The Soft Stuff Is the Hard Stuff: Team Leadership Is Hard

Leading a team isn’t easy. You are under pressure from above and below. There are targets to be met and people, with different personalities and motivations, to manage. It’s a tough gig. But what makes for a successful team? How important is the team leader? Which skills matter?

The Soft Stuff Is the Hard Stuff: Team Leadership Is Hard

These are all important questions and, interestingly, are ones that tech giant Google have asked themselves over the years. Being Google, they thought they would examine the data (which is always music to the ears of a statistician like me!). They have had two parallel initiatives one about teams, and the other about people leaders – called the Aristotle and Oxygen projects respectively. Both have arrived at similar conclusions, which is that the so-called “soft” people skills are the ones that matter most.

The Aristotle team project concluded that “how” teams worked together was much more important than “who” was in the team, “what” they were working on and even “where” they worked (co-located or across multiple sites). The teams that had a way of working together that was based on generosity, equality, curiosity, empathy, and emotional intelligence, were much more successful.

The Oxygen team-leader project identified the qualities of successful team leaders and created a list of 10 attributes, at least 7 of which are “soft” skills: coaching mindset, empowers the team, creates inclusive environment, listens, supportive of career development, collaborates and has clear vision.

In fact, although this insight, that people skills are business critical, is often overlooked it has actually been known for a long time. The brilliantly named US National Soft Skills Association cite a piece of research from Harvard University that is over 100 years old on what makes successful engineers. It showed that “85% of job success came from having well-developed soft and people skills and only 15% came from technical skills and knowledge (hard skills)”.

Soft skills matter

Soft skills matter for business success yet disappointingly few businesses invest in supporting managers and team leaders in developing their people skills. It’s very hard to come by long term trends on how much management training is being given, however there are far fewer graduate management training schemes than there were in the 1980s and 1990s.

There is some good recent data in the UK from the Employers Skills Survey. But when it comes to training of management skills, it’s a pretty depressing read. In 2019 only 61% of employers offered training of any sort (down from 65% in 2011) and most of that was focused on job-specific tasks, or health and safety. Management training was only offered by 34% of them and was limited to about a day a year. It’s no wonder that the Chartered Management Institute say we are nation of “accidental managers” who are left on their own to sink or swim.

This lack of investment in people skills is even more short sighted in light of the fact that the UK has had virtually no growth in productivity over the last 10 years. The government response to this has been to continue to focus almost exclusively on enhancing “hard” STEM skills (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) with no attention on the more critical management skills so essential for increasing team level productivity. It’s a very strange omission and almost a national scandal.

From training to learning

So, what should we do about it?

One thing is clear. Businesses are not going to suddenly revert back to expensive management training programs. Plus, the pandemic has disrupted not only where we work but also how we work. Remote and hybrid working is the norm with many businesses now operating from an online-first standpoint.

This is both a threat and an opportunity when it comes to learning and development. It’s a threat to the traditional classroom style in-person training, but an opportunity to redesign and improve how learning is actually achieved. A move away from delivering training towards facilitating learning.

Educators such as Professor John Hattie have for some time shown that the key to creating great learning outcomes is to make the learning process “visible”. This visibility is achieved through having explicit goals, a deliberate practice and visible feedback. Whilst his work was on school education systems it is just as applicable to learning in a work environment.

The visible learning model can be summarised as:

• Clear goals (that are challenging yet achievable)

• Repeated practice (opportunities for experiential learning)

• Consistent feedback (on whether on right path to achieve the goals)

At first sight the model appears quite simple, but this doesn’t mean learning processes are easy or straightforward. Often, we have to grapple with challenges and commit to the process even when it’s uncomfortable. This is why learning how to lead a successful team isn’t easy, there are lots of challenges and sometimes it is uncomfortable to address them.

Learning to lead is a continuous process

At Friday Pulse we are passionate about building happy and successful teams. We know that happiness and success go hand in hand and that creating a continuous learning process where teams and team leaders can learn together is the best way to build highly successful teams and businesses.

The good news is that the soft skills that team leaders so critically need can be learnt on the job. They are all about people interactions so setting up a deliberate practice that enables team leaders to reflect on, and learn from, their experiences will be much more valuable than reading a book or a stand-alone training day. The visible learning model can help design and frame the process with team leaders encouraged to:

  • Set clear goals – in terms of both the business goals and the team’s ongoing wellbeing
  • Establish a repeating pattern of meetings such as weekly team meetings and 1-1s, so that the team leader and the team can reflect and learn together
  • Gather consistent data and feedback on the team’s accomplishments, challenges and happiness

This process can form the backbone of their learning process – as in learning “how” people can best work together in order to be a happy and successful team. Friday Pulse can help support this process and, as Google showed in their research, this “how” is the most important factor for success. The soft stuff isn’t easy, but it is worth the time and effort.


Visible Learning (2009); James Hattie; Routledge