Passive-Aggressive Behavior at Work

November 26, 2016

Effective communication is important to every successful organization because it enables the dissemination of information needed by employees to get things done and it builds relationships based on trust and commitment. Both are equally important.

In the workplace, effective communication can increase efficiency and productivity, enhance employee engagement, and decrease turnover. Conversely, ineffective communication can undermine efficiency and productivity, decrease engagement, and increase absenteeism and turnover.

As an organization development consultant and leadership coach, the challenges presented to me by clients very often come in the form of ineffective communication, and more often than not this has to do with some passive-aggressive behavior. It seems this is all too common in the workplace and is undermining our ability to communicate effectively.

I grew up in the Chicago area and I’ve now lived in Seattle for more than 30 years. While I have fully adapted and embraced my life in Seattle, I am continually confounded by the often polite yet oftentimes insincere behavior of people I encounter. It may be of little surprise then that three of my closest friends are also transplants from the Midwest where direct and blunt communication is more common.

Seattleites are often referred to as nice, but not necessarily friendly. A driver will sometimes come to a four-way stop at the same time as others and not simply yield to the driver on the right, but insist on waiting for the other person to go—regardless of their position. Then they complain about traffic congestion. Or people who agree to join you on a hike or other activity decline at the last-minute knowing full well they didn’t want to go in the first place, but wouldn’t say so.

In the workplace, passive-aggressive behavior shows up in many forms such as: committing to action items and then not following through; acting friendly with coworkers and then speaking about them negatively behind their backs; speaking publicly about the benefits of collaboration across the organization yet covertly maintaining a silo mentality.

Passive-aggressive behavior is often a way for people to get their emotional point across without having healthy conflict, according to Annie McKee, founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute and coauthor of Primal Leadership. It can also be due to their inability to communicate or deal with conflict effectively.

McKee suggests recounting how some of your previous interactions have played out and explaining the impact they have had on you and perhaps others. If it’s feasible, show how that behavior is working against what he or she cares about, such as achieving the organization’s goals. However, whatever you do, don’t accuse the person of being passive-aggressive as this will only make him or her defensive.

Specifically, McKee suggests the following for how you can deal effectively with passive-aggressive behavior:

  1. Consider what’s motivating the behavior – Ensure that their assumptions are accurate.
  2. Own your part – You likely share some aspect of the blame, so admit it.
  3. Focus on the content, not the delivery – Don’t get caught up in the emotion.
  4. Acknowledge the underlying issue – Read between the lines; all is not what it seems.
  5. Watch your language – Do not label or judge, but explain the impact their behavior is having on you.
  6. Find safety in numbers – Inquire how others’ comments may have impacted them.
  7. Set guidelines for everyone – Make it clear about who’s responsible for what and maintain accountability.
  8. Get help in extreme situations – When necessary, recruit others to help you move forward with someone in a position of greater power.
  9. Protect yourself – Don’t disregard your own work and avoid contact with this person if at all possible.

Both the person behaving passive-aggressively and the person responding to it ineffectively can be viewed through the lens of emotional intelligence. Navigating relationships effectively when under stress requires maintaining an understanding of what one thinks, wants and feels in relation to the other, along with being able regulate one’s behavior and demonstrate empathy while in those situations.

Dealing effectively with someone who behaves passive-aggressively, therefore, requires you to rely on your ability to really know and control yourself while also showing concern for the other person.

Passive-aggressive behavior is at odds with the effective communication necessary for trust and commitment in successful relationships. You can do your part to lessen the spread and severity of those who behave this way. When more of us engage in a healthy response to passive-aggressive behavior, the less we will feel and see its impact. And this will result in helping to raise effective communication in the workplace.

Is Your Personality Impacting Your Career?

June 14, 2014

How much is your personality contributing to or detracting from success in your career?

One’s personality can directly impact their career because it can attract or repel other people. This matters in all relationships and it definitely impacts interpersonal relations in the workplace.

Have you been told of specific behaviors in annual reviews, 360 assessments or one-on-one conversations that are directly keeping you from being considered for a promotion or a raise? Are you unable to secure professional references that can attest to your personality as anything other than an asset to your suitability for a job?

