A Wealth Of Information Creates A Poverty Of Attention: A Plea For Soft Skills

By Sims Wyeth  Do you need more technical skills to drive success? Think again! It’s wiser to build “soft skills” that target your abilities to persuade and influence. Leaders...

By Sims Wyeth 

Do you need more technical skills to drive success? Think again! It’s wiser to build “soft skills” that target your abilities to persuade and influence.

Leaders are people who influence followers. Executives are leaders, so they should know how to influence people, right?

So here’s a question. Given a budget for executive education, where would you spend the money? On a developmental program that is cognitive and technical in nature, or on a program that is more about the emotional, the psychological, the affective aspects of leadership?

Yes, I know. It depends on the person. But I say, on the whole, almost every executive is up to her eyeballs in technical expertise. What many lack are the soft skills, and here comes the paradox: the soft skills are the hard ones.

Here’s why you and your team should marinate yourselves in the soft skills, the people part of performance, productivity, and profitability.
In his book, Working with Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman writes:

“For young diplomats in the state department, on-the-job performance ratings correlated negatively with how well they did on the test used to select them.

Mastery of academic topics was irrelevant (or worse, detrimental) to the competencies that count in that form of sales known as diplomacy.

When IQ test scores are correlated with how well people perform in their careers, the estimate of how much difference IQ accounts for ranges from 25 percent to 4 percent.

IQ alone at best leaves 75 percent of job success unexplained, and at worst 96 percent–in other words, it does not determine who succeeds and who fails.

A study of Harvard graduates in the fields of law, medicine, teaching and business found that scores on entrance exams–a surrogate for IQ–had zero or negative correlation with their eventual career success.

In professional fields, everyone is in the top 10 percent of intelligence, so IQ itself offers relatively little competitive advantage.

Among professionals and technical experts, there is more variety in emotional intelligence than in IQ. Being at the top in emotional intelligence confers a major competitive advantage. Thus, “soft” skills matter even more for success in “hard” fields.”

So that’s Daniel Goleman’s two cents on the subject. Since leaders are tasked with influencing others, training them on the skills of influence and persuasion would be the best bang for your buck.

So what are the best principles and practices of influence and persuasion?

Let’s turn to another source, Dr. Robert B. Cialdini, who has spent a lifetime uncovering the elements of influence and persuasion.

Back in 1984, he wrote a book called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion which has been widely hailed as a seminal book on leadership, marketing, sales, politics, and interpersonal relations.

In the book, he features 6 principles of influence and persuasion. Here they are in no particular order.

The idea of reciprocity is that people by nature feel obliged to give back to others who have given to them. Psychology explains this by stressing that we humans simply hate to feel indebted to other people.

One of the greatest gifts a senior executive can give to his or her follower is the gift of attention. And the best way to give attention is to listen. What you learn from listening can be important, but what you say by listening is decisive. Those who have been heard will listen to you when it’s your turn to talk.

In other words, you’ll have their ears, the quickest path to influence.
Commitment (and Consistency)

These principles confirm that humans have a deep need to be seen as consistent. We want what we feel and think on the inside to be consistent with what we say and do on the outside.

Once we have publicly committed to something or someone, we are much more likely to follow through and deliver on that commitment…hence consistency.

For instance, when you ask a subordinate to alert you should any obstacle delay the completion of a project, she will be more likely to give you a heads up if she says, “Yes, I will.”

When you make phone reservations for a restaurant, savvy establishments will ask, “Will you call if you have to cancel?” If you say, “Yes, I will,” you will be more likely to do so, and the restaurant will be able to maximize revenue that evening.

In court, we are asked to swear that we will tell the truth, and when getting married, we’re asked to stand by our spouse in sickness and in health. While these devices are (as we know all too well) not panaceas, they are part of the social contract, and on balance, contribute to a more stable society, and a more efficient and effective business culture.

