Leaders: 5 Signs Your People Skills Need Work

For this article by Jo Ilfeld, Executive Leadership Coach on soft skills for leaders the image shows a redheaded woman with folded arms in an office.

There is a theory called the “Peter Principle” that states that people get promoted to the job where they are the worst. And then they stay put. Which of course means many people have bosses who they believe are awful at their job…

This can be particularly noticeable when people are moving from individual contributor up the leadership ranks in their organization. People skills or “soft skills” are key to a leader’s growth and success. You may have all the technical know-how and academic understanding that your role demands but if you don’t have the capabilities of making people feel comfortable, motivated, inspired, you may need to roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Here are 5 signs that your people skills need sharpening up:

1. Your colleagues and coworkers are distinctly uncomfortable in your presence (or you’re not even sure how they feel about you)

If you walk into a room filled with equals and they clam up, you can be sure you need to work on both communication and networking skills. Chances are they’re either worried about how you’d react or respond or they’re just not sure how to talk to you. If that’s how your peers feel, could you imagine what your subordinates and team members feel?

A leader who cannot relate to and interact positively and constructively with both equals and those lower on the rung needs to brush up on communication and networking skills and practice them consistently.

What might be off? Are you too negative? Too talkative about your interests? Too caught up with work to make eye contact? Or just not skilled at having personal conversations that don’t have a “point?”

No one wants a leader they can’t talk to. Not even you. So the first step might be to find a trusted friend or mentor who is willing to give you some “straight talk” on how you may be putting off people so you can focus on building your skills in that area.

2. You’re prone to frequent emotional outbursts

One of the reasons people may not be comfortable talking to you could be that they’re worried about how you’d respond. If your team members are scared that you’d blow up at them for the smallest slip, or that you can’t handle things that don’t go according to plan, you can be sure that they are regularly holding back and possibly even keeping you out of the loop on a lot of project updates.

You don’t have to be the always optimistic Mister Rodgers all the time (if you don’t know Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood then yes, I am dating myself) to be approachable. If you are quick to become and show your frustration though, you do need to learn how to manage your emotions with care and slow down your reaction times until you can clearly think things through.

3. You lack the ability and patience to mentor a subordinate

Leaders make leaders. If you don’t have the patience or the ability to mentor those under you, you’ll be boxing yourself into a corner. How will you grow further if you don’t let those in your team rise higher?

4. You micromanage your team

Good leaders know how to let their team work independently and without playing sheepdog, constantly nipping at their ankles to move. While you do need to keep tabs and know who’s doing what, micromanagement doesn’t serve either you or your team’s best interests. You’re wasting time and effort on jobs that your team may be able to handle independently and at the same time, you’re sending them a message that you don’t trust them.

Giving your team room and empowering them to make their own decisions on a project will not only give them greater confidence in themselves but also, inspire respect for you as a leader who believes in them.

And if, like many people, you don’t know if your team is ready for that kind of independence, your job is the help them learn to think more like you without actually doing all the thinking for them.

5. You dislike and deny change or criticism of any kind

A team member comes to you with a proposal for changing the workflow and you shoot him down. Someone shares that a particular project can be done differently from what you suggested and you can’t even hear them out. These are all simple yet significant signs that your people skills need work.

Leaders lead with open minds. Letting team members know that it’s okay to share their views, express ideas that can change the way things work and offer constructive criticism with respect is key to becoming a leader who’s both loved and admired.

Ok fess up here – which of these do you think is your biggest Achilles heel? Can you see yourself in any of these? Let’s talk in the comments!

Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

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