If the answer to either of these is affirmative, you may want to consider gaining insight into the specifics of your personality and seeking advice on how to go about changing them.

The Big Five personality model divides personality into five broad categories: openness (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious), conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless), agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. analytical/detached), neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident), and extroversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved). Within each of these are specific traits or behaviors.

There are advantages and disadvantages to being oriented to either side in each of these categories, but some are more important than others in certain occupations. For example, a sales representative who is detached and reserved is unlikely to do as well as one who is friendly and outgoing.

It should also come as no surprise that studies have found that people who are more conscientious do better both in school and at work. Those who score high on agreeableness and low on neuroticism also tend to have more satisfying and stable relationships.

And extroversion was related positively to salary level, promotions, and career satisfaction while neuroticism was related negatively to career satisfaction, according to The Five-Factor Model of Personality and Career Success by Scott E. Seibert and Maria L. Kraimer.

According to Brent W. Roberts, PhD in what he calls the Maturity Principle, we all naturally become more conscientious and less neurotic as we age from 20 to 65. Most of us also tend to become more agreeable, more responsible and more emotionally stable as we age.

It turns out personality is about 50% innate and 50% learned, according to Christopher Soto, a research psychologist. This means you have a great deal of control over changing it should you decide to do so.

An emotional intelligence assessment can help zero in on your overall self-awareness. Specifically, it can measure your ability for self-reflection, self-regulation and empathy while in stressful workplace situations. This greater awareness can then help you figure out what you may want to do about it.

Changing any behavior should be done in small steps and takes discipline and dedication. Enlisting others or even a leadership coach can be helpful in order to give you the support you need to be successful.

Though the tendency is to focus on education, training and experience in order to move forward in our careers, it is often our behavior, communication style, and overall personality that may be worthy of consideration.

Better understanding how your personality contributes to or diminishes your relationships at work, can help you decide whether or not this is something you want to change. Though it’s difficult, we are all capable of changing our behavior. And it could make all the difference in your success at work and elsewhere.

Negative Emotions Impede Organizational Productivity

July 12, 2012

In your workplace you probably know a Debbie Downer or someone who is always able point out what is wrong and how the glass is really half empty.

Such a constant negative perspective can have a contagious effect on others and should be monitored so it doesn’t impede productivity throughout the organization.

Emotions, both positive and negative, can and do play a role at work even though we may think we are effectively holding them in check. This is because emotions impact our behavior—whether we want to admit it or not—and others see this behavior.

I grew up in a family where sarcasm was considered a high comedic art form. In reality, sarcasm is typically ridicule or mockery and usually used for destructive purposes. Sarcasm usually has some underlying and unexpressed emotion attached to it.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky considered sarcasm a cry of pain when he said it is “usually the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.”

In a recent Harvard Business Review post by Tony Schwartz, he wrote how the negative emotions of a new executive at his company altered the corporate culture such that the entire organization was more negative. It wasn’t that this leader was only being critical, but he was so “singularly focused on what was wrong that he lost sight of the bigger picture, including his own negative impact on others.”

This emotional contagion resulted in others taking on these same negative feelings and sapping the vital energy from the organization. Ultimately, this leader had to be let go because of the ramifications his negative outlook had on the leadership team and overall employees.

I am not advocating wearing blinders to what is wrong within an organization. Instead, it’s important to seek out what is indeed wrong and then have an optimistic vision on how to improve things in order to get to a sustainable change.

We also need to keep in mind how our behavior and attitude can impact those around us. Even though we may not feel we are being overly critical when pointing out flaws in a product design or service procedure, others may feel it is. Sometimes this is only a matter of being more tactful in our delivery.

And this is not to say I mean avoid being authentic at work. Authenticity is vital to your emotional well-being, and emotional intelligence can help you understand and regulate your emotions as well as be aware of the emotions of other people. Then you can choose how to appropriately respond to any given situation.

Negativity is a powerful force and can spread quickly throughout an organization, especially if it is the predominant emotion witnessed in leaders. Many leaders will defend this perspective as they believe it is a powerful motivator, and it may very well be for some employees and for some period of time.

