How to sharpen up your soft skills for 2023

It’s been a turbulent year for business – the importance of soft skills is only going to grow as companies continue to adapt to hybrid working and navigate the onslaught of current challenges, as Laura Ashley-Timms explains

Perhaps the most newsworthy leadership story of 2022 has been Elon Musk’s early tenure as CEO of Twitter. Headlines haven’t been particularly kind to Musk; you can sum most of them up like this: “Elon Musk lacks soft skills”.

One of the most pressing issues facing businesses going into 2023 is how to equip managers with the relevant skills to navigate change and deal with the challenges posed by the Ukraine-Russia war, the cost-of-living crisis the phenomenon of employees reassessing their priorities in the face of unprecedented global uncertainty and anxiety. Don’t think for a moment that there’s anything ‘soft’ about soft skills; increasing your people management capability will deliver tangible business outcomes and career success.

For anyone serious about success, one of the best investments you can make in your own development is to get better at asking questions. Not just any questions…powerful questions, delivered in the right way, at the right time, that encourage the recipient to think differently and more creatively. Developing this skill will become a missing superpower that changes everything.

Two types of questions to consider

So how do we get better at asking questions? The first step is to understand that there are two types of questions: transactional and insightful. The former type is common. “How many units have we sold this month?” “Is your report ready?” “Have you seen my keys?”

These questions are an appeal for a specific piece of information, and little more. The recipient either has the information, doesn’t have it, or knows where they can get it. They are designed for the benefit of the person asking the question, often to gather data.

Insightful questions, on the other hand, aren’t designed for your benefit or to surface a specific piece of information, instead they invite the recipient to develop their own ideas and foster a process of creativity and problem-solving. Examples of Insightful questions that can be powerful include the following:

“If you were to look at the situation from your boss or colleague’s perspective, what do you think they would say?”

“If time wasn’t an obstacle in overcoming this challenge, what would you do differently?”

Essentially, I’d categorise any question that helps shed new light on a problem or situation as an insightful question.

Getting better at listening

What we do once we’ve proposed an insightful question is almost as important as the question itself. Intuitive listening is an evolution of ‘active listening’. Core to active listening is the ability to completely focus on what the other person is saying, rather than waiting for your own turn to speak. Intuitive listening takes this one step further, looking for what isn’t being said.  Developing your skill to ask more powerful questions alongside intuitive listening can help you unlock the talent and potential in those you work with and the teams you participate in.

Becoming a ‘bright shadow’

If asking better questions is all about illuminating others and helping them have ‘lightbulb moments’ of their own, then it makes sense to reflect that illumination on the whole organisation so that everyone can benefit. In our book, we call this becoming a bright shadow. It comes from establishing a reputation for asking provocative and insightful questions. People will anticipate this from you and will adjust their behaviour and thinking accordingly. This way, the benefits of asking intuitive questions become endemic throughout the organisation, instead of being siloed amongst only those working towards ‘enquiry as a superpower’.

Performance improvement vs performance management

The whole point of developing a toolkit of soft skills is to improve relationships with those around us so everyone can generate better results. Far too many organisations miss a trick when it comes to performance; they are focused on remedial performance management. This ‘firefighting’ approach means managers only pay attention to performance when it dips. But what if instead of focusing on ‘performance management’ we focused on ‘management performance’?

A recent academic study across 62 organisations and 14 sectors, independently evaluated by the London School of Economics and Political Sciences, found that the application of these particular soft skills increased management capability across all nine areas measured, dramatically improved retention, increased employment and allowed the organisations to achieve faster growth over the control group organisations.

It also delivered a 74 times average learner return on investment with measurable benefits in engagement, process improvements, productivity, revenue generation and cost savings.

Developing the skill of asking powerful questions and adopting a continual performance improvement approach removes the need for performance management, a task nobody relishes. This ongoing focus and commitment to identifying opportunities for improvement is perhaps the ultimate managerial soft skill.

Laura Ashley-Timms is recognised as one of the UK’s top executive coaches and is the co-creator of the STAR model and the multi-award-winning STAR Manager programme.

She is an expert and thought leader on how to leverage operational coaching behaviours across organisations to drive commercial results and improve productivity and engagement levels.

As the co-founder and COO of Notion, a performance improvement consultancy established in 2000, Laura has led the team to win a string of awards for innovation, learning design and academic partnerships, as well as for its work with FTSE and Fortune 500 clients, including Personnel Today magazine’s prestigious Learning & Development Supplier of the Year award in 2021. She is also the co-author of The answer is a question

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