How soft skills add to leadership success

The key to fostering genuine connections in the workplace

Written by Emma Mason AIMM
5 minute read

For modern leaders, recognising the value of soft skills has outstripped the traditional emphasis on technical expertise.

As we step into an era characterised by advanced technology and collaborative environments, the ability to harness soft skills has become a defining factor that sets outstanding leaders apart.

Workplace Conversations spoke with AIM WA CEO and social affairs and workplace expert, Professor Gary Martin FAIM to shed light on the influence of soft skills on leadership success and why these often intangible attributes pave the way for building resilient, innovative and empathetic leaders.

What are soft skills and why are they important in the workplace?

Soft skills are a set of personal attributes and abilities that are primarily centred around an individual’s self-awareness, self-management and self-expression.

At their core, these include the ability to problem-solve, manage time and think creatively.

Whether you're collaborating with colleagues from diverse cultural backgrounds or engaging with customers and clients globally, the ability to navigate complex dynamics and build strong relationships is the key to success.

“Some call them non-technical skills because they're not about having specialist knowledge, they're about building relationships, working in teams and monitoring your type of reactions to others,” Professor Martin said, adding that for many leaders, it can be easier to develop technical (hard) skills rather than soft skills.

However, leaders that solely focus on developing their technical skills may be missing out on opportunities for progression.

“You can't do too much with technical skills unless you’ve got these non-technical, people skills or soft skills,” he said.

“That's what it comes down to. It's building relationships with others, working with others, and managing yourself.”

What are interpersonal skills and how do they relate to soft skills?

Professor Martin sees interpersonal skills as closely related to soft skills, considering soft skills as the umbrella term and interpersonal skills as a branch.

In comparison, interpersonal skills are characterised by how a person relates to, communicates or interacts with others in professional or social contexts, while soft skills are more determinate of your character.

“A lot of soft skills are about your self-management,” Professor Martin said. “Whereas interpersonal skills tend to move into things like teamwork, communication skills, and particularly your listening skills.

“I believe that you have to view interpersonal skills as a branch of that broader category of people skills or soft skills.”

How does soft skill development lead to positive outcomes in the workplace?

In a competitive labour market, employees who encompass both hard and soft skills often see a greater demand for their services.

A study by Deloitte showed that developing soft skills in the workplace can boost revenue annually by up to $90,000, increase productivity by up to 12 per cent and have a positive impact on employee retention.

Professor Martin agrees with the link between soft skills and success, emphasising that this connection starts at the leadership level and has a ripple effect within an organisation. If leaders lack soft skill development, it can result in high turnover rates, affecting customer loyalty and organisational stability.

“We see a lot of organisations where it starts with the CEO who doesn't have any people skills, doesn't listen, relate to or respect people. Then there's mass turnover,” he said.

“[Currently] in some organisations we see 30-40 per cent of employees leaving each year. One of the ways to make sure that you retain staff is not just salaries, but it's the respect you show and the way you interact with people, which again, are soft skills.”

AIM WA Chief Executive Officer, Professor Gary Martin FAIM

Professor Martin further shared how harmful low retention rates can be to an organisation, due to the number of resources spent on recruiting and training staff, while losing existing corporate knowledge.

“Right through the organisation, if employees don't have well-developed soft skills when they're working with their colleagues, people are not going to be happy coming to work if they don't feel respected,” he said.

“If we aren’t speaking to people then people are not motivated … And that means that productivity is going to plummet. Based on my experience, soft skills and productivity go hand in hand.”

What are some common communication barriers that leaders face and how can they overcome these using their soft skills?

A lack of clear communication is having a detrimental impact across workplaces, with The Economist reporting that communication barriers are leading to a delay or failure to complete projects by 44 per cent, low morale by 31 per cent, missed performance goals by 25 per cent and even lost sales at 18 per cent.

These barriers are a common issue for many organisations, as individuals can struggle to adapt to different communication styles, made complex by generational and functional differences.

Professor Martin identified one of the most common communication barriers for leaders is not reinforcing key messages to ensure understanding.

“Leaders need to make sure that the critical points of communication are reinforced over and over to make sure that everybody is on board.” 

Poor communication is also a reflection of unclear instructions and time pressures. To overcome this, it is paramount for leaders to ensure there is an open dialogue between employers and employees.

“Very often leaders won't be available to talk to people and that’s going to cause communication challenges and impact productivity. It's also going to create confusion and ambiguity because people won't necessarily know the direction,” Professor Martin said.

“That's why soft skills are important for listening to what people have to say and then also having an opportunity to clarify. And that's more two-way communication.

“Leaders sometimes think that communication is a one-way process. They know it's not in practice, but that's what it looks like for many.”

What advice would you give to leaders on developing and enhancing their soft skills to achieve leadership success?

Professor Martin advises leaders to recognise the ongoing need for development in soft skills, especially at senior levels.

“Many leaders often believe they've reached a stage in their careers where they think ongoing development in this area is unnecessary. The major challenge lies in breaking the cycle of thinking that they have learnt everything they need to know, and not embracing further opportunities to enhance their people skills,” he said.

He further noted how continuous improvement in soft skills is essential, particularly for senior leaders who may become isolated the further they climb up the corporate ladder.

“The higher the senior role, the more important it is that you develop those skills,” he said.

“... I believe leaders think that they’re beyond ongoing development when it comes to their people skills. Yet there's always room for improvement.”

As we navigate the dynamic landscape of the modern workplace, the development of soft skills is a key differentiator to help leaders thrive.

Yet to remain effective and navigate communication barriers, leaders must view this as a process of continuous improvement to harness a harmonious and productive environment where all individuals in the workplace can feel heard, respected and understood.

After all, the strength of a team lies in our ability to comprehend and connect with one another.