But in the long run and for the majority of people, a negative perspective will suck the energy and productivity from an organization. It will reduce employee engagement and it will harm the bottom line.

Is there someone in your organization draining it of energy? Does the leader exhibit generally positive or negative emotions and how have these influenced his or her management team and the entire organization?

Increased Productivity Through Mindfulness

May 24, 2012

In this global economy with virtual meetings, social networking, and hyper-competitiveness, it is encouraging to see a large corporation choosing to embrace mindfulness. This mindfulness training is seen as a means to increase productivity as well as employee happiness.

Google’s popular course called “Search Inside Yourself” was designed to teach emotional intelligence through practical, real-world meditation. But this is not about sitting in the lotus position reciting “Ommmmm.” Instead it is a pragmatic approach for raising awareness in order to be more productive and happy.

Based on curriculum from his popular class which has been offered to Google engineers for the past five years, Chade-Meng Tan wrote a funny and practical book titled, Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace).

What I find particularly compelling about Chade-Meng’s book and course is that he applies these ancient principles in the 21st century workplace. He believes that we can all achieve inner peace (and ultimately world peace) as well as become more productive in the workplace setting.

According to Chade-Meng, the course has been able to provide the knowledge and practices that can increase creativity, productivity and happiness. The book promises readers will learn to:

  • Calm your mind on demand
  • Improve your concentration and creativity
  • Perceive mental and emotional processes with increased clarity
  • Discover that increased confidence is something that can arise naturally in a trained mind
  • Develop optimism and resilience necessary to thrive
  • Deliberately improve empathy with practice
  • Learn that social skills are highly trainable

This mindfulness is developed through learning the skills of emotional intelligence, which I’ve written about in previous posts. Based on the neuroplasticity of the brain, what we pay attention to gets done. What we think, do and pay attention to actually changes the structure and function of our brains. And like any training, practice is required for this to take full effect.

Mindfulness, according to Jon Cabat-Zinn, means to pay attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally. This enables you not only to become calm, but also more and creative.

A successful practice supports reflection over reactivity, encourages feeling your feelings rather than acting on them, and opens awareness to what is really going on. This means slowing down to notice. Any mindfulness is good mindfulness.

If Google has seen fit to offer this free course to its employees for more than five years, they certainly must have vetted its overall effectiveness. Analyzing qualitative data such as happiness is extremely difficult, but I suspect Google has found that those who have completed the course are in fact more productive.

And I strongly believe happy employees are indeed more productive employees.

You can see an hour-long presentation about this by Chade-Meng in this YouTube video.

Working for the Best Companies

January 25, 2012

Fortune magazine’s recent “100 Best Companies to Work For” list made me curious as to how they determine such a list. I also wanted to know what traits these companies look for in potential employees.

The 100 Best Companies list was compiled through a partnership with the Great Places to Work institute, and they determine ranking based on the results from survey questions sent to a random sample of 260,000 employees from the 280 companies that participated.

To be eligible for the list, a company had to be at least seven years old and have more than 1,000 U.S. employees.

Two-thirds of the questions from the institute’s Trust Index Asseessment & Employee Survey were related to attitudes about management credibility, job satisfaction and camaraderie. The other third were based on responses to the institute’s Culture Audit, which includes detailed questions about pay and benefit programs and a series of open-ended questions about hiring practices, methods of internal communication, training, recognition programs and diversity efforts.

This is obviously not a list compiled based on popularity, exceptional salaries or who has the most celebrated CEO at a given time.

The goal of the list is to help “tie Trust Index metrics to your organization’s Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) so that you can understand the relationship between your organization’s business goals and your employees’ workplace experiences.”

This sounds like a worthy goal, especially in light of recent news about the deplorable working conditions in the Foxconn factory in China.

Companies are are broken down into groups such as the number of employees and include sub-groups such as job growth, low turnover, no layoffs, percentage of women, percentage of minorities, and all stars—companies that have been on the list every year since its inception in 1998. This includes 13 companies like SAS Institute (3), Wegman’s Food Markets (4), REI (8), Goldman Sachs (33), Microsoft (76) and Nordstroms (61).

