams to meet the moment. The new leadership playbook begins with shedding pre-pandemic ways and respecting that what makes a good leader are the soft skills that drive meaningful human connection and lay the foundation for building a better workplace for everyone. That is what merits a no-nonsense approach.