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Interpersonal Leadership Skills are Essential to Successful Leaders

April 27, 2021

The acceleration of technology in the Fourth Industrial Revolution has dramatically shifted the skills necessary to be a successful leader. According to projections in The Future of Jobs Report 2020 from the World Economic Forum, by 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced due to technological innovations, while 97 million new, more adapted roles may emerge. 

The skill sets that make us human are still in demand as machines and automated systems take on many traditional job functions. They are often referred to as interpersonal skills. They are the kind of skill we use to communicate and interact with people every day effectively. They are sometimes called soft skills or emotional intelligence (EQ).

According to many experts who study organizational leadership and management, these interpersonal skills are essential in developing positive personal and professional relationships. Most managers look for these capabilities in their current and prospective employees. In fact, in a LinkedIn research report, 92% of hiring managers said soft skills are more important than technical skills, and 89% said that bad hires typically lack interpersonal skills.

The ability to connect with and influence others is especially impactful for those in leadership and management positions. According to research from the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), 50-70% of executives fail within 18 months of taking on a role. In many cases, their failure isn’t due to a lack of education or expertise in managing finances and resources. A lack of effective interpersonal communication causes it. 

On the other hand, professionals with strong interpersonal communication skills have a more positive attitude, more productive leadership styles, and more positive interactions with team members and employees. These executives and managers with strong influence skills, which are also called people skills, are well respected and trusted and often more successful. There are many powerful interpersonal skills to cultivate, and among those are a few standouts that are critical in leadership and management. 

Vital Interpersonal Leadership Skills 

Interpersonal Communication 

Effective communication has three prongs – verbal communication, nonverbal communication, and active listening. Verbal communication skills allow leaders to articulate clear directions and expectations, provide constructive feedback and share their experience and perspective. This skill category also includes intangibles such as tone of voice and word choice. 

Nonverbal communication or body language includes eye contact, gestures, facial expressions, posture, and physical space. These physical cues will often determine how your verbal communication is perceived and received. For example, Betty is having an issue with one of her colleagues. She goes to talk to her boss, Cheryl, about it. Cheryl says all the right things, but she doesn’t look Betty in the eye, she’s distracted by her phone, and she keeps her arms folded across her chest. Betty perceives these physical cues as Cheryl not being sincere, and she feels even worse. If Cheryl had the competency to use nonverbal communication skills, she could have improved the situation for Betty and developed her trust, a key element in successful interpersonal leadership. 

Another important aspect of communication is active listening. Regardless of leadership style, executives and managers must be able to listen and hear what people communicate to them. This helps them learn from others, gain an understanding of their business and their team, foster interpersonal relationships, and promote trust and respect. To develop this trait, avoid distractions during conversations, meet face-to-face, and ask questions to foster dialogue. 

Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share in other people’s feelings. It's one of the most underrated managerial skills. In recent years it has been recognized as an invaluable interpersonal skill in business and has become a hallmark of a great leader in any sector. Studies have shown that empathetic leaders have happier, more productive and more collaborative teams than leaders who do not possess this important affiliative skill.

Empathy in the workplace is key to connecting with employees and earning trust and respect. For example, Frank, an otherwise good employee starts to have issues at work – his performance is tanking, he’s not engaged and he’s been showing up late or leaving early almost every day. A typical leader may look at these events and take a disciplinary course of action. 

Gary isn’t a typical leader. Gary sits down with Frank and asks him what’s causing this behavior. He uses his communication skills and listens thoughtfully to what’s going on. He finds out that Frank is struggling with some personal issues. Instead of punishing Frank and adding to his grief, Gary chose to connect with Frank and develop trust. Now that this trust is in place, the two can come up with coping strategies together. Frank feels seen, heard and cared for, and because of this he feels more motivated at work and develops a sense of loyalty. It’s a win-win. 

Resilience and Adaptability 

Resiliency is the ability to meet challenges and adversity, work through them and come out stronger. Adaptability is the capacity to learn new skills and behaviors in response to changing circumstances. Resiliency and adaptability complement and support each other as two crucial leadership skills in an unpredictable and ever-changing world. 

Leaders who thrive in dynamic environments, adapt quickly to change, and learn and grow from adversity are more successful and tend to achieve more for their organization. The most potent recent example of why resiliency and adaptability are so important is the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizations worldwide had to adapt frequently and with quickness to the changes brought on by the pandemic. Those that succeeded in adapting proved more resilient. They didn’t just survive the historic disruption; they thrived. Businesses that couldn’t adapt were forced to close their doors. 

Regardless of the industry, no leadership or management role is exempt from challenges and disruption. Things don’t always work out how they’re supposed to and circumstances change, often dramatically and repeatedly. Effective leaders adjust, tackle the challenges head-on, encourage their teams, learn from the experience and become stronger.  

Conflict Resolution 

Another important leadership and management skill is conflict resolution – the ability to reach a solution or compromise to a disagreement. Disagreements in the workplace are inevitable, but dysfunction is not. People have different beliefs, attitudes, political views, work ethics, education levels, social skills, and communication styles. 

Effective leaders understand that managing conflicting personnel is a critical competency for teamwork, negotiations, interpersonal relationships and overall organizational success. For example, Robert is in a leadership role at a new company. When he arrives, the workplace is toxic and the business isn’t performing the way it should. 

Robert uses his interpersonal skills to find out what is causing so many problems. He discovers that several members of the staff have opposing views on just about everything and their struggles have influenced the entire team. Robert understands that the only way to improve the company’s performance issues is to resolve interpersonal conflicts first. He utilizes his interpersonal skills and helps his team do the following: 

  1. Listen carefully and impartially. Hear all sides of the story. 
  2. Create a safe space to facilitate a conversation between co-workers.
  3. Set ground rules for verbal and nonverbal communication. 
  4. Discuss the conflict and work to understand the other person’s perspective. 
  5. Find areas of agreement. 
  6. Identify solutions. 
  7. Come up with an action plan – with specific actions for each party – to implement the solution. This plan also includes what to do if another decision-making disagreement arises.

Once the main issues are resolved, Robert brings in a professional to hold an interpersonal skills workshop with the entire team. With Robert's positive influence and encouragement and monthly interpersonal skills seminars, the workplace has transformed within a couple of months. Interpersonal relationships have drastically improved, company performance is up and conflict is managed quickly and calmly. 

Work environments like the one Robert stepped into are not uncommon. Many leaders and professionals lack the interpersonal skills needed to resolve issues at work. Developing these four interpersonal skills empowers professionals in leadership and management roles to create strong, effective and successful teams. 

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