Why soft skills matter in managing change and innovation

Francesco Marcatto24 Jun 19

In the highly competitive business world, companies remain competitive only if they are capable of implementing continuous change. Change and innovation are therefore the main drivers of organisational success.

Change can be transitional or transactional. Transitional change, also called incremental change, is the most common one and is aimed at improving the current state through minor, gradual changes. In other words, transitional change enables the organisation to get better at what it does.

Transactional change, on the other hand, is more radical and disruptive, rejecting current fundamental assumptions and habits, in order to drastically transform the company’s culture or strategy.

While both kinds of change are important for organizational survival, some authors state that only transformational change can lead to innovation and increased competitiveness.

Nothing new so far, it’s the good old “change or die” mantra. But here comes the bad news: research says that nearly two-thirds of change efforts fail miserably. And that was the optimistic estimate, more pessimistic ones say that the rate of failure can reach 80% to 90%. Ouch!

What drives change effectiveness?

The importance of organisational change, and the incredibly low rates of success of its implementation, made many researchers starting to study which are the leader characteristics (in terms of personality traits, skills, and abilities) significantly influencing change success.

Long story short, we don’t have strong results on the personality traits side. After more than 300 studies, we don’t have a conclusive list of agreed-on traits inherent in effective leaders. There are, however, some skills sets that have been found to have a positive influence on organisational change success rates. Specifically, I’m talking about soft skills.

Soft skills

Soft skills is an umbrella term for social and communication abilities, with a strong emphasis on cognitive and emotional empathy.

Some of the soft skills most relevant to the business environment are the following:

  • Coaching ability;
  • Ability to effectively reward or recognise others;
  • Effective communication ability;
  • Ability to motivate others;
  • Ability to involve others;
  • Ability to encourage teamwork and collaboration.

While we still don’t know exactly what soft skills are (or which skills can be included under the “soft skills” umbrella, since different authors have proposed different lists), research reassures us that soft skills are much more than a temporary fad or an abused buzzword. On the contrary, there are numerous proofs that they are critical for success in personal life and at work.

So here comes the big question: Which soft skills are significantly tied with change success?

Soft skills for hard changes

Two different studies conducted by Ann Gilley, professor of Management at Ferris State University, and colleagues, were aimed exactly at identifying which are the leaders’ skills mostly associated with success in implanting organisational changes (study 1, study 2).

Both studies came to the same conclusion: talent in motivating others and the ability to communicate effectively are the two main drivers of change effectiveness in leaders, explaining about 55% of variance.

In other words, the human side of management alone, in terms of being able to motivate and communicate with employees, is responsible for a big chunk of success in organisational change. Yep, two soft skills, not technical or business abilities.

Considered the huge number of failures in organisational change, we can also conclude that most leaders and managers clearly lack the ability to motivate and communicate.

Motivation & Communication

These results are not surprising at all. In the past years, I’ve written extensively about communication in team and project management (for example, here, here, and here).

In a nutshell, my point is that communication is both a blessing and a curse. If you can create a balanced and harmonious flow of information, that is clear, concise (not too much and not too few) and arrives exactly when you need it (so it’s not constantly interrupting you, nor you have to chase the employees for updates), then you’re in management heaven. But break this balance, and it’s management hell. You know, people working at cross-purposes, constant interruptions, many useless meetings, loss of credibility and authority, free-riders, and so on.

I’ve also written a lot about employees’ motivation and engagement (for example, here, here and here). There are many theories and studies about human motivation at work and, in short, it’s not all about the money.

People are motivated when they know:

  • How their role fits the big picture of the whole organisation;
  • Why they have to do something;
  • That they are free to use their skills and knowledge to perform their tasks as they want;
  • That if they have some problems, their manager will listen and help;
  • That they are making [progress toward a meaningful goal;
  • That they won’t be blamed for mistakes;
  • That they are appreciated and important for their team and company.

Mind you, this is zero-cost motivation. Explaining the rationale behind a task assignment, saying “Good job, thank you” or “If you encounter any problem, I’m here, just ask” is both free and effective.

For many people, it is not a big surprise to read that being polite and good human beings at works can make the difference in motivating your team members. The surprise, instead, comes from the following figure: 95% of managers don’t understand what really motivates people at work. Crazy!

Bottom Line

Soft skills matter, especially for leaders, managers, directors, and everyone who has a relevant role in the organisational change.

There is a big problem, however, when people get promoted to managerial roles because they possess good technical skills and are constantly hitting their goals, not due to their ability in motivating others and to communicate effectively.

We tend to take these soft skills for granted, but management is not intuitive. Now that we know that soft skills are quite useful in general, and that motivation and communication skills are specifically needed for facilitating change and innovation, we should start promoting people by taking into account their skills in this human side of management too.

There’s no guarantee we will always be 100% successful, but at least we’ll have for sure a more positive and healthy work environment.

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