Ask for commitment, because your colleagues like to feel that their word is their bond.
Social Proof

Social Proof is when people do what they observe other people doing. After all, when uncertain, there is safety in numbers.

When your ten-year-old daughter wants to go bowling at 9pm on a school night, and you say no, you’re likely to hear the counter argument that, “Jennie’s Mom said she could.” And you are likely to hear yourself saying, “And if Jennie’s Mom asked her to catch a falling knife, would you want to do that too?”

It’s tempting in business to mimic other companies, companies that we might feel are more successful than ours. We see their logos, their clever tag lines, their names in the paper, and we yearn for that renown.

I believe social proof is one reason why it’s so hard to innovate. We are hard-wired to follow the crowd. We tend to fall in lock step with the latest fashions, especially when we’re young. It takes courage to be different. Most of us want to clone what someone else has done.

As a human, it is hard to stand alone. Yet that’s what leaders do. They create a new normal.

Honor them. Encourage them. Wasn’t it Gandhi who said of people with new ideas, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

We trust authority figures and they are inherently more persuasive because of this (authority can be based on many factors – wealth, uniforms, status, etc.)

When the boss spills soup on his tie, do the junior execs have a secret craving to do the same?

When the CEO wears a gray suit, white shirt and red tie every day to work, I bet dollars to doughnuts gray, white and red start blooming in the halls of headquarters.

The white coats on doctors are a flag of authority to medical underlings, and also to patients.

In 1963, Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted an experiment focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience.

He found that ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of inflicting severe pain on an innocent human being.

Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up.

So, if you wield authority, it is likely people will not be willing to go against you. You should insist repeatedly that you welcome rigorous, healthy debate.
And then tolerate the blows to your ego, the time spent in contention, and take pride in the growth of your patience.


The more you like someone, the more likely it is you’ll be persuaded by them. There is power in being nice and good manners are inherently persuasive.

I am persuaded to go to a particular barber in my town because of his personal warmth. I am persuaded to bring my dry cleaning to a particular store because the proprietor and I have short, friendly conversations.

If our Congressmen and women could be nicer to one another, I suspect our government would get more done.

In other words, when we are polite and friendly, when we disagree agreeably, when we criticize the idea and not the person offering it, we are more likely, in the long run, to get what we want.

What’s the saying? You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

When you believe something is in short supply, you want it more. When Hurricane Sandy was about to come ashore, there were very few generators in the hardware stores.

Supply and demand is the driving force of the economy. When supply is short, demand is high.

There is only one painting of Mona Lisa, only one Guernica by Picasso. Respected works of art are valuable because they are one of a kind.

Uber is one of a kind. It’s a transportation company that owns no transportation equipment. Wouldn’t you like to own a piece of that?

AirBnB is a global hospitality company that owns no real estate. That’s unique–a game changer.

Great leaders are scarce–game changers too. When you get a reputation for being a change agent, your value goes up.

Branding yourself as someone who can create exceptional outcomes enables you to be highly influential, and earn prestige and wealth as well.

I recognize the importance of technical knowledge, expertise in a particular field, and the need for raw cognitive power.

But executives already possess those assets, or at least they should. What they need is better judgment, more curiosity, more wisdom, more empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand what others are thinking and feeling. It does not mean that you agree with them, only that you get where they’re coming from.

Empathy is at the core of people skills, and when you have such skills, you have access to the greater powers of influence and persuasion.

Real empathy is rare. It’s the ability to penetrate the inner life of your fellow man.

Machiavelli said, “All men have eyes but few have the gift of penetration.” We mostly pay attention to what’s going on inside ourselves, how we feel, what’s up next, or that slice of greasy pizza in our unsettled tummies.

But those who have the “gift of penetration” can see the needs and fears of others, and can use that information for good or ill.

When it’s time to develop executives, teach them the gift of penetration, the skill of looking outward into others, and insist they use their wizardly talents ethically and wisely.

The opinions expressed here by  columnists and writers are their own, not those of Otchere.com.


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