Soft skills

This article “An MBA is great – but you’ll need soft skills to make an impact” was published on the Association of MBAs (AMBA) web site on 23 November 2018

They don’t teach you about soft skills and relationships at Business School, but these are what could make the vital difference to career success, says Kim Tasso

Studying for an MBA is hard. Especially if you do so while holding down a full-time job and raising a family. I know because that’s how I studied mine. I remember poring over corporate finance text books while rocking my son’s cradle on a seaside holiday.

An MBA is about acquiring knowledge and exploring case studies. Then you apply it to your own organisation. But it’s hard to implement a strategy and drive change. Why? Because of people.

The importance of ‘soft’ people skills

They don’t teach you about soft skills and relationships at college. It’s assumed that you already know – after all, you are a human and an inherently social creature. You are expected to learn about relationships through trial and error – which can cost you time, effort, relationships and even your career.

Even the most autonomous technology jobs require collaboration with other tech folk, explanations with funders or discussions with users. Business relationships are important when you are trying to secure a job or interview a prospective recruit, joining a team or helping a group perform better, whether you are trying to understand how to impress your boss or develop the potential of those who report to you, whether you are seeking a promotion or disciplining someone and whether you are negotiating with suppliers or selling solutions to clients.

We have a natural rapport with between 10% and 30% of the people we meet. So we need to be adept at recognising and adapting our behaviour if we want to get on with the vast majority. We need rapport if we want to influence, persuade and motivate people or change the way that they think or behave. It’s even more challenging in a multi-national environment where a host of cultural differences come into play.

In 2012, futurologist Ian Pearson predicted that the majority of jobs would be automated and humans will be relegated to a parallel ‘care economy’ based on emotional skills, not physical or intellectual ones. His suggestion was that those who mastered human skills would be those most likely to still have jobs.

The role of emotions

While we think that in business we are rational decision makers, psychologists show otherwise. Emotion is involved in just about everything we do. Scientists have proven that without emotions, we would not be able to make a decision. Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barratt says: ‘Emotions are guesses your brain constructs in the moment where billions of brain cells are working together.’

The way we interpret our emotions and those displayed by others is individual. Our perceptions are shaped by filters which are, in turn, driven by our mental model of the world. And these consist of memories that are affected by the strength of emotions we experienced at the time.

Emotional commitment is four times stronger than rational commitment and a company with high employee commitment delivers two to three times more shareholder value.

Emotional intelligence is critical for leaders

Emotional Intelligence (or EQ or EI) covers a range of measureable abilities: how aware we are of our emotions, how we control our emotions, how we recognise emotions in others (empathy) and how we manage emotions in others (relationship management).
Tested alongside 33 other important skills, EQ subsumes the majority of them including time management, decision making and communication. EQ accounts for 58% of performance in all types of jobs and is the single biggest predictor in the workplace and the strongest driver of leadership and personal excellence.

90% of high performers are also high in EQ – and people with high EQs make more money.

Researchers have found EQ skills to be more important to job performance than any other leadership skill.


Communication underpins everything we do in business. But our reliance on digital methods can cause problems – the way we write is not the way we speak, written communication isn’t interactive and we lack vital information from non-verbal signals. A Harvard Business Review (HBR) report showed that a face-to-face request is 34 times more likely to be accepted.

How we say things is often more important that what we say – the emotional impact is paramount. Another HBR report finds that stories are 22 times more memorable than facts or figures.

How we deal with change

Between 70% and 90% of our behaviour is habit. Author Campbell MacPherson reports that 88% of change initiatives fail. While in business we talk about change management, psychologists consider the psychological transition people have to make. Kubler-Ross is known for work on the change cycle which sees people go through stages of shock, denial, anger, blame, resentment, depression, self-blame, experimentation and acceptance.

Psychologists suggest that we only change when we meet the right balance of learning anxiety and survival anxiety (the pressure to change). Learning anxiety involves fears of temporary incompetence, punishment for incompetence, loss of personal identity and loss of group membership.

Separate groups of scientists have discovered that there is an adaptive third which make transitions more easily than the majority of people.


Motivation is complex too. McClelland offered a simple model showing people were motivated by affiliation, achievement or power and control.
Author Nancy Kline explains that change takes place best where there is a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative feedback. And Neuroscientist Naomi Eisenberger shows that there appears to be five social rewards and threats that are deeply important to the brain: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. People can experience feedback as an attack on their ‘status’, which the brain perceives like a physical attack.

Better Business Relationships

The DACRIE™ model, which is described in my book Better Business Relationships – Insights from psychology and management for working in a digital world provides a structure within which to consider the soft skills needed by leaders and managers:

  1. Difference and diversity – understanding yourself and other people
    • Personality, style, perception and cognition
    • Managing emotions, authenticity, emotional intelligence (EQ) and empathy
    • Gender, generation and cultural differences
  1. Adaptation and change
    • Habits, filters and comfort zones
    • Learning processes – managing change in ourselves and others
    • Resilience and stress management
  1. Communication
    • Face-to-face, telephone, presentation, written and digital
    • Non-verbal communication (NVC)
    • Influence, persuasion and storytelling
  1. Relationships and conflict management
    • Relationship management competencies including rapport and trust
    • Different types of relationship and how they are formed
    • Difficult behaviours, conflict management and negotiation
  1. Internal relationships
    • Organisational culture, working with your manager and internal politics
    • Groups and teams – styles, integration, buy-in and performance
    • Delegation, coaching, feedback, motivation and leadership
  1. External relationships
    • Self-esteem, confidence and client service
    • Decision making processes – Selling yourself and your ideas
    • Meetings, pitches, key accounts and referrer management