Why Human and Relational Skills Are Not “Soft”

The Jennifer Nash Newsletter

For most of us in the United States, the worst of the COVID-19 health crisis is over. But the whole country—and, dare I say, the entire world—is still very much experiencing a pandemic. A leadership pandemic. 

Bosses who actually know how to lead people effectively are few and far between. Many are operating using command-and-control leadership, a style that doesn’t work anymore

The pandemic underscored this when almost overnight, leaders faced unprecedented people leadership challenges—and many realized they lacked the proper interpersonal tools to handle them. The pandemic didn’t create ineffective leadership, but it certainly exacerbated it.

To recover, we must shift into a new leadership paradigm. One that recognizes people—rather than processes or deliverables—as the true value creators of an organization. 

So, how do you lead people effectively? What are so many in leadership roles missing to do the job well?

The Key to Leading People: Social Skills

Organizations—at least, the ones that are thriving—have adapted their criteria for leadership position qualifications. Task management skills and industry expertise are no longer at the top of the list. They’re not what drives organizational performance, people are. So now, savvy organizations are seeking leaders with social skills, especially for executives.

Another common name for social skills is “soft skills.” As you probably inferred from the title, I’m not a raving fan of this term. 

Soft skills refers to the communication, collaboration, and empathy skills used to effectively work with people. It’s often used interchangeably with “social skills,” “interpersonal skills,” and “people skills.”

Whatever you call them, there is nothing soft about these abilities. They are the hardest skills to measure and master. And—they are the most important. People drive everything in an organization. The ability to work well and connect with people is the determinant factor for long-term success, both individually and on an organizational level. The consequences of under-developed social skills in leaders are far-reaching. It can prevent or limit your success. 

I strongly dislike the term “soft skills” because “soft” misrepresents the elemental nature of this skill set and the gravity of its importance. I prefer to emphasize their purpose and importance by calling them human and relational skills.

Why Human and Relational Skills?

When you move from a role focused on performing tasks to one focused on leading people, the skills you used to perform tasks are no longer applicable—at least, not for leadership functions. As Marshall Goldsmith succinctly puts it, what got you here won’t get you there. You can’t manage or lead humans the way you manage projects.

A leader’s role entails many duties. They develop and communicate vision. They provide tools and training to develop team members and ensure they have everything needed to do their work. They shape company culture to create an environment for success. Leaders also have the unique job of holding themselves and team members accountable for performance and behaviors that align with the desired culture.

All of these responsibilities involve communication, collaboration, and understanding humans. You know, those predictably irrational, perfectly imperfect beings with strengths, weaknesses, and wondrous, intricate thoughts and feelings. Gaining awareness of, understanding, and practicing leadership through the human element of business is a completely different set of competencies than managing tasks and projects.

Human skills involve tapping into your own humanity and using it to inform your decisions. Relational skills entail using your understanding of the human experience to connect with others. These capabilities facilitate leading people. They drive performance and build success. Human and relational skills are the core of effective people leadership—a necessary quality in the modern workplace. They are critical to success.

Why Average Leaders Lack Social Skills

In his book The Future of Work, Jacob Morgan suggests there is a 15- to 20-year gap between people leader promotion and training. This gap partly explains why so many leaders struggle with the leap from managing projects to leading people. Without coaching, proper training, or development opportunities, leaders are left to their own devices trying to effectively lead people.

The problem is, we are professionally trained to ignore the human element in the workplace. Have you ever been told to “leave it at the door” when you clock in? The expectation that what’s going on in your “personal” life shouldn’t affect your performance is a common (and unrealistic) standard many workplaces hold that neglects the human element. 

Failing to account for the human element hinders our ability to lead. It causes us to miss social cues, skews our priorities, degrades performance, and decreases engagement.

And yet, human and relational skills are not taught directly the way technical or “hard” skills are; i.e., there is no “leadership” course scheduled alongside math and science classes in our core education programs. The opposite of “soft” skills, “hard skills” refers to specialized knowledge required to execute tasks. Think of all the software, tools, and procedures you’ve learned to perform specific tasks for your role.

For a long time, organizations (erroneously) considered hard skills the source of a worker’s value. After all, it’s those skills that are used to create the deliverables and perform the services that bring in revenue. They keep the operation running, right?

Wrong! While they are important to completing the work, it’s the people using those skills creating the value. People determine the quality of the work produced using those hard skills—and that quality fluctuates, because it depends on the well-being of the person performing the work. 

Organizations focused on hard skills don’t account for a leader’s influence on team members’ well-being. They offer promotions based on performance without considering the leadership duties that come with the new role, so they don’t evaluate the social skills of an individual before moving them up. Nor do they offer any way to develop interpersonal skills.

But they really should. Because the way a leader interacts with their team impacts their well-being, and therefore the quality of the work. And effectively interacting with people requires good social skills, not hard skills.

Why don’t employers account for social skills when hiring or promoting people leaders? It’s likely because human and relational skills are not as easy to define and measure as hard skills. When we have no system to measure something, there is no way to assign it value. So, it’s the quantifiable, measurable hard skills (especially those related to STEM fields) that are heavily emphasized in school and the workplace. With so much focus on technical skill proficiency, human skills development in the workplace is sorely neglected, leaving few leaders technically proficient in the human element.

That’s how we got to the state the pandemic revealed: leadership ranks full of people who are great at performing tasks and producing deliverables, but not so great at collaborating, building relationships, and communicating effectively.

How to Work on Social Skills

No matter where you are in your leadership journey, it’s always beneficial to strategically invest in developing your human and relational skills. With today’s workplace opening its eyes to the importance of the human element, there are more resources available than ever before to help you hone this vital skill set.

With that said, I know it can feel overwhelming to get started. That’s why I’ve created the Human Leader Index™ (HLI) to help. 

The HLI consists of 67 questions designed to measure your people leadership strengths and areas of opportunity. Upon completion of this complimentary questionnaire, you will receive a personalized report with your results.

At the end of the day, people want to be seen, heard, understood, appreciated, inspired, and feel they matter. I know it sounds like a lot, but trust me. Developing your human and relational skills will equip you with the tools you need to fulfill all these needs for the people you lead. 

If you want more guidance, Be Human, Lead Human: How to Connect People and Performance (available now) offers exercises and resources to help you create a strategic roadmap to start elevating your leadership. You can download the first three chapters for a limited time at BeHumanLeadHuman.com.

Growing your social and leadership skills is essential if you want to climb the ladder and drive organizational success. For more insightful content to help you elevate your leadership, be sure to subscribe to this LinkedIn newsletter and explore my blog.

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