Individual Contributors Aren’t Leaders? The Impact of Ignoring Soft Skills

February 18, 2021

Leadership- Trees looking up

Are the individual contributors in your organization leaders? Are their “hard” skills the only type of useful skills they possess at that level? When it comes to those sitting on the lower levels of the corporate ladder, there are many controversial views of the value of developing “soft” skills for the “worker bees”. At Zenger Folkman, we wanted to dig into our data to see what value leaders assign to these hard and soft skills.

For this research, we defined hard skills as:

  • technical expertise,
  • problem-solving ability,
  • drive for results,
  • and taking the initiative.

Soft skills were defined as:

  • ability to communicate,
  • relationship building,
  • coaching and supporting others,
  • development of colleagues,
  • and collaboration and teamwork.

Most observers assume that while the most effective managers need both hard and soft skills, the effectiveness of individual contributors relies primarily on hard skills.

Are Individual Contributors Leaders? 

To test that assumption, we collected multi-rater evaluations on over 9,000 individual contributors. Each individual contributor was rated by an average of 11 evaluators, including managers, peers, and others (which could include customers, suppliers, or former colleagues.) In the 360 feedback assessment, each individual contributor was rated on 48 researched behaviors that best differentiate the most from the least effective. In addition, the performance of each participant was rated on their productivity and effort. In the study, we divided participants into three groups.

  1. Top quartile soft skills, below average hard skills.
  2. Top quartile hard skills, below average soft skills.
  3. Top quartile hard and soft skills.

The results below show the overall effectiveness ratings for leaders who were in each of the above groups. As the graph demonstrates, hard skills are more highly valued for individual contributors than soft skills. There is a significant difference between individual contributors in those two groups (t-value 3.817, Sig. = 0.000). The more meaningful and much more substantial difference is between those who were in the top 25% on both skills and either of the other groups (t-value 34.53, Sig. 0.000 and t-value 33.62, Sig. 0.000.) These leaders were rated on average in the top 10%.
Individual Contributors Leaders-Hard versus Soft Skills

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In addition to this analysis, we looked at the individual manager’s performance ranking on productivity and effort. Once again, the chances of an individual contributor in the top quartile (only on soft skills) being given the highest performance rank on both productivity and effort were only 1.3%. Comparatively, 7.1% of those in the top quartile for their hard skills, were assessed by their managers and given the highest performance ranking for their productivity and effort. However, when individual contributors were highly skilled at both, 91.6% of those individuals were given the top performance rating.

Leadership Research- Top Performance Ranking on Productivity and Effort

This analysis verifies that while individual contributors with hard skills are more valued than those with soft skills, the combination of both soft and hard skills plays a critical role in improving the performance rankings and overall effectiveness of an individual contributor.

When is the right time for soft skills training?

Many organizations provide individual contributors with technical or hard skills training but put off doing leadership or soft skills training until individuals are promoted into management.

Unfortunately, the reality is much worse. Our data shows that training opportunities did not occur for many promoted into management until more than a decade later.

The assumptions behind the decision to hold off on leadership or soft skills training until people are in management positions are either that managers are in a better position to utilize and take advantage of that training or that it is not needed until then.

The above study demonstrates that individual contributors with hard and soft skills are rated as significantly more effective and are substantially more likely to receive high-performance evaluations.

One false assumption is that individual contributors are not leaders.

That they do not have subordinates may be true. However, if leadership is the ability to influence others, every person in an organization has, at times, the ability to influence their peers and manager. Individual contributors can be substantially more useful when they possess better interpersonal and leadership skills.

The training that has the most impact on changing the behavior of individual contributors and managers is multi-rater assessments or 360-degree feedback. This process helps participants understand their impact on others. It provides useful information about what behavioral changes would be of most significant benefit. Furthermore, it provides the motivation and incentive to change. Our research confirms that the least effective person at identifying either their strengths or weaknesses is the person themself. Others see an individual’s strengths and weaknesses much more clearly.

Soft skills are developed and improved over time.

Providing individual contributors with soft skill training early on in their careers provides each person with the time, experience, and opportunities to strengthen those soft skills. When they are put into a management position, their level of effectiveness is much higher.

Our research is clear that even if an individual contributor does not move into a management position, their performance is improved by soft skill development.

Check out Zenger Folkman’s assessments and development programs for individual contributors.

We also know that almost every employee views training and development as both a recognition and a reward. Employees in organizations where development opportunities are more plentiful have higher engagement, lower turnover, and higher productivity. If you are an individual contributor, remember that you can influence and lead those around you. Don’t brush off the soft skills that will advance your career.

-Joe Folkman

(This article first appeared on Forbes.)

Connect with Joe Folkman on LinkedIn, Twitter,  or Facebook.
Learn more about Zenger Folkman’s 360-Degree Assessments and leadership development workshops on our website. Register for this month’s leadership webinar hosted by Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman.

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