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Monday, September 4, 2017

There ARE No "Soft" Skills

     Have you ever fired someone?
     How did it go? Looking forward to doing it again soon?
     Well, it’s a “soft” skill. Must be easy, right?
      I never found it so. However much the person deserved to be terminated, it was a painful thing to do.
     In some cases, I felt I had a tougher time with it than the dismissee did. That was when the news came unexpectedly to that person (Oh, you thought I didn’t mean all that corrective counseling? All those warnings?).
      The person could rise self-righteously on a gusher of anger and defensiveness, at least temporarily. You can bet that pretty much all his/her associates would tut-tut sympathetically, including those who had been hounding the boss for months to do the deed.

     Not the same situation for the manager. If you were doing your job right, you had been patient and tolerant, but firm. You made sure the requirements were clear. You responded appropriately to variances and transgressions.

     Still, every contact with this person was uncomfortable, as was observing the unchanging poor behavior.
     As time went on and performance didn’t improve, you migrated to specifics of responsibility, and talk of consequences. You set firm delivery dates and scheduled reviews. You had frank – but constructive – conversations.
     When it became obvious that the only way you could do your own job was to ring the bell on the final proof of failed performance, you agonized, approaching it in days of dread. Not a soft time for you.

     Succeeding in the workplace requires a combination of competencies. For managers, that includes positive leadership that avoids the need to fire people. It also entails knowing how to do it when it becomes necessary anyway.
     Before getting into the realities of that, consider how we refer to job skills.
     Both adjectives – “hard” and “soft” – are legitimate in their origins. However, they are easily, often, misinterpreted in practice, applied in ways associated with widespread mismanagement.
     “Hard” skills are not considered hard because they are difficult, although some indeed require care and skill. The word “hard” defines the clear, stable and readily observed character of such skills.
     You can quantify, show and teach the specifics of operating a planing machine, or framing a building or preparing a budget. Once you learn them, the skills are not particularly stressful. You just have to pay attention.

     “Soft” skills are those that do not lend themselves to quantifiable description. You can learn them, but there always will be times when applying them is anything but easy.
     They are behaviors that, in practice, are never quite the same every time. At the higher levels, they demand alertness in perception, plus careful and interactive application. Soft skills.
     The soft-skills practitioner must maintain situational awareness in immediate and continuing circumstances. An extremely important function of these practices is their role in the successful functioning of organizations, and the building and maintenance of productive collaboration. 
     This elusive quality is what is reflected in the “soft” label, not any suggestion the competencies are easy or unimportant.

     But that’s the problem. In practice, our busy managers too often limit their attention to defined tasks, with little or no attention to the actual people they work with.
     When you call something “soft” in that environment, you’ve given yourself permission to downplay or ignore it.
     So those who work in such a place either measure up or they don’t. It’s up to them. The boss may teach a little and discipline a lot, but there’s none of this idea of  he/she having responsibility for the growth and job satisfaction of the worker bees.
     You can, though, get all the hard information you need to evaluate whether it’s worth it to cultivate the so-called soft skills.    
     Productivity expert Jan Bruce reported in Forbes magazine early this year:
     “A new study from Boston College, Harvard University, and the University of Michigan found that soft skills training, like communication and problem-solving, boosts productivity and retention 12 percent and delivers a 250 percent return on investment based on higher productivity and retention.”
     It’s also not hard to see what happens when you have a serious lack of soft skills.   
     We’ve all known co-workers who are superb at performing the work but are impossible to get along with. They don’t listen to anyone, they don’t inform or assist anyone. Their co-workers avoid them. .  
     The mood in the place is darkened, and people don’t want to work there. Some quit. That one person seriously damages over-all productivity.
     Too often, the person continues in place because the manager, not personally present to the damage being done at the working level, keeps the difficult employee in place. Decisions made for the sake of hard-skills proficiency lay a tremendous cost on the operation.
     And THAT is the price of confusing “soft” with “easy.”
     It would be a challenge for the manager of the troublemaker to get into the situation deeply and closely enough to identify the problem and work out a successful solution.

     That is not at all easy, and the prospect of facing it is so daunting that many managers simply will not do it. Result: a massive soft-skills failure in our management culture.
      A related effect is how our task-driven managers are so busy full time doing tasks they should train their staff members to do.
      The trainer/educator role is composed of soft skills such as empathy, listening, patience. And the work requires time management, that essential activity sitting at the seam between hard and soft skills.
     You can take a good look at the “I don’t have the time” issue. When people are too busy to take the time, it may be that’s the way they want it.
     Such avoidance is directly counter to good management. The manager’s most important obligation is to identify the best ways to accomplish the goals of the organization, then implement them.
     Sometimes being a good manager means firing someone. More often, it means teaching oneself how to engage and overcome one’s own discomfort in learning and practicing difficult new skills.
     Not so easy. Not so soft.
A QUESTION: What has been your experience with management approach to "soft" skills? Do you agree shortfalls in that regard are frequent and costly?

SEE ALSO: They're Not Listening to You

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