Leading in today’s organizations requires keener social aptitude abilities

This article was adapted from a commentary that recently appeared in The Economist. It argues that in today’s organizations it has become increasingly important for leaders to possess softer skills whether selected for a top position in an enterprise or as a manager in the recesses of an organization. A problem in doing so, however, is that it is hard to assess social skills.

Soft skills matter in leading. Writing in the Harvard Business Review last year, Raffaella Sadun of Harvard Business School and her co-authors analyzed almost 5,000 job descriptions that Russell Reynolds, a headhunter, had developed for a variety of c-suite roles between 2000 and 2017. Their work showed that companies have shifted away from emphasizing financial and operational skills towards social skills—an ability to listen, reflect, communicate and empathize. Other research has reached similar conclusions about jobs lower down the pay scale: being able to work well with people is seen not as some fluffy bonus but as a vital attribute.

The trouble is that soft skills are hard to measure. Worse still, the conventional process for recruiting people is often better at picking up on other qualities. The early phases of recruitment focus on filtering candidates based on their experiences and hard skills, since these are the criteria that are easiest to assess at a distance. Putting the words “team player” on a cover letter or a CV is proof of nothing save unoriginality. Smiling a lot at a camera for a taped video message demonstrates mainly that you can smile a lot at a camera. Self-reported empathy questionnaires sometimes seem to be testing for species- level traits {if you agree that “In emergency situations I feel apprehensive and ill at ease”, many congratulations: you are a human).

The later phases of selection, when candidates and those doing the selecting interact with one another in actual conversation, seemingly may provide better ways to assess someone’s softer skills. But even then, think of how fundamentally unsocial the situation is. Candidates are expected to talk, not listen; to impress, not empathize. Organizations are feted for asking interviewees oh-so-clever questions like “What was one of your worst decisions?” or “What are some ways you motivate yourself?” Structured interview scripts enable like-for-like comparisons, but they also squeeze the space for spontaneity. No wonder Professor Sadun and her colleagues reckon that selection processes need to get a lot better at ferreting out social skills.

Research is finding some shortcuts for identifying softer skills. Two recent studies of what makes for a good leader converge on what might be described as an ability to read the room. They also suggest ways to test for this trait.

Research by Siyu Yu of Rice University and her co-authors found that people who can accurately gauge which people in a group wield influence are in possession of a magic power they call “status acuity”.

Such room-readers reduce group conflict and improve colleague performance. As part of their study they devised a test, in which participants watched a video of a group performing a task. The participants then rated members of the group based on how much esteem each was held in. People whose ratings were closest to the assessments of the group members themselves had the quality of status acuity.

In another study Ben Weidman and David Deming of Harvard University also found that certain individuals consistently made groups they participated in perform better than expected. Such people, they argued, genuinely work well with others and are capable of making the whole greater than the sum of the parts. These wonderful creatures did not stand out from their peers on IQ or personality tests. But they did significantly better on the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test, a standardized assessment in which participants are shown pictures of various facial expressions and then have to pick the word that best describes what each person is feeling.

Better tests are not the only way to elicit more information about social skills. Don’t just have interviewers ask questions: it is more revealing to see how a candidate gets on with a range of colleagues. Ask the people who interact casually with candidates, from the assistants who arrange appointments to the receptionists on the day, what they thought of them. Find out what actually worries candidates about the position they are seeking: lots of research suggests that humility is associated with better performance.

Selecting leaders on the basis of soft skills will spawn new risks. They are squishier than technical or professional skills, which may make it easier for people to fake their way through the process. And there may be more room for interviewers’ biases to creep in. Finding someone irritating may be a signal that someone lacks social skills. But it may also mean that they are nervous, that you are grumpy, or that the two of you are not that alike. Leadership recruitment is set to change. It is not going to get easier.