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Why leaders have to be more human

Soft skills are critical in helping business weather the COVID-19 storm, says the CIPD’s Charles Cotton.


Business nous and adaptability have no doubt been key to companies successfully navigating their way through the pandemic. However, we shouldn’t underestimate the role that soft (or essential) skills – communication, teamwork, problem solving and staying positive to name a few – have also played in helping firms to weather the storm.


There are countless examples we could run through that demonstrate how line managers have relied on soft skills in the last year, but given that this pandemic has been a very human crisis, with wellbeing and health at its core, it feels right to focus on communication.


Employers and managers, who are good communicators, have taken great pains to speak with staff about changes to their business model; checked in on their mental, financial and physical wellbeing; asked how they find home-working, are dealing with stress, burnout and juggling work with childcare; and discussed concerns about returning to the workplace. And for those working from home, communication has arguably become even more important given that teams are now dispersed and many colleagues won’t have seen each other in person for many months. For these workers, regular communication is key to minimising feelings of isolation, keeping them motivated and giving them a bit of certainty.


However, it is not just line managers that need to be able to demonstrate soft skills - those at the top of an organisation need to as well. In one of our latest research reports, Responsible business through crisis, we explore how a company’s commitment to being a responsible business has helped to sustain them through this crisis.


The report highlights that when we feel vulnerable, as in times of crisis, we are more likely to seek out leadership we can trust. This has forced business leaders to change their communication style and adopt a more humane and personal approach, including being honest and open about difficult decisions that need to be made, such as a pay freeze.


Start them young

Whilst the pandemic may have underscored the importance of soft skills, there is too often a disconnect between schools and employers about what they are and how to develop them. This can leave young people unprepared for the world of work.


The CIPD, along with others, is hoping to change this and is a member of the Essential Skills Taskforce. The group was set up to agree a universal framework for essential skills, which can be used by schools and employers alike, to help people succeed in education, work and life. The taskforce also aims to champion the need for soft skills when completing complex and creative tasks. So far, hundreds of schools and employers have started using the framework and we hope many more will join them.


Returning to the present, we have, unfortunately, just experienced a third lockdown. With fatigue setting in and financial and mental resilience perhaps wearing a little thin, it’s important that line managers continue to draw on their soft skills. HR has a role to play in helping managers to utilise these skills and providing training and support where it’s needed. Most employers also recognise that staff will remember how they’ve been treated over the course of the pandemic for a long time to come. Communication and the use of other soft skills will be critical to getting this right, just as they will to meeting other demands placed on business by the pandemic.

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