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Stephen Walker

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Soft skills for a difficult job


The struggle to hold the balance between top management and employees can be fierce. Stephen Walker considers how soft skills are important to the new manager.

The training industry needs to step up and show how it can provide relevant products. The new manager has to be shown what to do and how to do it.

Anyone who has ever been a child was practised at the soft skill of persuasion: converting others to your point of view. Of course the negotiation around the change of point of view is one-sided. The adult is tired, stressed and has a long to do list while the child has a laser-like focus on achieving the desired outcome.

A baby is totally reliant on a grown-up to look after it. We are born with soft skills to appeal to and persuade an adult to look after us.

Why do we lose our soft skills and change into macho managers? What can be done to bring soft skills into management practice? This is the foundation stone of any employee engagement strategy after all, so it is a critical success factor for organisational survival. Survival is not compulsory.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is a label for soft skills. Simply put, it comprises of four elements.

  • Awareness of another’s life

The ability to put oneself in their situation is powerful. If you can understand their decision-making drivers, you have a much better chance of achieving an agreement. This is a rare skill much improved through practice.

  • Personal resilience

Managers need to understand the difference between managing with emotion and emotional intelligence. Understanding the emotional issues of the other person is intelligent. Launching into a hot-headed rant with a display of your own emotion is not intelligent.

  • Empathy

Empathy is a rare quality. This makes others see you as someone who listens, someone who cares, someone who can make a difference to them.

  • Communication skills

All of these abilities rely on communication skills for delivery. The communication skills include physical, spoken and written messages.

Stepping into your first supervisor's job

I remember having sleepless nights when I was told I would be managing my first two people. One of them was 15 years older than me. I thought he was better at the work than me too! I had received no training at all in managing people. I didn’t know how to talk to them. I wasn’t entirely convinced I wanted the job anyway!

As is often the case, the pathway to a higher salary led to the appointment. I wasn’t going to turn down that opportunity. Fortunately my manager was extremely approachable. He let me talk through several 'how do I...?' scenarios until I gained a little confidence.

The negotiation

My promotion was made possible by a restructuring of the department. It changed from a flat structure to a number of specialist teams, and I led one of the teams. My two people were still doing the same work they did before the restructure but now reporting to me not to my manager as they did previously. They could see my promotion as a demotion for them. The atmosphere was frosty and made me want to avoid talking to them. Anything I asked was met with negative comments.

However, I realised that was not a success strategy. I had been put in charge for a reason and I was going to make it work. Fortunately I was good at the work myself and did show my team that I was worth listening to in that respect. I was able to make the team more successful, not least through some extras work myself, and as a result our pay rise that year was good.

Slowly they realised I wasn’t interested in grabbing the credit for their work, but rather for the team as a whole. It took most of the first year, but we slowly changed from silent awkwardness to positive collaboration.

Stephen is a co-founder of Motivation Matters, set up in 2004 to develop organisation behaviour to drive greater performance. He has worked for notable organisations such as Corning, De La Rue and Buhler and has been hired to help Philips, Lloyds TSB and a raft of others. A published author of articles and Conference speaker, Stephen delivers workshops across the country. He says the crux to achieve higher performance is managerial behaviour. You can follow Stephen on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Blog


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