The soft skills making a concrete difference

By Gordon Wilson, Chief Executive Officer, Advanced

Last week I read with interest the Edelman Trust Barometer 2021. It revealed that ‘business is not only the most trusted institution among the four studied (business, government, NGOs and media), but it is also the only trusted institution with a 61 per cent trust level globally.’ That’s quite something, and a weighty responsibility for business leaders.

At a time when people are increasingly looking to work for, and with, an institution they can be proud of – one that can be relied upon to do the right thing – how can we do more to foster trust within our own organisations?

Of course, building trust isn’t quick or easy. However, as Forbes points out, ‘it is essential in motivating and inspiring members of the team’. It requires a leader to be vulnerable, honest and authentic – not always a comfortable ask. ‘Do the right thing’ has been a core value at Advanced for some years. And this is particularly pertinent in our relationships with others – be they employees, partners, customers, prospects or suppliers.

It seems to me, if we want to connect in a genuine way, build bonds, communicate effectively and inspire trust we need to consistently employ another of the most important soft skills at our disposal – empathy.

Some people are natural empaths, they have an innate curiosity about other people’s viewpoints and the ability to put themselves in their shoes. Teams led by managers with this high emotional intelligence tend to produce excellent work and succeed as a cohesive group – even when under pressure. For others, it is a skill that has to be developed, nurtured and improved.

Empathy enables us to ‘read the room’ – even if it is a virtual one – and understand our human environment. It helps us to realise actual needs or feelings rather than those we assume are present. If we are empathetic, we can predict the effect of our decisions on the people around us and appreciate whether what we are trying to say has really been heard.

Empathetic leaders can also sense when they are required to lift the energy levels of their people and help create more positivity. For example, in December my Chief People Office introduced the Great Advanced Bake Off. Employees entered photos of their bakes over three rounds, culminating in some incredible showstoppers. The level of interest, support and excellence really lifted everyone’s spirits, creating a heightened sense of community at a time when we were all feeling the lack of traditional Christmas festivity.

As we all continue to practice physical distancing to keep each other safe, this shouldn’t limit our ability to relate to our colleagues and maintain social connections – indeed, it is more important than ever. Technology has been extremely successful in helping us with this while we work remotely, ensuring we can continue to be open and approachable via video calls or readily available using instant messaging.

Whatever tools we use to help us communicate, it is essential that we take the time and space to employ active listening. Someone can sense when they have been heard – and conversely when they haven’t. This means being present and alert while we listen – not using the time to think about what we are going to say when we get our chance or planning the next item on our ‘to do’ list. It is important to remind ourselves that the stories we tell in our heads about a situation and the way we perceive the world are different to those of others. Let’s not assume we can guess what people want or need.

The better we get to know and understand our teams, the easier it will be to spot if someone is struggling. A relationship grounded on trust will facilitate open and honest discussions around important wellbeing issues such as mental health or family considerations that may be impacting working life.

Of course, trust works both ways – it isn’t just about asking your employees to trust you. We need to believe in our recruitment processes and have faith that we have employed the kind of people who can be relied upon to solve problems, work with autonomy and manage workloads. Rather than introducing restrictive policies, it seems better to empower and trust people. Keep certain tenets in mind but apply them intuitively and flexibly to account for an individual’s particular needs.

Working life has changed in many ways in the last year, but having meaningful conversations, understanding the perspective of others, striving to do the right thing by them and fostering an atmosphere of trust continues to support success. Business has always been about relationships and human connections. Putting people at the heart of everything you do will persist in serving you very well.