Best perks can include things like health care (14 of the companies pay 100% of their employee health-care premiums), child care, work-life balance, telecommuting, sabbaticals, and unusual perks (Google has nap pods and in-house eyebrow shaping).

In this economy perhaps most important is the category of who is hiring and most of these companies are now looking for talent. In fact, there are more than 56,000 openings currently available in these 100 companies.

Human resource and recruiting personnel at these companies say they are looking for candidates with traits like passion, attitude, communication skills, collaboration, an interest in learning and values that align with our organization.

Here are some examples:

At Google (1)“. . . in addition to looking for strong cognitive ability and meaningful work experience,” says Yolanda Mangolini, director, global diversity, talent & inclusion. “We also want people with interesting and unique accomplishments—sports, music, starting a business, or writing a book, for example. Cultural fit and diversity are very important to us.”

Whole Foods Market (32) say they hire for attitude and train for skill. “If we can find applicants who have strong customer service skills and high energy, and are enthusiastic about the organic and natural foods industry (and who love food), then they are a fit for us,” according to Janet Lapaire, CHRP team member service coordinator.

Adobe’s (41) VP of global talent acquisition Jeff Vijungco says, “We want candidates to share some of the biggest failures that have shaped who they are as a leader because we celebrate failures as defining moments in an employee’s professional development.”

Intel’s (46) greater Americas staffing manager Cindi Harper, says they look for candidates “with behavioral characteristics that extend beyond their specific educational training.”

Brent Bultema, director of recruitment strategies at Mayo Clinic (71) says “strong candidates are people whose personal values align with those of Mayo Clinic. Individuals who are collaborative, collegial, professional, respectful and passionate will be a good fit.”

“Cisco (90) looks for people who are strong collaborators and communicators,” says Bronwyn White, director of human resources. “We look for people with a track record of continuous learning and who are prepared to question the status quo within their discipline. We value flexibility and promote work-life integration while making sure that we focus on results.”

“I have the great fortune to work with people everyday that love what they do and where they work” says Jack McCarthy, a recruiter at CarMax (91). “We want to see that same passion from candidates throughout our entire interview process. My advice to candidates is along the same lines; figure out what you do really well and enjoy, and find a company that has the right culture fit.”

In addition to general technical competency for the specified job, all of these Top 100 Companies are looking for candidates who have behavioral competencies also known as emotional intelligence or EQ.

The EQ traits they look for can include things like interpersonal communication, collaboration, empathy, creative problem solving, and conflict negotiation and resolution. And these companies want people who fit in with their organization’s values and culture because that is what keeps them on this best companies list.

EQ traits are not easily conveyed via a resume and therefore it is vital that they be demonstrated throughout the interviewing process. If you are serious about joining one of these companies, keep this in mind as you navigate the opportunity.

Redefined Leadership through Greater Gender Diversity

December 9, 2011

Women have made great strides succeeding in every profession, yet still find little opportunity in the executive office and corporate boardrooms.

By 2009 women made up more than half of America’s labor force, however, only 12 women were CEOs or presidents of Fortune 500 companies and just 25 of Fortune 1000 companies.

Recently, former Ebay leader Meg Whitman was appointed CEO of HP and Virginia Rometty will soon take over as the first woman CEO of IBM. But these are anomalies as only 3.2% of CEOs in the 3,049 publicly traded companies analyzed by GMI were women.

According to a 2010 study, men hold 82% of seats in Fortune 100 corporate boardrooms and an even higher percentage in Fortune 500 companies. Women and minorities have actually been losing boardseats in large corporations since 2004.

A case could be made for increasing gender diversity not only to provide greater opportunities for women in business, but also to improve overall business.  This is not to say women necessarily make better leaders than men. I only suggest that the yardstick we use to identify successful business leaders may need to be recalibrated.

Leadership qualities in business include such personal behaviors as decisiveness, goal-directedness, and performance-orientation, and we should complement those with social behaviors like relational awareness, emotional intelligence, inclusion, empathy and intuition. These social behaviors are more often associated with women than men, but they can be learned by anyone.

