Using Soft Skills for Hard Decisions

By Laura Huckabee-Jennings, CEO – “If I have empathy for someone, how can I let them go or give them a poor performance review?” Often, empathy or other emotional intelligence skills are labeled as soft skills that make it hard for leaders to maintain distance from employees when they need to make hard business decisions.

However, making your workplace better for everyone, giving clear and transparent feedback (even when negative) and influencing the emotional experience of employees is the hallmark of a highly effective leader. Great leaders must understand that the emotional experience of each person is unique, real and important. It guides their motivation to contribute to the organization and be productive in order to better overcome resistance to change, develop a high-performing workforce and grow a successful and impactful organization. Far from hindering difficult decisions, great leaders use empathy and soft skills to make those decisions with an abundance of compassion―for both the individual and the broader organization.

A leader’s primary function is to create change and harness it to create organizational results. In order to manage change effectively, the leader must gain the support of those who will implement or be impacted by the change proposed. In a traditional top-down management culture, change can always be coerced with the twin extrinsic motivators of “fear and greed,” according to a now-retired Fortune 50 executive I know.

More powerful organizational cultures lean more heavily on intrinsic motivations—like belonging, feeling valued and making a real contribution—to get employees engaged. This requires more understanding of the emotional responses to change. It means capturing the imaginations of employees in a way that generates not only compliance, but enthusiastic embrace and advocacy for the change.

If that sounds like a fairy tale to you, then it’s possible that you haven’t experienced the power of a truly extraordinary leader bringing an organization together around a change. Although it may appear to be rare, leaders with high emotional intelligence paint a picture of the future that allows everyone to see and understand the challenge (or opportunity) necessitating a change.  Those leaders tie that vision to the change that is proposed or happening. They then help individuals see how that future state could benefit them and benefit the organization.

One of my favorite leaders was very connected to her team and understood both performance and emotion at an intuitive level. She could give a critical performance review and leave the employee excited to either work on their performance, or to go and seek a better “job fit” elsewhere. She stayed in touch with people when they left, and engendered an incredible level of loyalty and affection—even amongst employees who experienced being let go under her tenure. Letting people go was always a “fit” conversation about how this job wasn’t the “right fit,” and some mentoring to identify “better fit” opportunities or development paths elsewhere. She is a phenomenal leader.

It may seem “soft,” but believe me, empathy and using it well through developing emotional intelligence is just good business sense. Such soft skills can help leaders catalyze an organization around change and use it to create sustainable growth, and they can also make hard business decisions, easier.