Friday, October 30, 2015

Leading with a Soft Hand

Most people know at least one person in their organization that they have difficulty communicating with, but must in order to advance or finish projects: the ability to minimize friction with people we’d rather not interact with is essential to success. Meanwhile, a “director” or “chief” is just a title: the person promoted/hired for that position must tailor their presentation, message, and interactions to accommodate the egos and concerns of those whose work is critical to advancing organizational plans and achieving goals.  Without this self-awareness and social-awareness there’d be no leaders and no teams: instead we’d work in isolated vacuums as petty bureaucrats.
A 2014 McKinsey survey indicated that in the social sector, more than half of those in leadership positions rate team building and collaboration as two of the most important leadership skills, and despite this far less than half of the respondents felt they were proficient in the most important leadership skills. Clearly there’s a gap in particular leadership skills. Forbes magazine’s 2014 Corporate Learning Factbook notes that last year saw a 15% in corporate training, and that “leadership training” makes up 35% of that spending. Increased recognition of the value of relationship building and supporting staff has resulted in a boom in leadership training and the proliferation of academic programs in leadership; however, despite the increased attention these skills are receiving, many persist in referring to them as “soft skills”.
As Steve Wood, the President and CEO of Work Opportunities Unlimited Inc, notes in a post on his blog, most often Soft Skills are associated with Emotional Intelligence While this term was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book, its fundamental thesis— that an Emotional Quotient could be a more meaningful predictor of success than the standard Intelligence Quotient— is still largely ignored.  Leaving aside more technical considerations of whether Emotional Intelligence is an intelligence or a skill, it would be hard to ignore the impact of the constructs Goleman lays out in his 1998 book Work With Emotional Intelligence: Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, Social Skill, Empathy, and Motivation.  Some gifted few know just how to manage and support all their coworkers, while others have taken some sort of leadership training or degree program, and ideally someone in leadership role has demonstrated at least some ability to work well with others, but it seems most people who achieve leadership roles do so on the basis of content knowledge or expertise in some specialty other than their ability to build relationships. 
As a metaphor we live by, and particularly as an operational dichotomy, "soft" is almost always subservient to "hard".  We want "hard facts" and value “hard workers”.  Basically, “Soft” is only good when placed before “serve” or in describing a microfiber comforter. In business “soft ball questions” are the easy ones, having a “soft touch with employees” is seen to be necessary only for the overly sensitive.  A “soft deadline” is an irrelevant deadline, and a “soft launch” is only a precursor to the real thing.  A “softie” lets things slide, while a “hard ass” keeps people in line. Things that are “soft” are easy and usually not important; instead we need to answer the “hard questions” and make the “hard decisions”.  This mindset is intrinsic to our daily operations, so all labeling a vast and highly important skill set as “Soft Skills” does is devalue the associated tools, strategies, and mindset. If anything, the skills associated with “soft” and “hard” should probably be flip-flopped: soft skills are not only not soft, they’re significantly harder to master than the supposed “hard skills”.
Typing, writing, math, reading, and content knowledge (i.e. discrete, teachable content-related constructs) are most often referred to as “hard skills”, and HR managers, such as those surveyed by Millenial Branding, as covered in Entrepreneur Magazine, indicate that content expertise is more important than the “soft skills” which are erroneously lumped together as “personality”.  Let’s be clear: “personality” is not a skill, it’s a construct, and focusing on “personality” is not particularly effective when compared to whether or not, for instance, a programmer knows the coding languages necessary to complete the tasks of the job. But the fact of the matter is that content gaps are far easier to discover and correct through education than social/communication skills, or the so-called “soft” skills, which encompass the disciplines of leadership and communications, and are vital to organizational success.
Meanwhile, it could even be said that the devaluing of “soft” in favor of so-called “hard” skills reinforce prejudiced stereotypes that prevent women from being promoted to leadership roles.  A nurturing nature is more commonly associated with women than with men, and nurturing is essential to the development of staff.  Antithetically, often men are promoted not due to their team-work prowess, or ability to develop staff, but as Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Professor of Business Psychology at Columbia University, addresses in his controversially titled HBR article, “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?”, in many cases “manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women”.  Indeed, as he notes later, “women outperform men on emotional intelligence”.
Despite increased attention to employee management and relationship building, surveys indicate that these skills are the hardest to teach, and that when it comes to inter-personal skills, those hired in leadership roles often have a great deal of difficulty connecting with those they are meant to lead. In order to have effective leaders and leadership training, we need to address the hard truth that soft skills usually make the biggest difference.
[Originally published a post on LinkedIn]

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