Do the personal and social pressures women face make it harder for them to succeed as leaders in a corporate environment? Countless factors may come into play for women including, maternal and domestic priorities, greater societal pressures, double-standard for behaviors in the office, and the burden of maintaining physical appearances.

The fact is that standards in the business world are still made and enforced by men, and this makes it difficult for women to reach the top in any corporation.

This is especially unfortunate as studies from McKinsey and Catalyst continually find that companies in the US and Europe with a high number of women executives and board members perform better organizationally and financially.

According to Catalyst research, the 25 Fortune 500 companies with the best records for promoting women to senior positions have 69 percent higher returns than the Fortune 500 median for their industry.

The results of a 2010 McKinsey Global Survey found 72 percent of executives say they “believe there is a direct connection between a company’s gender diversity and its financial success.” According to the study, companies with the highest levels of gender diversity also had higher returns on equity, operating results, and growth in market valuation than the averages in their respective sectors.

Research on collective intelligence by Christopher Chabris at MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence and Anita Williams Woolley at Carnegie Mellon University found that the one predictor that a specific group will have high collective intelligence requires that at least half the chairs around the table are occupied by women.

According to Chabris and Woolley it is this superior social sensitivity in reading non-verbal cues and other people’s emotions, and fairness in taking turns that make the difference. Superior social sensitivity includes things like emotional intelligence, a holistic perspective, empathy and intuition.

These traits or “soft skills” are often marginalized or dismissed altogether in the business world. And though they are regularly associated as more feminine characteristics, effective soft skills have proven to be a powerful predictor of career success for both men and women.

Leslie Pratch is a clinical psychologist who headed research at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business investigating the longer-term personality predictors of leadership. She found that gender-based expectations for behavior very much influence the styles and evaluations of leaders.

According to Pratch’s research, women are expected to display high levels of social qualities, including the need for affiliation, a tendency to be self-sacrificing, a concern for others, spontaneity, and emotional expressiveness. Men, on the other hand, are expected to show high levels of qualities associated with acting or exerting power, independence, assertiveness, self-confidence, and instrumental competence.

When applied to leadership, female-stereotypical forms of leadership are interpersonally oriented and collaborative, whereas male-stereotypical forms of leadership are task oriented and dominating.

At a time when strong leadership is so desperately needed, it may be necessary to redefine what it means to lead.

To be a successful company and thrive in a global economy, leaders need to lessen their grip on independence and domination, and embrace the distribution of power by engaging others in a collaborative manner to encourage diverse opinions that can bring about successful solutions.

This means hiring and promoting people who have both a task- and collaborative-orientation. In the near term, they may need to promote those people who primarily demonstrate relational intelligence, empathy and intuition to complement those who already demonstrate decisiveness, goal-directedness, and performance-orientation.

And this, more than likely, means hiring and promoting more women into leadership positions.

Better Communication with a Direct Approach

November 17, 2011

An angry boss of an internet start-up firm is repeatedly coercing his employees to work long hours with the threat of losing jobs and the potential for vast riches if the company succeeds. If this man were to express his needs in a more respectful manner rather than through mandates, would he get more from his employees?

A recent report on NPR revealed that two-thirds of doctors say they do not discuss losing weight with their patients, even though the vast majority of Americans are obese or overweight. If doctors were clear and more direct about the dangers of being overweight, would this help their patients lose pounds and avoid diabetes?

A middle-manager in a major pharmaceutical company is talking behind another manager’s back with derogatory statements about her character, which undermines advancement opportunities for both. If this middle-manager were to speak directly to the other manager about the character concerns, would it help build a more honest relationship between the two and improve their advancement chances?

Communication that is aggressive, passive, or passive-aggressive cripples our ability to understand each other and work together well. And poor workplace communication results in conflict that can create uncertainty, resource hoarding, ineffective teamwork, and spreading rumors and gossip.

There are many descriptors for communication styles, but they typically fall into four categories: aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive and assertive. Rarely do any of us stay in one style all the time, but instead move in and out of them continually, though we may remain in one longer than the others.

