The work environment of the 21st century has forced businesses to unearth creative ways to get more work done with fewer people. Creating a high-performance team is the goal of every leader, but how can this vision be realized? Of course, high-octane teams are backed by knowledge and talent but research bears out that a well-tuned set of "soft skills" can also offer a key advantage.

Soft skills, often associated with emotional intelligence, attitude, work ethic and communication expertise, relate to your ability to effectively "read" people or pick up on social cues. They are about managing your emotions and helping others manage their own. Leaders with masterful soft skills know how to combine thinking and feeling when making decisions and strive to act in service of others.

Interestingly, employers are currently placing significant weight on soft skills, particularly when hiring new candidates for entry-level positions.

Many would argue that these skills cannot be taught but I would disagree. There are ways you can hone the softer skills. In some cases it takes a clear strategy--such as purposefully and consciously going into a meeting with a commitment to practice behaviors that are more empowering and engaging.

Another idea is to find a mentor who is exceptionally effective at a soft skill that you feel you need to improve upon, such as communication or conflict resolution. Find out how they learned their skill and how they approach personal growth--and what lessons they may be willing to share with you. If they do take the time to mentor you, be sure to follow up with a thank you note and find a way to reciprocate, if possible. Consider interviewing key leaders within your organization. Find out which soft skills the organization values most right now and why. Ask yourself, how do I stack up against these ideals?

It is worth mentioning that a soft skill that has far-reaching positive effects and unmatched influence over others is the fine art of listening. The next generation of leaders need to fully embrace this concept. When you listen, it shows that you care. More importantly, asking thoughtful questions and judiciously considering the answers will enlighten you on many levels, providing a framework for future decisions. This simple practice can be transforming if you know how to master it.

Tell less and ask more. Leaders who realize the power of listening will ask their associates questions in a curious manner. It's not an interrogation. Try asking your employees these questions and you may be surprised by the boost in productivity, motivation and team solidarity:

  • What do you think we should do here?
  • Why might that be the best course of action?
  • What are the pros and cons of that approach?
  • What resources would you need to do this?
  • How can I help?
  • What is your next step?

Leadership does not have to be complicated. There is a way around every obstacle if you learn to ask the right questions and employ dynamic listening skills. As our working world becomes more complex and evolves, it stands to reason that engaging leadership skills such as effective listening, conflict resolution and emotional intelligence are some of the emerging business ideals that are gaining significant momentum.