The internet is conspiring to convince us that soft skills are good for us. These skills— strong work ethic, positive attitude, communication skills, time management, problem-solving, acting as a team player, ability to accept and learn from criticism, etc.—are fed to leaders like a mom feeding her kids lima beans. Leaders grimace, even if these skills are good for them.
Why don’t leaders like dealing with them? Because it’s one more chore. And consider the reasons for avoiding them:
1) They’ve never been that important. For more than 150 years, we have trained students to comply with hierarchical structures in order to prepare them for “the world of work.” That world has been full of jobs requiring compliant workers who focused on the rote task in front of them. Creativity and collaboration actually slowed down the production process, and a hierarchy was in place to ensure independent thinking was kept to a minimum.
That structure doesn’t always suit our current business world, but vestiges remain everywhere, from org charts to performance reviews to how leaders think about leadership. Soft skills are still seen as somewhat threatening to the structures that keep businesses going.
2) We are too busy for them. People are busier than ever. Employees often have roles that span a wide range of responsibility. Days are spent plowing through checklists and managing email in an attempt to clear the decks for another day of the same. In situations like these, it’s easy for managers to put soft skill development at the bottom of the priority list. For managers, there’s always something more pressing to do.
3) They’re a sign of weakness. Since the 2008 recession, Managers have been in a challenging position that asks them to get more work done with far fewer people. It’s easy for managers to believe that employees who make the manager’s life easier are “strong,” and those who make life more difficult are “weak.” We reward those who keep their noses to the grindstone. Those who try, for example, to create more team empathy could be tagged with a litany of adjectives that signal weakness: “uncommitted,” “poor work ethic,” “fluffy,” “time-waster,” “unfocused,” “passive.”
4) They keep us from “getting things done.” Managers have created a false dichotomy between creating a team and getting things done. Many managers know intellectually that building soft skills will benefit everyone, but they worry that doing so will take the team’s eyes off the ball. So, inevitably, they prescribe a short teambuilding that’s supposed maintain team cohesion between annual retreats.
This rarely works because employees are not dumb. They understand when managers are trying to gloss over or shortcut team development. Yet, managers continue to believe they can “workshop” their way around their soft skills responsibilities.
5) They’re hard to measure. We live in the age of big data. Our refrigerators now tell us when to buy milk. Our bias is to believe numbers over people. In fact, some managers are paralyzed into indecision if they don’t have enough data.
However, it’s very difficult to measure and analyze human behavior. For example, how do you know if someone’s getting better at “leadership?” Because behavior is complex and fallible, managers have all the reason they need to avoid it. Companies try to measure it but are often left with highly subjective interpretations of the organization, departments, teams, or even individual leaders. Often, the conversation becomes about the measurement tool instead of the people—because that’s easier than talking about the “soft stuff.”
But dig in anyway. With all those forces working against them, it is understandable that managers don’t much like the taste of soft skills. However, managers that view soft skills as “good for them,” despite not loving them, tend to be better managers. They not only tend to perform better on business metrics, but their teams are happier and more productive. The manager, too, benefits personally and professionally from creating a positive, trusting, and high-performing team. So, think of soft skills as the nutritional leadership supplement that boosts your system for high performance, and use them every day.
Great article, Paul! So much of the training in the industry focuses on technical skills. It’s the soft skills that keep customers coming back.