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How to Assess Leadership Soft Skills

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Posted by Darleen DeRosa September 19, 2019

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Leadership assessment and training is an essential element of succession planning for any organization. While there are many factors involved in a comprehensive assessment strategy, identifying and evaluating leadership soft skills are among the most important. Developing these critical leadership competencies can help leaders build the emotional agility and personal resilience necessary to meet today’s business challenges.

What Are Leadership Soft Skills?

While hard or technical skills are rather easy to measure, soft skills tend to be more diffuse and contextual. They are best defined as a range of personality traits and behaviors that affect how a person interacts with others. Soft skills help a person to communicate clearly, demonstrate empathy, utilize influencing strategies, and inspire or motivate people. They can also indicate whether or not an employee will exhibit self-motivation, demonstrate emotional intelligence, or embrace self-development.

In most cases, hard skills represent specific knowledge or capabilities usually gained through education or work experience. Understanding how to write code for a mobile application in a specific programming language, for instance, would be a clear example of a hard skill. But being able to lead a team of developers through the process of building and launching that application, however, would require an array of soft skills.

Organizations generally regard soft skills as more difficult to develop than hard skills. While technical skills are usually teachable, soft skills are more closely associated with a person’s emotional intelligence and personality. Companies often use a variety of methods to assess soft skills during the selection or promotion process, but many of them are flawed in some way.

Why Leadership Soft Skills Matter

As more technical and professional tasks become automated by artificial intelligence, soft skills are becoming even more important . These skills are critical to leadership because building trust, promoting accountability, and fostering  engagement are the primary responsibilities of today’s leaders. It’s hardly a surprise that LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends report found that 92 percent of talent professionals stated that soft skills mattered as much or more than hard skills in the hiring process and that 89 percent of bad hires usually lack soft skills.

Failing to identify leaders with the right set of soft skills can have damaging long-term consequences on an organization. Without the ability to build genuine relationships with their teams and coach others, leaders will struggle to be effective when it comes to managing their teams. Whether they communicate poorly, micromanage employees, or engage in abusive, toxic behavior, a leader without strong soft skills can quickly create a work environment that struggles to build trust, hold people accountable, or retain talented employees.

How to Assess Leadership Soft Skills

Identify What Skills Are Valued

Soft skills can encompass a broad range of behaviors, so it’s important to know which skills are most important. For instance, some organizations may prioritize communication skills while others focus on resilience or the ability to be team players. These needs will inform the way assessments are designed, both to evaluate potential hires and to inform succession decisions for existing employees. Well-designed competency models are essential to any organization’s assessment strategy. They not only describe the expectations and responsibilities associated with a particular position, but also outlines the combination of hard and soft skills necessary for a candidate to be successful in that role. With a comprehensive competency model in place, organizations can ensure that their assessment process is looking at the right skills and providing the right developmental materials to high-potential leaders in their succession pipeline.

Don’t Just Look at Performance

Organizations often make the mistake of putting too much emphasis on performance when making promotion decisions. Since performance is generally easy to measure quantitatively, building an assessment and selection strategy that focuses on task-oriented metrics can often seem very objective. The problem is that it doesn’t necessarily reflect how well someone will perform in a new position. Only about one-in-seven high-performing employees are also high-potential leaders, and the difference between them often comes down to the soft skills that are central to the core competencies of leadership. This is not to say that performance isn’t important, of course, but it should be evaluated in such a way to determine how well a candidate fulfills their responsibilities and takes accountability rather a simple measure of technical skills. For instance, a top performer may produce good work, but a closer examination may reveal that they do so by limiting how much they work with others, putting in far longer hours, and refusing to delegate tasks. This might suggest that they will struggle to communicate effectively and set reasonable expectations for their teams in a leadership position, all of which require strong soft skills.

Be Aware of Unconscious Bias

While interviews can provide helpful insights into a leader’s soft skills, relying solely upon these interviews can result in biased decision-making. A person’s ability to communicate well and provide the “correct” responses to questions may not tell the interviewer much about their ability to manage people or build trust effectively in the workplace. Organizations can sometimes fall into the unconscious bias trap by stressing the importance of cultural fit, which leads them to promote and hire people with broadly similar skills and outlooks. Diversifying the assessment process by utilizing a variety of tools (interviews, questionnaires, performance reviews, 360º feedback, and so on) can help to reduce the impact of bias because it forces decision-makers to evaluate an employee from a variety of perspectives rather than relying on any one data point. 

Assess Leadership Soft Skills in Action

The majority of talent professionals rely upon behavioral leadership assessment questions to assess soft skills, but organizations are increasingly looking for new ways to evaluate how well people use their soft skills in real-time. One strategy involves asking someone to solve a problem using their technical skills, only to then introduce new constraints and challenges to see how they respond. If they struggle to communicate and collaborate effectively throughout the process, it could indicate that their soft skills need some refinement. For leaders with a performance track record, reviewing how they handled conflict between team members, used influence to resolve an issue, or addressed a performance issue with one of their direct reports is often valuable.

Assessing leadership soft skills is a critical component of succession planning and leadership training for today’s organizations. By determining what soft skills they want to emphasize and developing clear competency models that help promote those skills, they can develop a strong succession strategy that identifies high potential employees and provides them with the tools they need to grow into successful agile leaders.

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Topics: soft skills

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