Human Resources

People Managers, It’s Time to Brush Up On Your Soft Skills!

13 January 2021

8 min

Here are 5 management and leadership skills to master in 2021

For all the good that technology has brought us—making it possible for teams to continue working and collaborating remotely during this pandemic-stricken year—it has also exposed new weaknesses around soft skills. People managers have had to tackle this head-on.

Shifting how we all work, communicate, interact, collaborate, and engage with each other in the virtual world requires a different set of management and leadership skills. Best practices for in-person interactions, even when face-to-face is technically still possible, simply don’t carry the same weight when managers and their teams are separated by digital screens.

The rules of engagement have changed completely. Today’s people managers need the right skills to manage, mentor, and motivate distributed teams in a virtual work environment. With those skills in their arsenal they will become better positioned to help their organizations prepare for the many challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. It will also equip them with the know-how to unlock the true potential of their teams, so that every employee, regardless of their role, can play a valuable part in transforming their organization as a whole.

That’s why the time is now for people managers to brush up on their essential soft skills.

What are soft skills? 

Before diving in, let’s do a quick refresher. Here is a great definition of soft skills:
“Soft skills are character traits and interpersonal skills that characterize a person’s relationships with other people. In the workplace, soft skills are considered to be a complement to hard skills, which refer to a person’s knowledge and occupational skills. Soft skills have more to do with who people are, rather than what they know. As such, they encompass the character traits that decide how well one interacts with others and usually are a definite part of an individual’s personality.” 

Unlike ‘hard’ or ‘technical’ skills that quantify a person’s ability to do a specific job, soft skills, on the other hand, make up a person’s EQ or “emotional quotient.” Truth be told, many of these skills already exist within us; they just need to be revisited every now and then. No one simply learns a soft skill and then files it away for safekeeping. As we grow in our careers and face new professional and personal challenges, we must continually adapt our skills, competencies, and knowledge to respond to the needs and expectations of ever-changing work environments.

This was especially the case throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaders, managers, and employees around the world experienced a seismic shift in their day-to-day lives. The skills and best practices that may have worked well for them in the physical, face-to-face world suddenly needed to be reexamined. This especially applied to people managers and team leaders, who had to change their approach to team management rather quickly. For many, this involved learning an entirely new set of skills optimized for the now-virtual workplace.

5 soft skills essential for the success of people managers

2020 taught us a lot through all of its ups and downs. Learning to become more flexible, adaptable, and patient amid uncertainty and constant change—all of which are soft skills, mind you—undoubtedly sit at the top of that list. For people managers and team leaders looking to take their management and leadership development to the next level in 2021, it’s time to consider re-learning these critical traits that rank high on our must-have soft skills list:

  • Active Listening 

Actively listening means fully concentrating on the other person, trying to understand not just the words being said but also the emotion behind them, responding appropriately, and then also remembering what was said.” This skill, already a challenge for some, became even more challenging as the entire employee-manager relationship went virtual this year.

First off, communicating via computers or digital devices requires a conscious effort to block out distractions, so that both parties can stay focused on the conversation at hand. After all, in a real-life one-on-one conversation with your employees, you wouldn’t be multi-tasking between urgent email notifications, social media alerts, and anything else that could potentially grab your attention. You would give your employees the attention they deserve.

Even more, communicating in a digital environment requires managers to be much more in-tuned to non-verbal cues—like body language and voice tone. This can easily be overlooked when all you see is a “floating head” on the screen in front of you.

But most importantly, active listening is about being accessible when your team needs you the most. You don’t have to have all of the answers. You just need to create a safe and open space where your employees can share what’s on their minds, including venting about their pandemic-related frustrations. Listening to their needs will give you insight into how you can support their success and also help them overcome any challenges they may be facing.


  • Empathy

Empathy is the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. Essentially, it is putting yourself in someone else’s position and feeling what they must be feeling.” For some people, empathy comes naturally. For others, it takes a lot of practice. The latter may seem bizarre because, at the end of the day, empathy is simply a matter of caring about other people, which you would think is just part of being human, in general.

Unfortunately, many people have been taught, for years, about the importance of setting boundaries that separate the personal from the professional. While this certainly is important in a number of workplace circumstances, being able to relate to your employees and other colleagues on a human level is incredibly important for succeeding and making an impact in today’s ever-changing work environment—be it virtual or at the office.

Especially important during times of crisis or abundant change is learning how to be understanding and forgiving—to ourselves and to the people around us. We have to show compassion. People managers should legitimately care about the well-being of the people they manage. In this way, being empathetic should not be seen as a weakness. Rather, it’s a sign of strength, confidence, and vulnerability. And knowing that most employees leave their jobs because of a bad boss, managers today have no choice but to lead with empathy to avoid losing high-performing team members to another company (with empathic leaders).


  • Communication

Effective management communication is essential for guiding teams and lifting morale during times of disruption and uncertainty.” What has become abundantly clear over the past year is that employees look to their managers for answers that they may not be getting (clearly) from senior leaders. Just like you, they are trying to figure out how to survive and thrive, even when it feels like the sky is falling down. Even though managers may not always have all of the answers—and rightly so, need to admit when they don’t—they owe it to their teams to maintain ongoing and transparent communication at all times. Not only is it a way to reassure people that you’re there to help and support them through the ups and downs but also to keep them focused on the big picture goals and priorities for the future.


  • Collaboration

Collaboration in the workplace takes into account employees’ ideas, skills, experiences, and opinions. When individuals work together openly, processes and goals become more aligned, leading the group towards a higher success rate of achieving a common goal.” There are a lot of dimensions of collaboration—which become even more complex when everyone is pitching in on various projects, initiatives, and strategies remotely. Fortunately, there are a lot of benefits that stem from collaboration, including improved team relationships, streamlined processes, and increased productivity and efficiency.

Collaboration is also a proven way to activate each and every employee to drive impact and innovation at the individual, team, organization, and company levels. But this doesn’t just mean encouraging your team to work together to solve problems. Collaboration is a skill like any other and, for teams to succeed, requires managers to set relevant ground rules and expectations to keep all team members working towards the same goals and objectives at all times.


  • Learning Agility

People who have high levels of learning agility seek out and learn from unfamiliar experiences and then apply those lessons to succeed in the next new situation. Learning agility helps them know what to do when they don’t know what to do.” Similar to the other soft skills mentioned above, learning agility is truly a state of mind. It requires leaders and managers to be open to learning new things and testing new approaches to getting work done or driving new kinds of results—even if those tests fail. It’s about focusing on the future and abandoning the “things have always been done this way” mentality. And while learning agility, like collaboration, has many dimensions—like mental agility, people agility, change agility, results agility, and self-awareness—each dimension accentuates different soft skills. Therefore, by being an agile learner, you’ll be well on your way to mastering all of these soft skills.


The time is now for people managers to skill up!

As the saying goes, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” This should be your approach, as people managers, to learning new management and leadership skills that will not only make you a better manager overall but also prepare you for the many more professional challenges that lie ahead as we all inch our way out of this pandemic era. This soft skills list is not exhaustive by any means. However, if you can commit to brushing up on each of these soft skills in 2021, you’ll undoubtedly be well on your way to set a positive example for all other (aspiring) people managers to follow. Just remember, while these skills are critical for running a successful, effective, and efficient team, they are also investments in your own long-term professional and personal development. After all, soft skills will always be in high demand.
To learn more about the key trends we foresee taking 2021 by storm, be sure to download our newest eBookFinding Clarity in Chaos: HR Trends and the New World of Work in 2021.

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