Two Leadership Skills That Aren’t Going out of Style

Leadership traits

"Companies are looking for employees with new competencies. They want grit, creativity, adaptability, and resilience. Competencies like communication and relationship management aren't attractive anymore."

These are the words I heard as I listened to an organizational development professional advise my client.

At first, I didn't blink. It makes sense! After all, companies need to react to changing consumer demands and market conditions quickly. They need to work across teams to tap into cross-functional ideas and need their employees to have mental agility to respond to frequent changes.

But then I paused.

Do the new demands at work really signify an end to needing communication and relationship management skills?

My short answer is no. We need these skills more than ever.

It all starts with relationships.

Relationships are foundational to our physical and mental wellbeing. Multiple studies have shown the benefits of having healthy relationships inside and outside of the workplace.

Healthy social connections increase our happiness levels, decrease our stress levels, help us navigate uncertainty, and contribute to our engagement at work. They generate more positive emotions, which allows us to be more creative, free, and open.

Conversely, unhealthy relationships can physically and psychologically slow us down, resulting in lower productivity, decreases in trust levels, and increases in stress levels.

Just think about it …

When was the last time you had to work with someone where the relationship was struggling? How much time did you spend venting about them? Second-guessing their intentions? Arguing with them?

Workplace isolation can also hinder our performance. According to an article from HBR's loneliness series:

"At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reason and decision-making."

Clearly, knowing how to cultivate healthy relationships benefits us at a basic, human level. It also leads to better performance outcomes, which brings me to the other skill that remains a workplace necessity: good old-fashioned communication skills.

Communication is more than communicating.

Communication is a lot like breathing. It is automatic, and thus, we often take it for granted. But just like breathing, when something goes wrong in our communication, our reaction is palpable – our hearts race, we grasp for answers, and we quickly try to fix it.

The good news—we can.

Like an athlete who has trained to control and optimize their breathing, employees who have become skilled at communication are primed for better performance.

Why? Because having strong communication skills breads confidence, collaboration, openness, and creativity.

Being able to express ourselves authentically increases our self-agency and our willingness to share our ideas and opinions. We feel more assured when we can articulate what we're thinking and why we think it. In this way, developing communication skills helps us master the ‘self' as we become more aware of our own words, tone, body language, and facial expressions.

But there is a second component of effective, interpersonal communication that is just as powerful—understanding and respecting the “other.”

Skills like …

  • Listening

  • Empathy

  • Observation

  • Giving feedback

  • Non-verbal awareness

  • Asking questions

  • Conversational turn-taking

These all require us to consider the importance of the “other” person (or people) at work.

I think this is what we often get wrong when developing communication skills. We over focus on mastering the “self” and overlook the mutuality of effective communication.

Effective communication isn't just about me. It's about taking the time to consider the “other,” including how and why someone might react, respond, or interpret my message in a particular way.

Some clients push back on me when I focus on the other person. They think I'm asking them to forego their opinions in favor of prioritizing the other person. Here I emphasize mutuality—it's about both.

When we are intentional about both, we create the conditions for meaningful dialogue to occur rather than creating one-way conversations.

As a Dr. Chris Groscurth states in his book, Future-Ready Leadership:

"Impactful dialogue is essential for innovation…, emergent design-thinking, and creative problem-solving.... [Dialogue] can help you prepare for the future of work faster and build a collaborative advantage over your competition."

So why are my alarms going off?

In spite of the evidence around the importance of communication and relationship management skills, I fear that many leaders are overlooking these foundational needs. Many leaders I speak with emphasize creativity, collaboration, and resilience.

A recent LinkedIn study confirms this. After analyzing their business, social platform data, they identified creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and time management as the top soft skills companies need in 2019.

Do I agree these are essential skills? Heck yes!

But in order for these skills to come alive in the workplace, we need employees who can create healthy relationships and foster a communication climate where these skills can flourish. We need relationships built on trust where employees feel comfortable sharing their creative ideas and collaborating.

Final Thoughts

There is no doubt that we are facing new pressures and demands in our lives and workplaces.

In a time when we are spending less time in face-to-face interactions and feeling lonelier as a society, we are also being asked to bring our most resourceful, creative, and resilient selves to work.

Is it doable? Yes! Am I optimistic about where we are heading? Definitely!

However, we must be intentional if we're going to get there.

Rather than always chasing after something new, I encourage us to cultivate these fundamental skills that awaken our human potential and contribute to the future we are striving to reach.

When we focus on our human need for social connections and our ability to engage in meaningful dialogue, we create a strong foundation on which to build.

Now, who's ready to build?


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Annamarie Mann