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Why ‘soft’ skills are the new ‘power’ skills

The rebranding of ‘soft’ skills to ‘power’ skill should not be considered a gimmick. It is positive recognition of the power of the interpersonal and communication skills and a fitting description of the strengths and skills that provide leaders with the power to lead, the power to collaborate and the power to communicate effectively – skills that that cannot be replicated or replaced by machines.

Amid our current profound economic challenges,  employee well-being and happiness has become a top priority for many organisations, influenced by the impact of remote and hybrid working as well as the challenges of employee retention and worrying mental health trends.

Where autocratic or transactional leadership (leadership based on action-reward) may have succeeded in the more hierarchical and stable world of the past, this world no longer exits.  A recent report on workplace trends from Indeed and Glassdoor claims employees are now demanding greater wellbeing in their experience at work, including increased levels of happiness, satisfaction, purpose, and manageable stress. Social justice in the form of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is also at the forefront of employee expectations – particularly among the younger workforce.

Exploration of research shows that leader behaviour is a key contributing factor to employee well-being, with various leadership theories proven to cultivate workplace well-being through the working environment, increased job satisfaction or improved employee engagement. With current trends indicating that employees are now more willing than ever to walk away from a job if they feel it negatively impacts their well-being, leaders need to really start to understand their people better as human beings rather than human ‘doings’.  This requires excellent people and communication skills as well as an ability to adopt flexible methods of communication, performance management, training and relationship building.

The rebrand of ‘soft’ to ‘power’ skills
Developing and leveraging ‘soft’ or human-centered skills such as communication, social and emotional intelligence, listening, empathy, relationship building, agile thinking and intercultural fluency have always been recognised as important for effective leadership.  But in a world that now expects a more a humanistic approach to leading, the narrative has tilted significantly towards these being necessary skills rather than simply important.

Describing people and communication skills as ‘soft’ has the potential to undermine and discredit their importance.  It also diminishes the difficulty and time it takes to master them. However, a new trend to rebrand them as ‘power’ skills is emerging, amplifying their criticality in leading, managing and developing people in order to survive and thrive in these challenging times.  Initially coined by Udemy Business, the shift in terminology from ‘soft’ to ‘power’ is positive recognition of the power of good interpersonal and communication skills and a much more fitting description of strengths and skills that provide leaders with the power to lead, the power to collaborate and the power to communicate effectively – skills that that cannot be replicated or replaced by machines.

Why the world needs leaders with power skills
COVID-19 didn’t reverse the long-term demographic trends that are destined to drive tight labour markets for the next decade (i.e. the ongoing shortage of workers in the US, Canada, UK, France, Germany and Japan because of aging populations). But it did accelerate changes to the workplace.   We now exist in global environment beset with challenges of talent retention, low levels of employee engagement and professional isolation brought on by remote and hybrid working conditions, worrying mental health trends and a cost-of-living crisis.  And these challenges have made many of the traditional beliefs, skills and behaviours of leaders, which have been primarily driven by data, facts and autocracy, almost obsolete.

The romanticised notion of leaders as high-profile, charismatic individuals who manage the resources within their organisation is now dead and leaders are now being called upon to create more positive and inclusive working cultures where everyone feels recognised, included and engaged. That involves a shift in how they think, operate and communicate rather than the introduction of new policies or benefits to an organisation. 

The challenges of cultivating power skills
Learning and cultivating the power skills required to deal with this new dynamic isn’t as simple as watching a training video or attending a 1-day training course.  And even before the learning stage it is important to identify and define what specific skills need work.

Assessing a gap in power skills will always prove challenging, since these typically lack systematic evaluation and certification mechanisms.  The good news is that organisations utilising 360 feedback assessments will already have a lot of information around the skills and skill-gaps of their leaders – assuming of course the assessments have been honestly completed by colleagues and peers without fear of retribution!

An often-quoted Peter Drucker phrase is “what gets measured gets managed”, But in the case of managing leaders’ skill development using 360-feedback, that may not always be the case and will very much depend on an organisation’s ‘why’ behind their 360 process. If the process is used primarily as an annual/bi-annual assessment tool with no mechanisms in place to correctly leverage the information beyond bonus/promotion season, then much valuable information may be overlooked, or even wasted, to the detriment of the organisation. However, when well-utilised it can provide the ability to inform and hone in on the power skills that need to be developed in each of their leaders.

As mentioned earlier, learning and cultivating power skills in leaders is definitely not a one-off online training event or one-size-fits-all group training course – not least because of the knowing-doing gap i.e. the disconnect between knowledge and action.  Skill development is behavioural rather than technical in nature as well as personal and individualised. This means a bespoke and often long-term developmental approach is needed, with research showing that can take up to 6 months for behavioural changes to be implemented and noticed by others.

One way to achieve this is through coaching – a well-researched development activity that has been shown to successfully cultivate mindset and behavioural changes in leaders. This is partly because it helps improve self-awareness (a power skill in itself!), since a good coach will help individuals interpret and understand information about themselves and provide accountability – often with wider more systemic benefits to an organisation. Regular structured feedback programmes are another initiative worth considering. However, what is key is that the skill development process is ongoing, with regular feedback and measurement to narrow that knowing-doing gap since habits and behaviours will not change without conscious effort and assessment.

As our global economy continues to navigate through choppy waters, employee well-being and happiness remain a key priority for organisations. Since no organisation can afford to ignore the importance of leading and building highly functional teams in a more humanistic way, the emerging trend to rebrand soft skills to power skills would appear to be more than just a gimmick. The power terminology is more fitting description of the skills required for the new paradigm of human-centred leadership that is needed in our world today.  And that surely means consciously investing in developing and monitoring the power skills of leaders to cultivate working cultures of happy, healthy and high-performing individuals.

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