When using an aggressive style there is manipulation involved. This often means hurting others through guilt or anger, and using intimidation and other control tactics. Though this style may be effective in the short term like when playing sports or fighting in a war, it will fail if used repeatedly in relationships in or out of the workplace.

The passive style of communication is one of compliance with the hope of avoiding confrontation at all costs. Using the passive style means speaking very little and questioning even less. With this style of communication very little is accomplished and needs are unlikely to get met. In the workplace, this can stifle understanding and get in the way of moving forward.

Those in a passive-aggressive style avoid direct confrontation by remaining passive, but then use aggression—often behind someone’s back—in order to get even. This harmful communication style also uses manipulation and may lead to office politics and spreading negative rumors. It is also the most difficult to detect and deal with because it switches back and forth so often.

The most effective and healthiest form of communication is the assertive style. We all naturally communicate in this way when our self-esteem is intact because we have confidence. When using the assertive style we are able to communicate our needs with clarity and often look for win/win solutions with others.

Surprisingly, assertive communication is the style people use least often. This is unfortunate because when using assertive communication you:

  • express your wants, needs, and feelings clearly, appropriately, and respectfully
  • use “I” statements
  • listen well without interrupting
  • feel in control of yourself
  • have good eye contact
  • speak in a calm and clear tone of voice
  • have a relaxed body posture
  • feel connected to others
  • feel competent and in control

You may notice that many of these are associated with being emotionally intelligent and thereby being able to navigate your relationships with self-reflection, self-regulation and empathy.

Assertiveness is based on mutual respect, and it’s an effective and diplomatic communication style. When you are assertive, you’re willing to stand up for your interests and easily express your thoughts and feelings. It also demonstrates that you are aware of the rights of others and are willing to work on resolving conflicts.

With assertive communication, a boss’s urgency could be better communicated to motivate his employees in a healthy manner, doctors could make a clear and compelling case for overweight patients at risk of getting diabetes, and middle-managers could stop sabbotaging careers by being more straight-forward with each other.

If you’re in conflict with someone at work, notice what kind of communication style you are using as well as the other person. See if you can make a conscious effort to change your style to be assertive. You may find that the other person will begin to reflect that same direct approach back to you and help resolve the conflict.

Using this direct assertive communication style more often in the workplace can dramatically improve engagement, teamwork and productivity.

Courageous Leadership Requires Vulnerability

August 17, 2011

“Make it thy business to know thyself, which is the most difficult lesson in the world.” — Miguel De Cervantes

Great leaders have many attributes. Among them are clarity, vision, humility and courage. When we see these traits in our leaders we are inspired to follow.

By courage I mean more than the ability to make hard business decisions, give difficult feedback or even to fire someone. It also has to do with the ability to truly see ourselves as others see us, even when others’ perceptions don’t match our own.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article titled “The First Requirement for Becoming a Great Boss,” authors Linda Hill and Kent Lineback say that the courage to see oneself as others see them is vitally important.

Ironically, this type of courage may seem counter to the stoic image we have of what a strong leader looks like. This is because it requires the vulnerability to open oneself to other’s perceptions of them. It means accepting these perceptions as more data in order to learn and grow as a leader.

While all these perceptions may not necessarily be accurate or helpful, many of them are extremely useful in terms of determining whether the perception you have of your management style is shared by those you lead.

Getting this feedback, however, may be difficult for two reasons: One, the people you lead may not believe you really want critical information, and even if you do, it may negatively impact their near or long term employment. Two, critical information is hard to receive and your immediate reaction may make you defensive and/or emotionally weakend.

If you already are a leader who can be trusted by your people then you should be able to address the first concern. Ask yourself: are you able to hear negative or critical information about things and accept them with grace? Or do you overreact by looking to place blame rather than find sustainable solutions?

It may take time to foster the kind of trust that enables your people to deliver the kind of critical feedback you as a leader needs in order to see yourself clearly. It is possible that only your spouse or a trusted friend can convey this kind of information to you now. But these people probably don’t work with you and therefore cannot accurately assess and inform you of your shortcomings in the workplace.

