People skills are consistently identified as the key to business success, with an array of tangible benefits: improving employee engagement and retention, generating innovative ideas, fostering an open, collaborative environment, and improving productivity and bottom-line results, to name a few. Yet so many managers and leaders aren’t natural “people people” with strong soft skills.
Anne Taylor is a certified UK-based coach working with organizations and individuals. In a direct yet professional and supportive manner, Taylor combines the results-oriented focus from her extensive 20-year business background in Fortune 100 corporations with her passion for personal awareness and conscious choice. This powerful combination results in improved performance and satisfaction for her clients.
Our latest Future of Work Roundtable session, “Monetizing Soft Skills: The ROI of Training EQ,” Taylor shares practical advice and tools for soft skills behavior change that drives better results at work and at home; an excerpt of her presentation follows. To see the full session, including a demo of a live Mursion demo, visit our YouTube channel.
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“I want to take everyone back quite a few years to when I was 33 years old. I was working at Nestle Canada in the confectionery department. I was leading a cross-functional team of professionals to launch a new confectionery product into the marketplace. That product was called Smarties Block.
This was my baby. I was being tasked with launching this and I wanted to deliver it on time and on budget. Being the task-oriented detail person I was, I wanted to make sure that this happened for the team, for the company, and for the consumers. I remember one specific meeting we were sitting in a conference room around a big table, and I was painstakingly going through the critical path, ‘OK, everybody, where are we at? What’s happened?’ Going through every single task, what’s been done, what hasn’t been done.
On the things that weren’t done yet I would probe, ‘Why isn’t it done? What stopped us meeting the deadline? What needs to happen to move this forward? What are you doing about it? When will it be done? We can’t let this slip. It is a knock-on effect on all the next steps.’ It was really disconnected from the people. I was putting pressure onto adults in an already pressurized scenario.
I wanted them to work faster if possible or at least be on time. I was leading by spreadsheets. Now, like most leaders, I wasn’t a horrible person. I was kind, respectful. My colleagues would say I was very friendly and nice to work with. I was just disconnected from the humanity of working with other people. I was a bit asleep to the notion of engaging, motivating, and inspiring others. During that time I did have moments where I went, ‘Ugh, this isn’t right. It’s not feeling right for me. I don’t know what to do.’
I knew that was happening, but the problem was I couldn’t figure out how to change it. I would just go back to my default task-orientation, detail-orientation, and keep doing that. Well, go forward a mere seven years, I didn’t realize that my whole world would change and it would impact who I was as a leader in business as well as a person. That change was the death of both my parents unexpectedly 22 weeks apart. There they were in their prime on a cruise in Panama.
All the things I had been doing in terms of competence, control, doing were at total odds to the idea of emotional intelligence, feelings, emotion, and connection. With their deaths, this contrast became personal. Now, don’t get me wrong. This wasn’t an instantaneous change. The week before my father passed away actually in hospital, the head nurse took me aside and said, ‘Be his daughter, not his nurse.’ That’s what I wanted to be. I just really didn’t know what that meant. I thought that if I monitored his vitals, if I made blackout curtains for his hospital bedroom so that he could sleep, if I cajoled doctors and staff to do more for him that I would get the outcome I wanted.
That I would get to bring my father home. Little did I know that two short months later, I’d be in a palliative process again with my mom. After their deaths, when I was back in Switzerland where I was living at the time, it was really easy to throw myself back into work. Make up for the time that I’d missed. Make up for the time that other people had to step in and do parts of my job. It was easy to have their deaths be back across the ocean. In fact, not many of my colleagues asked about my absences. It was easy to put it all in a box, close the lid, until I couldn’t anymore.
I sat in meetings feeling like it was all a bit false, a bit superficial. I was going through things and nothing was being said. I was wondering who else in that meeting was going through something and it wasn’t being said. The idea of connection and genuine feelings beckoned me both professionally and personally. Now, still being that detailed logical person that I was and wanting change for myself I did what I do. I started reading more, researching more, looking into relationships, interpersonal communication, leadership books.
