Insights From The Leadership Whisperer

There’s Nothing Soft about ‘Soft Skills’

Be the leader you always wish you had!


Hard to define, hard to measure, hard to manage, hard to regulate, ever-changing, often subtle and always nuanced. When we’re dealing with people, relationships, behaviours, team dynamics and cultures, it’s a minefield. A minefield with so many factors to consider like people’s varying and changing attitudes, intentions, interpretations, levels of awareness, trust levels, histories and legacies; the list is endless.  People and teams are complex, difficult to understand and difficult to manage yet we call that part of management the “soft stuff”.

Meanwhile, our businesses won’t tolerate a component manufactured out of spec, a shipment not meeting its deadline, a machine dropping efficiency or a quality issue.

These are not tolerated and easy to measure. These are the hard skills.

Our businesses put a lot of due effort into ensuring operations run smoothly by creating metrics, KPIs, and green, orange and flashing red flags to measure progress with getting product out the door, sales, margins, growth,profits and customer service.

I do not deny that managing the numbers in all of these areas is absolutely necessary. Where I struggle though, is how much we tolerate it when someone ‘shouts us out of it’, throws their toys out of the pram or inappropriately exercises their authority to get their own way while implementing the hard skills to achieve these numbers.

Why is it that we often simply accept that some leaders create an environment of mistrust and fear around them and are, at times, unapproachable, disrespectful, moody, cynical and just downright mean in their drive to ‘meet the numbers’?

These are tolerated and not easy to measure. These are the soft skills.

When these skills of managing and leading people are considered ‘soft’ there is often a connotation that they are merely a ‘nice-to-have’, an unnecessary cost perhaps, and just not important enough right now.  However, when we ignore the importance of these ‘soft’ skills, the long-lasting negative effects run riot just under the visible iceberg tip, where nobody notices them until it’s too late.

Simon Sinek offers a nicer word for these vitally important skills. He calls them “Human Skills”, a term which I will gratefully borrow for the remainder of this article.

When the business appears to be successful – the product is in high demand, the objectives are being met, deadlines are being reached and the numbers are up – we can easily find ourselves lured into a false sense of security.

If our definition of success is based solely on the hard stuff which is carefully measured, it’s easy to convince ourselves that this is all we’ll ever need and therefore, we can avoid the tyranny of those dreadfully uncomfortable soft skills leadership training programmes.  Of course, these ‘easy to measure’ metrics still have to be achieved, it’s business as usual therefore, we absolutely need to focus on achieving collective results!

But imagine what would happen if we placed emphasis on achieving collective results by engaging the essential human skills; trusting each other more, bringing our authentic selves to work, listening to each other more attentively, comfortably expressing our truth, not tolerating disrespectful behaviours, engaging in productive conflict, challenging the ideas of others without fear of retribution, engaging in deep and honest conversation, holding each other accountable and always having each other’s backs?

This would inevitably result in environments where people are happy, feel seen and heard, enjoy their work and feel part of a psychologically safe environment.  What would it be like if we committed to all of this?

My experience and observations over the past 15 years, in working with leaders and teams in companies across sectors like pharmaceutical, FMCG, aviation, retail, manufacturing and engineering, provide explicit evidence of what happens when we either deem or fail to deem these ‘human’ skills as important…

When ‘human skills’ are not deemed as important – it’s obvious that people:

  • Tolerate disrespectful behaviour
  • Do not respectfully address and challenge bad behaviour or poor performance
  • Fail to name their truth – not asking for what they want
  • Don’t hold each other accountable
  • Hold back from respectfully challenging authority
  • Have low levels of trust with each other
  • Are in fear of and avoid any form of conflict
  • Create environments of artificial harmony around them (everybody is being nice but nobody is being real)
  • Experience low levels of psychological safety
  • Not being ‘all in’ and contributing to levels that they could

And when these skills are deemed as important – the evidence clearly shows that people:

  1. Trust each other
  2. Engage in respectful debate, even healthy conflict around ideas
  3. Commit to decisions and plans of action
  4. Hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans
  5. Laugh with each other (not at each other)
  6. Have each other’s backs
  7. Can embrace their vulnerability with each other
  8. They use discretionary effort – they don’t have to be asked to do what needs to be done
  9. They feel totally safe being themselves – they feel included, they can learn, they can contribute and can challenge the status quo without fear of retribution

You have a choice – you can operate in the way you always have, that gets you the same results you always got, or you can choose to raise the bar on your leadership, your teams and your culture.

You don’t get to do both.

There is nothing at all soft about soft skills or human skills but the good news is that all these skills are fully learnable and teachable, provided you are willing, interested, committed and intent on becoming the best leader you can be.

Explore how the Meta Navigator leadership development and Azurite’s Executive Coaching programmes could help you to be the leader you wish you always had. Visit or contact me for an exploratory chat.

Mary T, The Leadership Whisperer. 2021