You may choose to use anonymous surveys as a way of gathering this data where there is less fear of personal reprisals. Building a trusted work environment where your people feel comfortable delivering this critical feedback directly would be preferable, however, because it can happen more frequently and strengthen communication and productivity.

The second reason has to do with the inherent resistance we have to hearing negative information about ourselves. Few of us welcome hearing about our shortcomings, and this is where the courage is necessary.

In the same way having a difficult conversation with a friend or loved one can make us vulnerable and leave us emotionally raw, a courageous leader needs to be open to hearing difficult personal information as a way to learn and grow.

Most leaders had to learn to accept critical feedback in order to reach the position they are in. Performance reviews and 360 feedback reports has helped leaders to handle difficult personal information.

However, when it comes to asking for and receiving critical information from those who report to you outside of these formal channels, it may be much harder to do.

The courage to do this is to remind yourself that emotional growth is critical to your continued success and development as a leader. It has to do with emotional intelligence. It means accepting that being emotionally vulnerable is not a weakness, but a strength and it demonstrates your humanity.

The more you as a leader are able to embrace this notion of courageous vulnerability, the more you will grow and develop as a leader.

Soft Skills of Leadership

November 11, 2009

Corporate leaders need to know their business, know their customers, and have the ability to execute a strategy successfully. And leaders need to be especially agile to stay current with their business as the pace of change has accelerated so dramatically. Great leadership also requires not only understanding customers’ current needs, but accurately predicting future needs as well. This knowledge of business and customers becomes relevant only when leaders also have the ability to execute a strategy that drives growth.

In a recent study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity in partnership with the American Management Association, some 600 employees working at the manager level or above in a wide range of industries were asked to pick from a list of 14 leadership competencies. Not surprisingly, the three items mentioned above were at the top of the list. The three that followed, however, may surprise you:

• Building good relationships
• Having good communication skills
• Creating an environment of trust and respect

These three competencies were cited more frequently than the ability to develop a strategy or knowing how to align the organization well. The technical skills of business are as important as ever, but unless they are coupled with these other competencies, leaders cannot be nearly as effective. So what does this tell us about the nature of these so-called soft skills?

The context for leadership has changed dramatically in the last five years. Customers are harder to find and harder to keep, profit margins are slimmer, and many employees live with anxiety, stressed by overwork and job insecurity. As a result, corporations require leaders who know how to handle themselves in this complex environment. This means demonstrating empathy to others. It means actively listening so that they really hear what is being said even when it conflicts with what they want to hear. It means having extreme self-awareness. These soft skill competencies often fall under the heading of Emotional Intelligence and are important to any progressive organization.

Building good relationships is especially important because people are obviously the most important element in any business. An ability to really know and relate to others enables leaders to get things done. Strong relationships with employees, suppliers and customers can often be the difference success and failure. In the same way our personal relationships need care and constant attention, so too do our professional relationships.

Communication skills are one of those things most of us believe we have a talent for. But do we really? Communicating well means more than the ability to write well and feel comfortable with public speaking. The ability to really listen and let others know that you have heard them is important. Leaders also need to share difficult information and explain why decisions were made. This is because unpopular decisions that are fully explained will be perceived more favorably than those that come down without full disclosure. Good communication skills require being a good listener and being articulate and authentic in words and deeds.

To create an environment of trust and respect means many things. First and foremost, it means being approachable and friendly because people trust and respect leaders they like. Balance the need for results with being considerate of other’s feelings. Work hard to win people over without misusing your position of power. Make sure that your words match your actions. Use paraphrase to ensure you understand what is being said. And demonstrate support for your people, especially when they make mistakes.

Leadership soft skills will continue to play an increasingly important role as leaders need to do more with less and effectively manage accelerated change while nurturing themselves and their people. A leader’s ability to speak clearly and honestly will result in employees who understand and want to step up to the challenge. Authentic transparency is what employees want in their leaders. Creating an environment of trust and respect means a leader actively demonstrates his trust and respect in every interaction with employees, customers, suppliers and shareholders. Soft skills such as these enable leaders to walk their talk and this is fundamental to great leadership.

Mark Craemer