Over the past couple of years, a trend has emerged in research and articles about the importance of so-called “soft” skills for leaders. Recently, that thinking seems to be accelerating. Some have suggested that soft skills are the new “hard” skills for leaders.1 Others have suggested that soft skills deserve a rebrand because of their importance in the workplace.2 But whether they are called soft skills, power skills, core skills, interpersonal skills, or as we’ve referred to them, socioemotional skills, it is fair to say they are having a moment.
This popularity is not surprising given the increase in employee power in the job market, the talent shortage, increased unionization, widespread remote work, and a greater focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is understandable that some conclude that socioemotional skills are new skills for a new world3 or that there has been a fundamental shift4 in what it takes to be an effective leader. These conclusions are well intentioned but incorrect.
Soft Skills Aren’t Just a Fad
These skills have always been important for leaders. Consider socioanalytic theory, which posits that humans are driven by core needs of getting along, getting ahead, and making sense of the world. Early human groups faced threats from the environment and animals, as well as threats from other human groups. More cohesive groups tended to survive, meaning they were skilled at getting along. Successful groups also excelled at getting ahead together, meaning they performed better than other groups. Leadership is an evolved solution to the problem of group coordination (getting along) and survival (getting ahead).
More (relatively) recent research established the importance of socioemotional skills in leadership. For example, the famous Ohio State studies,5 which began in the 1940s, identified two important categories of leader behaviors:
- Initiation of structure includes critiquing others’ work, setting performance standards, and setting uniform procedures.
- Consideration includes behaviors such as doing personal favors for group members, taking time to listen, treating people equally, and being friendly and approachable.
Later, in the 1970s, V. Jon Bentz, a vice president of human resources at Sears, conducted research about managerial failure.6 He found that most leaders fail due to interpersonal incompetence, not IQ or technical skills (a.k.a. hard skills). Similarly, our research at Hogan in the past several decades highlights the importance of socioemotional skills for leaders and others. The data show that good judgment, humility, integrity, vision, and drive, to name just a few characteristics, are critical for selecting high-performing leaders.
Selecting Leaders with Socioemotional Skills
In the past few years, so-called soft skills have been critical to help leaders effectively navigate the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world we all face. Despite the recent attention, the truth is that socioemotional skills have always been an important part of leader effectiveness. For organizations, using a scientific, research-based approach to talent acquisition—rather than trend chasing—will always yield the best results.
This blog post was written by Scott Gregory, PhD, a renowned expert in IO psychology.
- Trudeau-Poskas, D. (2020, January 29). Soft Skills Are 2020’s Hard Skills—Here’s How to Master Them. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2020/01/29/soft-skills-are-2020s-hard-skills-heres-how-to-master-them/?sh=aa0ea0d70f27
- Bersin, J. (2019, October 31). Let’s Stop Talking About Soft Skills: They’re Power Skills. Josh Bersin. https://joshbersin.com/2019/10/lets-stop-talking-about-soft-skills-theyre-power-skills/
- Patnaik, D. (2022, December 16). The Disney Effect: How CEOs Can Fortify Against The Panic-Button Era. Chief Executive.https://chiefexecutive.net/the-disney-effect-how-ceos-can-fortify-against-the-panic-button-era/
- Pontefract, D. (2022, December 6). The Seismic Shift in Leadership. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/danpontefract/2022/12/06/the-seismic-shift-in-leadership/?sh=2b372d948485
- Li, M. (2018, June 8). What Have We Learned from the 100-Year History of Leadership Research? (Part II). The Ohio State University Fisher College of Business. https://fisher.osu.edu/blogs/leadreadtoday/blog/what-have-we-learned-from-the-100-year-history-of-leadership-research-part-ii
- Bentz, V. J. (1985). A view of the top: a thirty-year perspective of research devoted to the discovery, description and prediction of executive behavior [Conference presentation]. Division 14, 93rd Annual Convention, American Psychological Association, Los Angeles, CA, United States.