Do you avoid the hard stuff by calling it the soft stuff?


The hard skills we use everyday at work are visible and tangible: we can easily demonstrate our ability with numbers by producing a spreadsheet; or our sales ability with a pitch-perfect presentation; or our writing skills with a well-structured and articulate report. We can analyse figures that help us to understand the position of our businesses in the marketplace. We can use logic and rational thinking to develop long-term strategies. We can set out performance goals and targets for our people to meet, and we can project our earnings and profits. These are skills that are highly valued by many organisations, and so they should be. As leaders we are also expected to create visions for the future, encourage creativity and innovation, and master a range of people skills.

Ironically, the so-called soft skills are not so highly valued by many leaders in organisations. A search for the term on Wikipedia says these are the personal attributes we possess – communication skills, social skills, personal traits and habits – which may not be necessary for employment! They are essential for employment, especially if you aspire to be a worthy leader of people trying to achieve anything. The problem may be semantics – hard skills may be so named because they can be seen and measured; soft skills because they are more opaque, less tangibly measured. An unfortunate result of such labelling is that ‘soft’ doesn’t mix well with hard-nosed business principles and tough-minded leadership paradigms that many heads of business or departments believe are necessary to get a job done. Many people do not want to be seen as ‘soft’ – he’s a bit of softie – it might be appreciated in a relationship, but does it garner respect in the boardroom?

The people skills, as I suggest we relabel them, are actually the hard skills – meaning the most difficult to master and the easiest from which to run away. I wonder how many of us avoid doing the hard stuff when it comes to the people side of business by calling it the soft stuff?

It’s hard to give both challenging and supportive feedback to someone who doesn’t measure up to the task. If we’re tough we might ‘tear them a new one’, or deal out derogatory remarks like Lord Sugar on the UK’s Apprentice. Or maybe we postpone feedback, storing up vague statements for the one conversation a year that HR demands – the annual appraisal. Or maybe we avoid it altogether by moving them to another department or firing them. It’s hard to understand one human being’s psychological make-up and work with the full range of their emotional experience at work. It’s easier to place injunctions about not having emotions at work – unless of course they involve bravado and high-fiving achievements, or metaphors about harnessing the rage to win. It can be hard to figure out how to unlock someone’s potential and to help them flourish and grow.

It’s hard to ask teams to reflect on their own processes of getting work done – to delve into the real politics and the shadowy underbelly of group life. It’s hard to explore who is in, who holds power, who is out, who rubs you up the wrong way, who is lazy, who never shuts up, who never says anything, who agrees and then goes out and does the exact opposite or stubbornly refuses to do anything different. Or when team members seem to get on fabulously and the team is achieving its goals, it’s hard to get beneath the surface to check you’re not heading into disastrous ‘group-think’ territory. So, mostly we avoid doing those things that might help us achieve greater heights or tackling those things that hinder us from achieving near our potential. We focus on the tangible and measurable and declare we’re doing the best we can! It’s hard to work on group dynamics that involve all those individual emotional, psychological beings.

It’s hard to change an organisation’s culture when it depends on the buy-in of its people and changes to social norms, group dynamics and individual behaviours. Surely if we leaders post a new set of values on the walls and hand out a few pamphlets about ‘our values round here’, then people will fall into line and start behaving in ways that align to them. It’s hard to create a real set of lived values in which people really do believe and with which behave congruently. It’s hard to work on organisational or system dynamics that involve all those complex webs of relationships and those individuals’ needs and desires, not to mention the people outside the organisation (the customers, shareholders, clients, stakeholders, opinion-shapers, pundits).

If you can master the people skills, then you’re on your way to being a worthy and inspiring leader – people want to feel that you value them as people, that you value their contribution, that you trust them to honour the best interests of the organisation. People want to feel a genuine sense of purpose and meaning in their work. People want to believe their leaders are genuinely interested in their growth and development. Master this people stuff and you will reap the rewards of higher performance, loyalty and discretionary effort from the people in your organisation. This ultimately will transform into hard numbers that you’ll be able to analyse and compute for the betterment of your organisation.

So, let’s not call it the soft stuff any more – it’s bloody hard to do all that people stuff and its time we acknowledged that soft skills are the new hard skills!

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