The term “SOFT” skills has been a source of irritation for me for many years.  It somehow seemed to relegate people skills such as inspiration, motivation, performance management, collaboration, negotiation and a plethora of other leadership skills, to the status of optional extras –great if you have them, but without them you can still get the job done!

Leaders I have helped over the past few years generally fall into 2 categories;

  1. They get it! Their connection to people is strong, their leadership is authentic and human and they achieve consistently. Their ‘soft’ skills are well honed and used. They are energised; or
  2. They take pride in achieving their KPIs, however they believe people are a necessary evil to getting the job done. Their mastery of soft skills remains elusive, they are often feared and tend to build a culture of compliance.  They are tired and trapped.

The ‘soft’ reference, reinforcing these wishy washy, ill-defined and unscientifically proven skills where some sort of ‘nice’ communication occurs between a leader and their people, in direct contrast to the ‘real stuff’ of leadership, driving results and staying focussed on the task at hand.

Rather than live with this irritation, I decided a couple of years ago to embrace the term by turning it into an acronym true to our more recent scientific understanding of brains and more helpful to my personal cause – helping leaders become exceptional leaders of people, teams and organisations.

My simple acronym …Skills Of Feelers and Thinkers …. S.O.F.T.

Great leaders both FEEL and THINK consciously – understanding their value is not in being the cleverest person in the room, or the one that can be relied on to get things done. Their value lies in the followers they inspire, creating team synergy, developing and supporting others to become the best they can possibly be and in making themselves redundant as leaders.

Great leaders are self-aware and socially aware. They notice their own emotions and feelings and those of others as they consciously adjust their language and behaviours to make the constructive impact to which they aspire. They regulate effectively their own emotional responses, avoid reacting (where conscious thinking goes out the window) and mindfully think about what they want their impact on others to be. SOFT skills mean moving others’ brains to the reward state (vs threat state) for their improved cognitive functioning, connection, collaboration, creativity and innovation (to name only a few benefits).

The neuroscience shows us how to move others’ brains to the reward state. Great leaders serve up “oxytocin cocktails”, rather than “cortisol cocktails’. Oxytocin is the trust neurotransmitter of the brain – without trust, leaders are lone rangers, pushing to get the job done and stuck like a ‘rat in a cage’ on task. With trust, leaders have their best chance at building high performance teams, see people genuinely collaborate to solve problems and create new business opportunities, take initiative and calculated risks, build strong working relationships and partnerships for an energised and engaged workplace. Cortisol is the stress hormone decreasing cognitive function, emotional self-control, ensuring fight or flight / threat state in others. Never effective or ideal in creating inspiration and motivation in others! Cortisol is the enemy of high performance and operational excellence, innovation and fun at work.

When did you last serve up an Oxytocin Cocktail as a leader?  (give praise, say thanks, stay quiet and just listen, have a friendly conversation, invite another’s ideas or smile and hold eye contact etc?)

And when did you last serve up a Cortisol cocktail? (“lose your cool”, criticise another in front of peers, give feedback only on what is not working, frown, avoid eye contact, avoid social connection in the kitchen or talk over someone in a meeting etc?)

S.O.F.T skills are key for highly effective leaders. It is not rocket science!  But it is neuroscience.

I encourage you to leverage what we now know is how to be brain friendly leaders, where both the emotional and rational are used, understood and respected in decision making, problem solving, collaborating, inspiring, motivating, innovating, creating, coaching and mentoring for greater success. There are wonderful breakthroughs in the field that will make a significant difference for you across your projects, bids, change initiatives, and high performance team development. Invest your effort in developing your SOFT skills on the foundation of 21st century neuroscience leadership and leave behind the myths and cognitive biases of the 20th century about people management.