The idea of connection and genuine feelings beckoned me both professionally and personally.
In fact, I retrained. I’m now a leadership coach. I retrained to be a coach and moved out of that business career into coaching to help people live their full potential.
Lessons to Becoming a More Empathic Leader
Through that journey for myself as well as hundreds of my clients that I coach, I learned three really valuable lessons which is what I’d like to share with you today. The first is that emotions are always present because of our brain structure. Companies want to say that they’re factual, they’re logical. You’ll always hear, business, it’s all about the facts.
Actually, organizations do want emotions. They want the emotions of calm, confident, enthusiastic, positive, perseverance. They just don’t want the bad emotions, anger, sadness, annoyance, frustration. It’s hard to argue, you can’t have one without the other. That’s because of our brain structure. Our bodies are a system of nerves that collect data and transmit that data up through the spinal cord, into the brain stem, the back of our heads, and the first place that those impulses hit is what’s called the limbic system.
It’s the place of emotions and feelings within our brain. It’s only once that they go through that area before they get to the neocortex. That’s the place of rational thought. It’s almost the farthest from the brain stem that you can get. Emotions are always present. In fact, they’re often the first thing triggered with any of the data that comes from our nervous system. Emotions are present whether we like it or not and whether we’re conscious of that or unconscious of it. That’s the first rational reason of why emotional intelligence matters.
Emotions are always present.
The second is because of sociology. Humans are herd animals. Now, some sociologists aren’t quite that bleak about it. They say we’re social animals. Well, regardless of the title, humans survive in highly connected groups. Look at what’s happening right now with the pandemic. We’re starting to see a real increase in incidents of mental health issues because of the isolation and social restrictions caused by the pandemic. Humans thrive in collective environments. They want to feel they belong, they want to feel that interconnection with other people. Work is no different.
In fact, people spend 8, 10, 12 hours a day at work. Those are where we spend the most waking hours of the day. People want to feel as if they belong. Doing things, tasks, results-focused, they aren’t enough. People also need to feel like they belong to a team. The third rational reason of why feelings or emotions are important in work is what I call monetizing soft skills. It’s the financial quantification of soft skills.
Soft Skills, Hard Results
When I look back at my 33-year-old-self and that critical path meeting, being cold and unconnected, the wisdom I would give myself is to look up, to connect with the people, to connect with the purpose and vision for why we’re here, to talk about the work and to talk about the feelings behind the work. If I had done this, I feel I would have engaged their hearts and not just their heads and their hands. They wanted it, I wanted it. I do believe that when people are more emotionally intelligent, business, the results, and lives are better.
I believe that when people are more emotionally intelligent, business, the results, and lives are better.
People are more productive and it’s a much more enjoyable experience. I ask you as professionals that know the importance of emotional intelligence, first, be confident in your knowledge of emotional intelligence and soft skills. Secondly, use your soft skills with the managers and leaders that you work with, put yourself in their shoes, use their language. Focus on the metrics that matter to them and engage them in a way where you are actually role-modeling soft skills. Coaching them to come to the solution, rather than trying to convince them.
We here today all know the soft skills can yield hard results, let our leaders and managers experience that for themselves.
Measuring the Success of Soft Skills
When I’m working with a leader or a company, I always start with the metrics that they already have. What are they measuring in the organization? Are they measuring employee engagement? Are they measuring retention of staff? Are they measuring turnover by division or by leader? Are they measuring grievances or complaints?
Look at the numbers and then also understand what’s driving those numbers. Things like exit interviews, if you are in a place where there’s huge attrition and turnover, putting something in around exit interviews to really find out what’s going on is really helpful. Doing that anonymously or confidentially in a way that you’re going to get some truths of why people are leaving and then start looking for themes or patterns that have come up.”
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