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Assessing the soft skill of Leadership

Both soft and hard skills are essential to ensure the success of employees on the job.

This paper was written by students in the Masters of I/O Science program at the University of Guelph, located in Ontario, CA. Special mentions to the students for their generous contributions: Melissa Pike, Molly Contini, Julia Kearney, and Jordan Moore. Supervised by Marian Pitel, VP Research at nugget.ai.

Imagine you’re looking for a new job and applied to two companies, each for the same position. However, at company A, Sam would be your manager, and at company B, Riley would be your manager. For every new project, Sam holds a meeting to discuss with the team the best strategy to tackle new tasks. Sam invites everyone to contribute in meetings and considers everyone to be an important part of the team. Sam ensures that they delegate all tasks to those who would be best suited for them, keeping in mind everyone's opinions and feedback from past projects. On the other hand, when Riley brings a new project to their staff, Riley hands staff their assigned role and walks away. Riley always gives the same roles to the same people and does not ask for feedback. Riley has a closed-door policy, as they do not see the point in discussing anything work-related with their subordinates.

Between Sam and Riley, who would you rather work for?

Soft Skills

Though Riley would be a successful leader in some contexts, you would probably choose to work for Sam. Why is that? Sam clearly demonstrates excellent leadership, an important soft skill. But what are soft skills? Soft skills are interpersonal skills and personal attributes that allow people to effectively perform their work duties (Lievens & Sackett, 2012). Examples of soft skills are communication, critical thinking, leadership, positive attitude, and teamwork, to name a few (Doyle, 2019). These skills are separate from technical or “hard” skills, which are task-focused and allow you to perform your job effectively, such as computer programming, mathematic abilities, and data analysis. Both soft and hard skills are essential to ensure the success of employees on the job.

Soft skills are crucial to employers as they help to build stronger workplaces, teams, employees, and increase performance (Cimatti, 2016).

Soft skills have even been found to predict life and job success (Heckman & Kautz, 2012). To gain these benefits in the organization, employers should hire candidates with the necessary soft skills for the job. To successfully hire candidates with these skills multiple tools can be used. The tools can include simulations, role-play, work samples, observation, interviews, and online tests (Cimatti, 2016; Sullivan, 2017). Organizations should use these tools to help identify and hire those who are proficient in the soft skill of leadership, like Sam.


Soft skills are important for any employee, but leadership is particularly important for effective managers. Research shows that the most successful leaders know how to communicate effectively (Mahaffey, 2016). Additionally, leaders must be able to engage their employees, drawing them in and keeping their attention, to promote productivity and trust in the organization (Mahaffey, 2016). Leaders must also support and empower their employees, delegate, motivate, and be resourceful (House, 1996; Kozlowski, Mak, & Chao, 2016; Le Blanc & Gonzalez-Roma, 2012; Liden et al., 2008; Mahaffey, 2016). To demonstrate effective leadership, leaders should be able engage in each of these behaviours and know when to change their behaviour to appropriately fit the situation (Yukl & Mahsud, 2010).

Effective leaders are flexible and adaptive, as companies and situations are constantly changing (Yukl & Mahsud, 2010).

Measuring Leadership

Just as tools can be used to identify a variety of soft skills, tools can also be used to specifically measure leadership and select the best leaders for a company. Researchers have demonstrated that tools, such as interviews, work samples, and assessment centers are particularly effective at measuring leadership behaviours and differentiating between different types of leaders for selection (Kravitz, Stinson, & Chavez, 1996). Research indicates that the use of job-relevant activities in work samples and assessments centers are the best method of measuring a candidate’s leadership skills (HR guide, 2015; Lowry, 1995). In the past, leadership has also been measured through exercises such as leaderless group discussions (HR guide, 2015). In leaderless group discussions, people are asked to discuss a topic, and no one is designated as the leader. This exercise allows for a leader to emerge within the group, as the candidates are evaluated on how they speak to one another (HR guide, 2015). Mahaffey (2016) has indicated that effective communication, being resourceful, and engaging others are fundamental behaviours that should be considered when assessing leadership. Using methods such as this, work samples and assessment centers can effectively determine who would be a good leader and who a company should select based on their ability to demonstrate effective leadership.

If a company has a specific leadership style in mind, they should use work samples to evaluate the various behaviours needed for effective leadership. By hiring the right leaders, companies can increase their productivity, employee satisfaction, and performance (Cimatti, 2016). So next time you’re hiring for a leader in your company, make sure to keep these methods and behaviours in mind!

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Marian Pitel ✨

VP Research