Why your success depends on ‘softer skills’

Alison Blackler, founder of 2minds in Wirral, on why it is so important for you and your team to develop ‘softer’ communication skills

business, meeting, boadroom
Leaders can learn and utlise ‘soft skills’ to improve both team and client relationships


In a world where recruitment and the retention of good people is harder than ever, it pays to invest seriously in what most people call the soft skills that are paradoxically quite difficult.

Many leadership courses impart information but how many bring about long lasting change? This thought needs to be at the forefront of our minds when we develop leadership courses.

Leadership training is about lifting people outside their problems and helping them to shift their thinking to develop new solutions. When people are in problem-mode they don’t generate dopamine and other neurotransmitters. These are needed to switch them into a resourceful state where they feel optimistic about finding answers.

The brain often travels along well-worn paths so it’s easier to adopt the behaviours and solutions they have used before. This approach encourages the development of neural networks. It helps people deviate from those paths into uncharted territory where rich and novel answers await.

It’s one of the reasons ‘icebreakers’ used by many trainers to start conversations and create mutual understanding, sometimes don’t work. These can be handled badly, switching on our ‘survival brains’ in the face of a social threat.

People naturally don’t want to be made to feel foolish or isolated. The need for approval is a strong driver. Rather than switching on that survival brain, participants learn to switch on the learning brain. This encourages the collaboration that is needed for mutual support. 

My insights are inspired by the work of David Rock who developed ‘SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating With and Influencing Others’ in 2008. It suggests that social situations can trigger the same primitive emotional responses that we once used for survival.

Threats trigger those responses in such a way that, under stress, we lose the ability to think either rationally or creatively. Rewards, on the other hand, result in dopamine release and make us want to repeat the rewarding behaviours. 

While leaders are usually confident and capable people when they gain more self-awareness, they often start to realise that they have insufficient understanding of what makes people tick. They lack training in the skills required for leadership.

That’s as much about filling the knowledge gaps around human behaviour and the models for leadership, as ensuring that individuals can think through the implications for how they should lead in the future if they apply those concepts.

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Self-awareness allows leaders to understand their impact on others. If that is combined with emotional intelligence and social intelligence, then they have the capability to be more effective leaders. Some leaders will already express innate high levels of emotional intelligence, but this can also be learned. 

When people listen to understand, rather than listening to respond, communication is richer and more effective. By encouraging leaders to establish their current understanding of people and their motivations, what they don’t know becomes clearer.

They can then become more effective and learn that leadership is not all about dominance and authority.”

One of the desired results of any leadership programme should be better employee engagement. In 2009 a report by McLeod and Clarke found that employee engagement correlated with organisational performance. They described it as ‘the difference that makes the difference’.

They published four enablers of employee engagement. These are strategic narrative, engaging managers, employee voice and integrity. Each of these, they have found, contributes to employee engagement and therefore success. 

The strategic narrative is about telling the organisation’s story, detailing where it has come from, it’s aims and purpose and where it needs to go in the future. Unless an authentic vision is shared, employees will tend to fill that space with rumour or speculation. 


Alison Blackler
Mind coach and founder of 2minds Alison Blackler


Autonomy to bring a vision to life can only happen if employees know where they are going and what they need to do to get there. The strategic narrative is often in the leader’s heads and has never been shared with the rest of the team.

Engaging managers tend to give their employees autonomy and the kind of support they need to flourish in their roles. Employee voice is about ensuring that people are truly listened to and that their ideas, experience and expertise are fully harnessed.

Integrity is about being true, keeping your promises and ‘walking your talk’.  All these factors are far removed from traditional and perhaps simplistic ‘command and control’ approaches to leadership. 

My job is to help people to stop, slow down and think about who they are. To help them reflect on what they know. And finally, to ignite a spark and create interest. If those things are done, they will have the power to bring about long lasting change and success for themselves and their businesses.

Alison, who is also a published author, runs bespoke two or four-day programmes for leaders. Click here to find out more.

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