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Are soft skills important at work?

Is it possible to be nice and still get ahead? Suzy Bashford thinks so, and argues that the traditionally ‘hard’ world of work is starting to soften…

by Psychologies

Growing up, I was told that I wore my heart on my sleeve, as if it was a bad thing. Later on, starting on the career ladder, I was advised that I needed to ‘toughen up’ and play the political power game if I wanted to get ahead. This culture was one of the reasons I didn’t think corporate life was for me and left to go freelance.

But, according to research, traditionally ‘feminine’, softer skills – like sensitivity, empathy, openness and a collaborative rather than competitive approach – are emerging as qualities essential for commercial success in today’s uncertain corporate climate.

The world has changed immeasurably since the industrial age, when the leadership style was ‘command and control’, or ‘transactional’, with bosses directing thousands of factory workers in menial, manual tasks. Back then, employees were only a focus of attention when operations went wrong, not when business ran smoothly.

Today, we’re living in the ‘knowledge era’, fuelled by technology, and working well with others is the key to both profits and happiness at work.

A high-performance working culture is not achieved through the ‘transactional’ leadership style, but through a ‘transformational’, more collaborative approach, says Gloria Moss, professor of marketing and management at Buckinghamshire New University. ‘The transformational approach is about focusing on people and working as a team. If you combine this with giving people rewards based on their performance, then research has shown this can produce 20 per cent increases in output. So, there’s a very strong business case for this style and research also shows that women are more likely than men to deliver it.’

Feminine touch

Edwina Dunn, co-creator of the Tesco Clubcard, is at the cutting edge of the knowledge economy as CEO of Starcount, a company that gathers information on social media to help organisations target customers better. It’s not her toughness that has got Dunn where she is today; it’s her warmth and interest in people.

‘I hate the idea that you have to behave like a bitch to get to the top,’ she says. ‘The greatest leaders I’ve met listen and are open-minded. I don’t think you can do either if you’re being aggressive and scaring people. If you scare them, you can’t hear them.’

Edwina’s is not a lone voice. Geraldine Gallacher, managing director of Executive Coaching Consultancy, has published research into the characteristics professional women working in the City of London most admire in female leaders. Despite the stereotypically cut-throat business environment of the City, the results underline the power of soft skills today: 43 per cent say they admire leaders who are self-assured and happy with who they are, 32 per cent say they look for leaders who are not afraid to show vulnerabilities and 24 per cent cited those who are open and sharing.

‘There’s real change afoot,’ says Gallacher. ‘Our research, along with other studies, is showing that collaborative skills, empathy and emotional intelligence are being seen as essential skills, as well as attributes like a global outlook and strategic thinking.’

Confident and assertive

The dilemma facing those who tend towards these softer skills is that they can be interpreted as weak and not confident, particularly by those who have a command-and-control mindset. Conversely, women who appear confident and assertive are often perceived as aggressive. So, what to do?

‘We need to re-interpret what confidence is, particularly when it’s in the female form,’ says Gallacher. ‘Women are more self-questioning. They worry and think about their impact on others. It’s part of being collaborative. We need to educate the workplace about the female psyche. It’s actually a sign of confidence to invite a critique of your ideas, as well as an excellent way to influence people.’

Society needs women to act as ‘a bit of a break’, she adds, pushing back against typically masculine traits, like over-zealous risk-taking. ‘And it’s not just in the corporate world that these softer skills have been missing – it’s across the whole of society.’

But change in the workplace is inevitable when you consider that women now outstrip men in tertiary education, more men are staying at home with their children or taking paternity leave, and more employees are working flexibly. Even the City will soften, says ex-stockbroker Heidy Rehman, who now runs Rose & Willard, an ethical womenswear brand.

When she set up her company, she purposely created a flat, open structure to generate a more collaborative, creative culture where her predominantly female workforce would thrive. While there are undoubtedly many benefits, she’s realised it’s equally important not to over-feminise the workplace and that more ‘hard-nosed’ masculine traits are crucial at times.

‘No boss can become too “soft”, or be anyone’s friend. Your staff look to you for direction and guidance. You set the tone. If you are unsure, that destabilises the whole team. I tell my staff not to cry either, because it shows you can’t cope, when you can.’

Rehman doesn’t like the way this discussion of ‘soft’ or ‘feminine’ skills inevitably becomes a divisive one, with men pitted against women. Neither do I, particularly as a mum of two young boys. But this is not about gender. It’s about masculine versus feminine traits and we all have a mixture of both. Just because my husband is a hairy, rugby-playing alpha male, for instance, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s any less nurturing and empathetic than me. In fact, he was the one who got up to do the night feeds when the boys were babies and he’s still the one they go to when they’re hurt. Arguably, I’m the more typically ‘masculine’ of the two of us, because I’m more single-minded and purposeful when it comes to achieving goals.

Manning up

These attitudes are being reflected at work now, too – millennial men scaling the corporate ladder are increasingly unafraid to show their feminine side. Take Andrew Smylie, a marketing manager at Microsoft, who has just been nominated as one of Marketing magazine’s 10 young marketers who represent the ‘Next Generation’ of leaders. He is proud of the fact that he is sensitive and believes it makes him good at his job. ‘I wear my heart on my sleeve. I’m the same person out of work as I am in work. We need to be more emotionally engaged at work to be able to connect with our customers.’

Trudi Elliott CBE, chief executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute, remembers when she started out as a lawyer, wearing a black suit to blend in with the men. ‘Now, if I want to wear a shocking yellow mac, I do,’ she says. ‘My advice is don’t pretend you’re not female, celebrate it.’

The tech sector, despite its lack of women, is trailblazing when it comes to embracing these leadership skills, which are particularly displayed by the few females in top positions, like Anastasia Emmanuel, director of online crowdsourcing platform Indiegogo.

Emmanuel says we’re seeing more diversity in leaders today and urges others not to be ‘apologetic’ for who they are. ‘Being nice is underrated; women feel they need to adopt male characteristics, but that’s not the way to get ahead,’ she says. ‘Similarly, they don’t want to be seen as an “emotional woman”, which is insane, because everyone has emotions and if we didn’t have them, we would be robots.’

It frustrates her that so many women believe they have to be cold and aggressive, as she has progressed by being the opposite. ‘You can have lots of feminine characteristics and be successful. The reason that women are amazing in business is precisely because of some of these characteristics, like empathy, openness, transparency and honesty. A lot of women downplay them to get ahead, but that’s just crazy. They’re why I hire women!’

Language is a blunt tool in this fight to bring more feminine skills into the workplace. For a start, these skills are not soft. They are strong. Secondly, by calling them ‘feminine’ we put off men (even the most emotionally intelligent) from wanting to develop them, in favour of more suitably male and traditionally ‘powerful’ traits. I see this happening already in the playground with my superhero-obsessed little boys, who always want to role-play characters like Thor, with his booming voice and constant smashing of an imaginary hammer.

I tell them that there are lots of other less obvious superpowers, which are just as cool. We’ve even created new superheroes together, like the ‘Kindness Crusader’ and the ‘Truth Trooper’. Doing this, I’m trying to plant the seed of an idea that these skills are not soft, or just for girls. I hope that, as they grow up, they learn to embrace both the hard and the soft – or masculine and feminine – parts of themselves without shame or apology, whether at home or at work. Just as I hope this for myself, and you. Like most things in life the power hangs in the balance, not the gender.

For more about Suzy Bashford, see wonderingwoman.co.uk

Photograph: iStock

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